The Parliament Hill Café is a drab glass box at the bottom of Hampstead Heath, near the farmers’ market and the running track. But it is something else too. It is a paradigm.
The Corporation of London announced that the D’Auria family, who have run the café for 33 years, would not get a new contract; instead, it would go to a firm called Benugo. This has been reported as a fable with universal meaning, which it is; the café is Cinderella, or the frog, or Anna Karenina. Benugo is Karenin, or consumer capitalism, or the ball.
The north London intelligentsia organised a petition and a public meeting. Giles Coren added his voice, and I hope the gourmet inside him is ashamed of the other one. They talked about social value, which here I think is the inalienable right to subsidised spaghetti vongole; Benugo withdrew its bid; the café lives.
I was going to stay out of it. I am a Hampstead socialist; their tears are mine. I have not broken with Labour, not yet, although they make my fists itch. I have sat through Jeremy Corbyn’s impersonation of a supply teacher who has lost control of a classroom, and identity politics. But the misdiagnosis of the Parliament Hill Café as a subject for activism may be the final act. I could swallow the hypocrisy. I could not swallow the schnitzel.
Last week my husband took our son to the café. The meal took an hour to come. As my child wept, my husband reports that ‘a commissariat of activists were fed the choicest sweetmeats by fawning waitresses as if this were Stalin’s Russia’. He then played the scene in Oliver! where starving orphans watch the parish worthies eating capons. I remembered an awful cup of tea I had there with my father.