ghost signs

A Story with many layers, Clapham Junction

Story Coffee St John's Hill Clapham

The doorway to Story, or a story depending on how you look at it.

A “ghost sign” above the door to Story Coffee on St John’s Hill ensures that you know that you have arrived at the correct place. “Peterkin Custard, Self-Raising Flour – Corn Flour, can be obtained here”, only now it is coffee rather than custard that is sold in the shop beneath. The sign is an indicator to the many tales that could be discerned while exploring the coffee within. I had had a couple of attempts to visit Story Coffee (thwarted for a variety of reasons) before Brian’s Coffee Spot’s review appeared a couple of days after one of my attempted visits. Suitably re-motivated, another trip was attempted (address checked, closing times checked) and this time we were in luck. Although a pour over is listed on the menu, sadly this was not available on our visit and so I enjoyed a lovely long black instead (Red Brick, Square Mile) while looking at the cakes on offer. There was plenty of seating in which to shelter from the rain outside and many things to notice in this friendly café. In addition to the cakes and lunch menu, a box on the counter housed “eat grub” protein bars, protein bars made of cricket powder. Are insects the future for humans to eat protein sustainably?

glass jar at Story

Through a glass darkly?
The distortions produced by the refractive indices of air, water and glass and the shape of the glass produces interesting effects on our view through it.

The tables were well arranged for people to sit chatting while enjoying their beverages and it is always an excellent thing (from a personal point of view) to encounter a café with a no laptop (or tablet) at the tables policy. Complementary tap water was available in jugs placed on each table while it was also nice to note that Story branded re-usable cups were on sale from the counter. Many things we noted can be seen in the gallery pictures in the review on Brian’s Coffee Spot: the funky fans, the egg shaped light shades, the light introduced by the large glass window panes (though it was a much fairer day on Brian’s visit than on ours). Each had its contribution to a thought train, the way the glass water jar bent the light coming through, the concept of a Prandtl boundary layer in fluids (and its connection to both fans and coffee cups). Moreover there were hexagons, which for someone who has worked on the periphery of the graphene craze, are always thought provoking.

Apart from hexagons decorating the top of the stools, there were hexagons lining the counter made of cut logs, each showing the rings from the tree that was felled. Rather than a flat surface, these hexagons were made to be different thicknesses on the wall, rather like the hexagonal columns of the Giant’s Causeway. It is a subtle thing that may have implications for the space that is otherwise surrounded by flat, solid, walls. Such spaces can become echo-y and yet, the music and conversation in Story was not overly distracting presumably because features such as the uneven hexagonal wall reflected the sound waves such that they destructively interfered rather than echoed around the room.

every tree tells a story, but which story

A macroscopic crystal of hexagonally cut logs forms the side of the counter.

Each log in the hexagonal decoration was cut with its cross-section showing a number of tree rings. We know that we can age a tree by counting the rings (though each of these would be underestimated as they have been trimmed into hexagons post-drying), but what more do the tree rings, and the trees themselves have to tell us? The rings are caused by the rapid growth of large cells during spring followed by a slower growth of smaller cells as the year progresses. But this method of growth means that the cut logs have more to tell us than just their age. The spacing between the rings can tell of the weather the tree experienced during that year, were there many years of drought for example? Such clues, from the relative density of the tree rings, can help researchers learn about the climate in previous centuries, but conversely, reading the climate report in the rings can indicate in which year a tree was felled and so the age of a building for example.

coffee at Story

Many stories start with a coffee.

And then there is more, trees will grow at an average rate per year so that, as a rough guide, the circumference of a mature (but not old) tree increases by 2.5cm per year¹. There is therefore something in the idea that you can have a good guess at how old a tree is by hugging it. But this assumes that the tree is growing in its optimum conditions, far enough from any neighbouring trees so as not to be crowded into growing more slowly. So the absolute density of tree rings must also give a clue as to whether this tree was in a dense forest or an open clearing. Which is reminiscent of something else that living trees can tell you if you listen to them closely enough: trees will grow so that their leaves are exposed to the maximum amount of light. For us in the UK, this means that the crown of a tree will frequently tip towards the south (where the Sun is most often) and there will be more leaf growth (and consequently more branches) in a southerly direction². But again, we only see this if the tree has room to grow on its own, without the crowding, and competition, of too many neighbours. A solitary tree helps us to know which direction we are walking in.

empty coffee cup Story St John's Hill

While many coffees could also tell a story. It depends on how you read them.

Which all points to the idea that there are many stories being told all around us all of the time, the ones we hear depend on what we choose to pay attention to. So what about the story behind the ghost sign above the door? The Peterkin custard company was a venture by J. Arthur Rank in an attempt to start a milling company in the mould of his father’s (Rank Hovis McDougall, later bought by Premier Foods). The company failed and Rank went on to form the Rank Organisation that was responsible for many films made throughout the 40s and 50s as well as running a chain of cinemas around the UK. Truly a sign concealing many stories.

