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The best books on London’s Addictions

recommended by Dr. Matthew Green

The historian argues London is an intrinsically addictive city. He charts its history through its dependencies on chocolate, tobacco, coffee, tea, and LSD.

Dr. Matthew Green

Matthew Green is a writer and historian based in Hackney. His new book London: A Travel Guide Through Time, published by Penguin, is out now. He is the director of Unreal City Audio, where he produces immersive, critically acclaimed tours of 17th and 18th-century London. His PhD was on the impact of the mass media in the first age of press freedom. He writes for the Guardian and Telegraph, and has appeared in history documentaries on BBC4, ITV and BBC2. 

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Dr. Matthew Green

Matthew Green is a writer and historian based in Hackney. His new book London: A Travel Guide Through Time, published by Penguin, is out now. He is the director of Unreal City Audio, where he produces immersive, critically acclaimed tours of 17th and 18th-century London. His PhD was on the impact of the mass media in the first age of press freedom. He writes for the Guardian and Telegraph, and has appeared in history documentaries on BBC4, ITV and BBC2. 

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What do the addictions of London’s past tell us about that past?

It shows that the city is addictive and that Londoners collectively have addictive personalities. I suppose you could look at it in a cynical way and emphasise the miseries of living in London through much of its history. It was a death trap, and it used to consume people from the suburbs. The rates of burial generally exceeded the rates of birth, so people turned to tobacco, they turned to alcohol, they turned to coffee and later on to harder drugs to block out the pain.

It also shows that at certain points in the history of London people began to have surplus wealth, which means they had the money to spend on stuff they didn’t need just to stay alive. It also speaks to a literate culture, one that was susceptible to highly mendacious publicity campaigns. We’ll talk a bit about what they said about chocolate and tobacco and coffee. The most outlandish, outrageous claims were made for these drugs. People were intelligent, they were literate, they read these and they generated a buzz.

So I’d say those three things: blocking out the misery and the ennui, having the wealth, and also the gullibility of Londoners.

We still consume these substances, or ones which are like them, or bear their names. How have our ways of consuming them changed?

In terms of the strength and the regularity of intake, certainly of tea and coffee, that hasn’t changed much, or only in a very superficial way. If you tried to get someone now to drink coffee as it tasted in the 17th century, they’d spit it out. It was revolting. We now aspire to be an epicurean culture and we’re obsessed with how things taste, aspiring to cook fine foods. They didn’t really have any of that. Also, the social context in which they are consumed is radically different. Ask someone of the eighteenth century what they loved about coffee, and they’d probably be a bit confused. They’d be more likely to talk about the wider experience of going to the coffee house and all the interactions and information gathering they were doing.

“The most outlandish, outrageous claims were made for these drugs.”

Smoking is now obviously frowned upon for very good reason, it’s no longer seen as a catalyst for creativity. I suppose if you’re a rock star or a tortured writer it does endure, but no-one thinks smoking is good for you anymore. And it has lost the novelty. People don’t smoke in as prodigious quantities as they did formerly. LSD, I don’t know. You’d have to ask someone else.

And finally, which addiction would you single out as being most important to London and to Londoners’ identity?

Does it have to be one?

No, you can have two.

Tobacco and coffee. Much of this is because of the period in which they became popular. Tobacco arrived in the late 16th century. There was a boom in tobacco houses in the early 17th century. Coffee was 50 years later and generally thought of as a late-17th and 18th century thing. The popularity of tobacco very much captured the zeitgeist of the age. This is a time when Londoners were obsessed with discovery, and that means both self discovery in the timbered playhouses each afternoon when they were holding up a mirror to humanity, but also widening their knowledge of the world, epitomised by Drake’s circumnavigation. The popularity of tobacco had a lot to do with these ideas of emergent colonial control. The idea that not only were they going to master foreign cultures, but they were going to sever this ancient mystical link between the Mayans and their tobacco. They were going to take it over and plant it in England. The idea that they would smoke it — or drink it, as they said — day after day was all about domination and control, at a time when London had become stable.

Coffee transformed the entire way in which Londoners interacted. It brought people together, it was a catalyst for the exchange of ideas and debate. This drug fostered places where you could go and not just exchange information and find out the news — although that was a big part of it — but actually improve yourself. There was a pamphlet called the ‘Virtue of the Coffee Drink’. People thought coffee sped you up and facilitated interactions. People were aspiring to chisel away their rough edges, if you like, and coffee was an essential utensil that helped them to do that because it fuelled conversation and thought. By tattling, by interacting with more refined people than you, you could yourself become more refined. For its links with news and intelligence, and for self improvement, I think it taps into the whole spirit of the Enlightenment.

