Borough is always such a great place to wander. Walking around the backstreets with their bits of hidden history. The other day, we had visited the market, wandered down Redcross Way past the old Crossbones graveyard and hit upon The Gentlemen Baristas on Union Street. It is difficult not to have heard about these Gentlemen and my visit there was long overdue and so, we wandered in to try this famous venue.
The shop front advertised itself as a “Coffee House”. A very accurate description and a nod to the Coffee Houses of the past. As it was shortly after lunchtime, it was very crowded with a diverse bunch of people and felt a little cramped at the counter. Nonetheless, the queue was quick and friendly baristas soon took our order allowing us to retire inside to try to find a table (no chance) or a stool next to a bar (successful). Around us, people were either chatting over their coffees or working on laptops.
While waiting for my long black (intriguingly described on their website as a “well mannered coffee”), I noted the various posters describing different types of screw head or parts of the human skeleton. Enough detail to be a phone distraction but surely there was more physics waiting to be seen in this convivial back room of a coffee house? A blackboard at the end of the bar, offered details of the wifi as well as a quote (slightly adapted) from PG Wodehouse about the benefits to friendship of a shared taste in coffee. On a shelf opposite the blackboard were a number of books including a thick book detailing coffee trading in years gone by. From the fact that the books were stacked horizontally, it would appear that they are not consulted often.
Sitting between this juxtaposition of wifi information and old books, caused me to pause. I have heard it said that we “know” more now than we have ever known in the past. That we have access to an enormous amount of knowledge merely through our phones. Is this correct?
On one level it is certainly un-arguable. Ninety percent of the world’s data in 2013 had been generated in the previous two years. If you need to find anything out, a quick duckduckgo (or if you have to, a google) will often lead to websites detailing all sorts of quirky bits of information. If we want to know the radius of the Earth or the size of an espresso grind, we no longer have to remember the answer, nor even really to have a feel for the answer, instead we can almost immediately find webpages that tell us (here and here).
And yet, this answer seems unsatisfactory. While there is an awful lot of information available to us at the tap of a phone, it is questionable whether that information translates to our own knowledge. Although collectively we can understand amazing things such as gravitational waves, individually we may struggle to explain how a toilet works. We need the plumber’s knowledge as much as we need that of the cosmologists. Does it matter who knows? What level of knowledge does someone need to have to say that they ‘know’ something?
Perhaps this appears a very strange cafe-physics review, where is the physics? But part of the rationale behind Bean Thinking is also to slow down and contemplate and it seems that The Gentlemen Baristas offers the perfect environment in which to do so. A café that mixes the new with the old, a space in which the practices of one can inform the other.
So to return the thought train to the area local to the Gentlemen: Writing in the second century AD, the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote
“In death, Alexander of Macedon’s end differed no whit from his stable-boy’s. Either both were received into the same generative principle of the universe, or both alike were dispersed into atoms.“
It is a quote you will probably find very easily via a search engine, or slightly less easily if you read his “Meditations”. But it is perhaps worth pondering, in what sense we ‘know’ what he was meaning. Strolling past the ribbons and messages memorialising the (estimated) 15,000 people who lay buried in the ‘outcast’ graveyard of Crossbones, what about our own attitudes to our modern outcasts? And perhaps more tellingly, our attitudes to those in positions of power or influence?
Perhaps it will take a lifetime of understanding our personal reactions to the poor, the prostitutes, the homeless and the powerful to really know what Aurelius meant. It certainly requires of us that we stop, pause and reflect on the knowledge that we come by. So it is far from obvious that it benefits us to use the wifi password rather than sit, slow down and contemplate. And where better to do so than in a friendly café with good coffee and seats to ponder the moment?
The Gentlemen Baristas can be found at 63 Union St, SE1 1SG