Le Café des Arts

Once, when describing how he’d spent his previous evening, my brother Brendan said, ‘I ended up drinking in some rat-hole in Harlesden … you’d have loved it’. He was probably right. The truth is, I love bars. Always have done, always will. I love them far more than the alcohol they dispense. It’s not just the rat-holes. I’ve spent happy hours in such stately pleasure domes as the Philharmonic in Liverpool, the Café Imperial in Prague and the New York Café in Budapest. The most delicious beer I’ve ever tasted is the eponymous ale in McSorley’s Old Ale House in New York’s East Village. I’ve drunk whisky in the Pot Still in Glasgow, dry martinis in Harry’s Bar in Venice and daiquiris in El Floridita in Havana. There are too many good pubs in Dublin to mention here, but I think Grogan’s in South William Street would be my luxury item on Desert Island Discs.

Rat-holes of course do have their place. I’ve found that there’s nourishment for the soul in sitting alone for a time in a grimly lit, poorly furnished room, surrounded by a few other solitary individuals, one or more of whom may be asleep. The barperson is leaning on the counter, engrossed in the racing pages; the slow ticking of a clock is the only sound to be heard until, as if in a Quaker Meeting, someone feels impelled to say a few words: ‘Raining again’, perhaps, ‘Nine o’clock. He won’t come now’, or ‘This beer’s off’ (the last usually uttered when the speaker has reached the final half-inch of liquid in his glass). The silence then returns. One seldom leaves such places without thinking that life can only get better.

I lived for a while in Hastings, where I used to frequent a poky backstreet dive whose clientele consisted mainly of individuals whom the social services would have described as having a ‘chaotic lifestyle’. The pub’s saving grace was a jukebox that had everything from Captain Beefheart to Billie Holiday. For my first few visits I sat quietly on my own reading the paper, ignored by all. I couldn’t help noticing that no-one seemed willing even to engage me in eye contact. Then one evening, an elderly woman with a broad smudge of pink lipstick, who was clearly over-relaxed, leaned over and told me that the general company had assumed from the outset that I was a DHSS spy. Once my credentials were satisfactorily established, I was fine and it became my local.

There is always a local, a place where the bees in one’s bonnet can buzz freely and one’s anecdotes are listened to politely, no matter how often they are trotted out. After Hastings there was the Chapeau Rouge in Prague, À La Bonne Cave in Paris, the Grapes in Wandsworth and the Prince Albert in Ely. For me they are part of an arcane alcoholic ley line, the full significance of which is yet to be revealed. Madame S. remains unconvinced of this theory.

Our latest local, here in Poitiers, is neither pleasure dome nor rat-hole. The Café des Arts, on the corner of Grand’ Rue and Place Charles de Gaulle, is such a stereotypically French café you wouldn’t be surprised to find it in London’s Covent Garden. It is small, rectangular in shape, its front a large French window that opens out onto the terrace in summer. The ceiling is heavily nicotine-stained and lined with wooden beams. There is a wood-framed bar area on your left as you enter; opposite this, running round the room in an L-shape, is a battered red leather banquette and a line of small Formica tables, each topped with an Art Nouveau image of a winsome young woman. There is one wooden chair per table, and it doesn’t take many people to make the place seem crowded. Above the banquette, on exposed brickwork, small blackboards are dotted around, describing the various cafés, thés, vins et bières available. Around these is the usual bric-à-brac that accumulates over time in such establishments. Here this includes a very dusty-looking French horn and tuba, a clock that is only accurate at ten to seven, a road sign saying ‘La Rochelle 120 KM’ and a number of ancient enamelled drink advertisements. In my favourite of these, a woman in an evening dress is reclining on a sofa with a Coca-Cola in one hand and a cigarette-holder in the other.

Set into the wall, behind the tables at the back, is a small alcove in which there is a tableau of a jazz band, four wooden figures each about a foot high depicting black musicians in dinner suits playing the bongos, clarinet, guitar and trumpet. Madame S. and I have had a long, intermittent, inconclusive conversation about the appropriateness or otherwise of this.

In a passageway at the back of the café, there is a flight of stairs leading to an upstairs room which is used infrequently. Its only regular occupants are Café-Philo, a group of amateur philosophers who gather for two hours every Wednesday to discuss … well, according to their website, last Wednesday’s topics included Is luxury good for social progress?, What is nobility? and Should one love oneself so that one can love others? I suppose it makes a change from the weather and last night’s TV.

The bar is popular and often very busy. During the day, from 08.00, there is a steady stream of customers popping in for a coffee or a glass of something, often bringing a croissant or pain au chocolat from the boulangerie a few doors away. On Friday mornings there will be a cluster of brocanteurs from the flea market in the square, flat-capped old men who seem to spend much more time over their glasses of sauvignon and plates of peanuts than they ever do at their stalls. On Saturday, the town’s main market day, small groups of shoppers have a regular rendezvous at the café.

During term time, from early evening till the bar closes at 02.00, there are groups of university students in the bar or on the terrace. Some will drink steadily throughout the evening, others can make a coffee or a small beer last well over an hour. It can get noisy, but one rarely sees any drunkenness.

Madame S. and I have got used to popping in at various times of the day, for coffee in the morning, post-market pick-me-ups, apéros and post-dinner digestifs – or various combinations of these. We’ve been made very welcome by the regulars and now feel quite at home. Every now and then, the owner François greets us with mock solemnity and a slowly intoned ‘Good evening … ’ow are yoouuu?’ We laugh dutifully; it’s a small price to pay.

I always like the general buzz of the place, but a favourite time is during the student vacations in autumn and winter. The window at the front is the only source of natural light, and the interior can be a little on the dark side. In the evening, when the lamps are on and there are only a couple of customers in, there is a pleasing, crepuscular atmosphere, as if one were sitting in a painting from Edward Hopper’s hitherto-unknown European period. I sometimes slip in quietly for a pint on my own, knowing that if I wait long enough I will eventually hear ‘Il pleut encore’, ‘Neuf heures. Il n’arrivera pas maintenant’ or ‘Cette bière est mauvaise’.