Southsea-based novelist William Sutton reports on the most writer-friendly eateries in Portsmouth.
“Are there any Southsea cafes good for writing in?” asked a post on Portsmouth Writers Hub Facebook page.
I was astonished by the few hesitant answers this query received. What have our local writers been doing? Don’t tell me they’ve been writing at home? How else do we expect to create a literary scene and draw out budding homegrown writers, except by lounging around, in public, actually writing?
I couldn’t help splurging an overview of my promiscuous cafe wanderings. My top ten tips drew droll comments from writer friends: “Show off”. I remain unabashed.
Austin Kleon’s book Share Your Work talks up the value of a ‘Scenius’, a word conjured up by musical innovator, Brian Eno. Not everyone can be a genius, but we can all be part of a scene. Through collaborations and collisions, we rediscover our own creativity. I used to ask myself, why can’t I be in Paris in the 1920s, with Joyce, Fitzgerald and Hemingway? Dorothy Parker’s New York, Virginia Woolf’s Bloomsbury set, Dickens’ Punch Brotherhood? The solution, of course, lies not in idealised cliques of the past, but in café crème and lemon drizzle.
Portsmouth is a city ideal for writing. A city of reflections: Spitbank Fort shimmering beyond Southsea Common; the Guildhall glimpsed from the elevated train; the Harbour viewed from Portsdown hill (over hot chocolate from Mick’s Monster Burgers).
Anyone who has ever struggled over writing a novel, an essay or a thank you letter, will know how a solitary stroll can refresh the soul. Kierkegaard writes, “Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness; I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.” Novelist Natalie Haynes declares that her best writing is done at 3mph. And that most maritime of books, Moby Dick, begins with crowds looking out from the extremest limits of Manhattan, as if drawn by the magnetic needles of passing ships’ compasses: “As every one knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever”.
Thus inspired, the trouble is scribbling the thoughts down. Before they vanish in the breezes, I advise you to finish your solitary stroll at a cafe. (You may take my writing programme seriously, or just decide that I like cake.) Psychologist Ronald Kellogg’s The Psychology of Writing discovered that the optimum noise level for writing is not necessarily silence, but your own highly subjective requirements for preserving the state of flow. Maintaining trains of thought is critical, but so is an environment that enables creative flow.
I recommend seeking out places locally owned and staffed. There are several reasons. Invest your pennies in local enterprises and enterprising locals, rather than bolstering faraway chains. Is buying a coffee really a political act? Yes: if you spend with multinationals, the money floats away elsewhere. Spend it local, keep it local. If you want such ventures to survive, buy from them and they will thrive. (Tell your friends too.)
Besides the economics, new environments stimulate fresh thoughts: the independent will always be more fecund than the generic cafe. Getting to know local faces feeds your mind (as long as they don’t absorb all your precious scribbling time). I’ve culled countless characters from cafe eavesdropping. How much dialogue have I transcribed, ideas that have provoked and shaped my own world view. Ever since coffee came to the west, it has been beloved by writers, artists and musicians. It has fostered culture – and counterculture – that has aroused establishment suspicions from mediaeval Ottoman villages to mid-60s Greenwich Village.
Cafes have enriched not just my writing, but my life. (Against the expense of my coffee habit, I weigh the articles I have written, jobs applied for and contacts made.) In cafes, I have rehearsed plays and rewritten novels, scribbled postcards and completed tax returns, hatched plots and held secret trysts, sung songs and been wooed with poetry. Most of all, I have made friends.
Here are my favourite Southsea stops, and suggestions of what you might write there.
Casa de Castro
Simply the best cake. Tarts and pastries effortless and uplifting, as if chef Silvana de Castro had conjured them from rarefied Rio mountain air. Casa de Castro opened just as I was moving to Southsea, like a wish answered. It was here I conceived my vocation: to spend the earnings from my teaching job in Surrey’s commuter belt in the cafes of Southsea, thus redistributing the wealth of the capital via the medium of cake.
You might write: exotic travel articles, lulled by New Orleans jazz and Rio de Janeiro bossa.
Southsea Coffee Company
Simply the best coffee. A midweek flat white will cure any writer’s block. Your spirits soar. The creative pathways surge. At any time of day, you will spot other writers scribbling. The staff strike the essential balance between knowing when to be friendly and when to leave you to your notebook. It’s ever tempting to indulge in fruit toast, fragrant porridge, unique sandwiches, and the restlessly inventive raw cake nibbles. They even kept a salad on the menu (marinated grated beetroot and home-made hummus) until I could bring my wife to try it.
Teatray in the Sky
Aromatic tea served in stylish tea sets. Mouth-watering cakes. An atmosphere of relaxed cool that imbues you with the style of the objets d’art around you.
Write: nonsense postcards to long-lost friends, poems in the style of Edward Lear.
Southsea Beach Cafe
Jam Jar Puds. Superfood salads. Beatific beach views.
Write: windswept romance.
Back to basics bakelite and breakfasts of the utmost promptitude.
Write: gritty TV soap opera.
Southsea Tennis Club
Tennis-themed smoothies, as the weather illuminates and darkles through many windows.
Write: Chick Lit, heart-rending articles for Weekend Family section.
Croissant, café au lait, Gauloises at the street tables.
Write: intellectual crime fiction, post-structuralist Euro philosophy.
Victoria Park Cafe
A courtyard conducive to dreaming, with the chirruping of birds and Wellington boot plant pots.
Write: short stories with a dash of magic realism.
Central Library Café
Cakes to lift weary spirits, potatoes to fuel critical thought.
Write: historical fiction, investigative journalism.
Espresso. Gift shop. What more do you need?
Write: manifesto for art revolutionary movements.
Smell of roasting beans and dusty train platforms.
Write: travelogues, road movies.
Watching Albert Road, sipping fine brews.
Write: radio drama, tragicomic and melancholic.
Glaring omissions: Smile, Southsea Library Cafe, The Coffee Cup, Manna, Proper Pompey Kitchen, Coffee#1, Sellers’ Coffee House, Garage Lounge, Yellow Kite, Magick Bean, Feed, Churchill’s, The Tenth Hole, All About Tea, Delaney’s, Guildhall cafe, Canoe Lake cafe. Please tell me places I’ve missed. In a future piece, I intend to take a tour of the best Sunday roasts in town in a future issue. Recommendations welcome, meat raffles included.
PS Pompey ain’t what it used to be…
At a recent talk on Portsmouth as the Home of Great Writing, a spectator was dissatisfied. “Yes,” he declared, “but Pompey isn’t what it used to be.” It wasn’t clear which vanishing aspects of the city he lamented. I wondered if my cafe culture was under attack.
Speaker Matt Wingett replied with a tale of his cappucinometer. I too remember overhearing an explanation at a coffee van around 1990. “The beans are roasted and ground, the milk is fluffed or steamed.” And the look of astonishment from the lady who was hoping for a nice mug of instant.
Some may rue what they consider gentrification, gastrofication of pubs, and latte culture. But it’s intriguing that, these days, nobody goes on about how great French food is. The British eat out regularly and with expectations exceeding our parents’ generation. And, given a week’s holiday, I’ll seriously consider staying in Southsea.