 

Story Coffee is at 115 St John’s Hill, SW11 1SZ

¹Collins complete guide to British Trees, Collins, 2007

²The Walker’s Guide to Outdoor Clues and Signs, Tristan Gooley, Hodder and Stoughton, 2014

 

 

 

 

Ripples from the past at Fleet St Press

flash camera, aeropress, sand timers, coffee at Fleet St Press

Window display at Fleet St Press

As the name suggests, there is a lot of history behind the café at 3 Fleet St (the Fleet Street Press). Not only is it just around the corner from the Devereux (which was once the “Grecian” where Halley met Newton), it is a few doors down from the site of the second ever coffee house established in London (the “Rainbow” was at number 15). There is also plenty of history in the café itself. Fleet St Press operates from a listed building, considered especially noteworthy for its 1912 shop interior (ie. the café). The stained glass at the back of the shop (which was nearly the subject of this cafe-physics review) is apparently original while a sign (for “Tobacco blenders”) in the front window hints at the building’s previous use.

Inside, a row of tall stools offers seating along the wall while a large table at the front of the café offers a space to sit more comfortably to enjoy your coffee. We enjoyed a very nice long black (coffee from Caravan) and a soya hot (white) chocolate. The staff were friendly and it was a lovely space to spend a while. Keep-cups and other coffee making equipment are on sale just next to the counter and the café is just full of things to notice. It’s not just the stained glass. The window to the left of the main door has been stocked with a film camera with flash (presumably a nod to the Fleet St of old), an aeropress, a series of sand-timers and many other items of distraction. We sat at the window which had a good view towards the Royal Courts of Justice and two wonky K2 telephone boxes. Just across the passageway from the phone boxes was a post box and this got me thinking about communication and how we communicate with each other.

soy hot white chocolate

An interesting concept. A white chocolate hot chocolate made with soya milk

In an editorial to a book that rolled off one of Europe’s first printing presses, the Bishop of Aleria, Giovanni de Bussi wrote that printing could be considered an act of generosity “the act of sharing what was hoarded”*†. Since then, the newspapers of the old Fleet St have made way for coffee shops and the papers for the internet. The ‘snail mail’ post box across the road has been almost superseded by email or other forms of internet communication. The telephone box, replaced by mobile phones or Skype. Although we may feel overloaded with information, our ancestors felt the same way. Even in the 1640s it was claimed that they were living in times of a media explosion in which there were just too many books*.

So, rather than look at how the scribe gave way to the printing press, books to newspapers, letters to telegraphs and then telephones and now email, Twitter and instant messaging, perhaps it is worth dwelling a short while on what underlies all of these. Indeed, we are so used to what underlies these communication techniques that we may not even notice it.

Writing.

It may be an obvious point but none of these communication methods would have been possible were it not for writing. Given that Homo sapiens are thought to have come out of Africa some 200 000 years ago, and have been farming since 13000 – 8000 BCE, it is perhaps surprising that the first record that we have of a writing system was not until ~3500 BCE. Writing is thought to have originated in Sumer, Mesopotamia as pictographs. Phonographic writing was not developed until later. Shortly afterwards it was again ‘invented’ in Egypt (3150 BCE) and separately in China (1200 BCE) and MesoAmerica (~500BCE). Writing is a surprisingly recent phenomenon.

K2 phone boxes and a post box

The view from the window at Fleet St Press

As with the fixtures at Fleet St Press, clues from these earlier cultures pervade the space around us rather like the ghost signs of advertising past. The tobacco sign above the door is suggestive of former occupiers Weingott and Sons. Famous for their pipes, they ran a shop on the site from the mid-nineteenth century until the 1930s. Meanwhile, the writing systems of the ancients lives on both in our alphabet and in our time keeping. Even the name ‘alphabet’ resonates with the history of the Greek “alpha, beta” and the Hebrew “Aleph, Beth” (themselves originating from the Phoenician). The Babylonian number system meanwhile, which dates from around 1800 BCE and used base 60 to count (i.e. rather than 1-9, their number system counted 1-59) echoes down the ages. It is thought that remnants of this system remain both in how we count the degrees of a circle (360) and how we tell the time (60 minutes in an hour, 60 seconds in a minute).

Signs and systems that are both instantly familiar and a ghostly ripple from the people of the past.

Fleet St Press can be found at 3 Fleet St, EC4Y 1AU.

*E.L. Eisenstein, “Divine Art, Infernal Machine, the reception of printing in the West from first impressions to the sense of an ending”, University of Pennsylvania Press, (2012)

†Quote from de Bussi is as quoted in Divine Art, Infernal Machine on p 15. 

Some interesting anecdotes about the history of communication can be found in Robert Winston “Bad Ideas, An arresting history of our inventions” Bantam books, (2010),

Also recommended “A history of mathematics, from Mesopotamia to modernity”, L Hodgkin, Oxford University Press, (2005)