Your first book is The True History of Chocolate, by Sophie and Michael Coe. Why would you choose this book if you were interested in the history of chocolate and London?

First of all, it has a global sweep. It’s not just about the impact of chocolate upon London. It takes us right back to the days of the Aztecs, for whom chocolate was a substance of great importance, and spiritual resonance as well.

We begin in the Aztec Empire, and we hear about the rituals of chocolate consumption. Then we have this rather harrowing story of the collision of these two civilisations, of the Spanish conquistadores going across and frankly just pulverising the Aztec Empire. Hernán Cortés is the conquistador in chief and he uses European, Machiavellian divide-and-rule tactics to take over this empire and bring it to its knees, even though they were massively outnumbered. You begin to get these curious reports, written by the Spanish, which are transcribed into the book, of this money that seemed to be growing on trees in the Aztec Empire. These were the cacao pods. They noted that the Aztecs were using these pods to barter with. It was a form of currency. But, more than that, they were eating and drinking it as well.

It’s a bloody story, what happened to their empire. Ultimately a lot if its bounty is brought back to Europe. At first, people were highly suspicious of chocolate. One early conquistador said it seemed more a drink for pigs than humanity. That was for good reason because the way the Aztecs drank it was distinctly unpalatable to European tastes. They used to drink it at room temperature. It was mixed with chillies that were hotter than the furnaces of hell, and frequently it was mixed with the blood of sacrificial slaves. The Aztecs often get a bit of a bad press for all their sacrifices, but they genuinely believed that if they didn’t sacrifice a certain quotient of slaves each day to the sun god
that that same sun would explode, presumably in anger.

When the Europeans introduce it into their native continent, they make some modifications. They begin to serve it up warm, they boil it first and mix it with some herbs and spices that give it a more comforting feel, like cinnamon and vanilla. Not that these are native to the Old World, but they were known to Europeans. Sometimes they used sugar as well, though not often. It becomes a big hit in Baroque Europe. First of all in Spain. It is a symbol of dominion as well as a manifestation of conspicuous consumption. It percolates through Europe. It reaches Italy, where you have a gluttonous chocaholic tyrant called Cosimo de Medici who used to import the finest ingredients for his chocolate whilst lecturing his subjects on the virtues of austerity. The way he drank it was so elaborate it was actually a state secret. No-one could reveal it on pain of death. It’s not a state secret anymore so I can reveal it without being garrotted. He drank it with musk perfume in it, and ambergris, which was one of the most expensive substances on earth.

Apparently Charles V — the Habsburg Emperor — was nonplussed by chocolate and completely underwhelmed by it. He was much more excited by the bouncy rubber balls they brought back from America because no-one had ever seen them before. There was this craze of people bouncing them. But eventually it does gain some traction in the monasteries and palaces and courts of Catholic Europe. And at gruesome events. If you went to an auto-da-fé — of the type so memorably evoked by Voltaire in Candide — the nobles were all given a nice thick bowl of chocolate and a biscuit to dip into it as they watched a man’s flesh being burnt from his bone because he’d been sentenced to death by the Inquisition.

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All these countries trade with each other so it’s only a matter of time before it reaches London. This book tells a series of fantastic stories about the decadence of chocolate houses, especially in the aristocratic quarter of St James’s, which is where most of the bona fide chocolate houses were and how, unlike coffee, they were associated with gambling, with sedition, and with sex. The chocolate house was a place you went to strut around and be seen and to gamble and to plot.

It’s a satisfying story. There is a lot to say, and they say it well. They were married, they’re both anthropologists/food historians. Sadly, the wife died, and the husband continued it, but you can’t tell it’s written by two different people. From a literary perspective, that’s interesting too.

Do people like Beau Brummell and the later dandies that become so famous, and associated with that part of town, drink chocolate?

Yes, they drank it in gallons. Beau Brummell and Byron. They used to go to a place called Berry Brothers and Rudd, which is still there. It’s been continuously trading since 1699. They have a pair of scales and they used to weigh themselves once a year. To be a little bit fat was a barometer of status as most people were surviving off disgusting pottage soup and flakey bread, whereas they had fine chocolate and haunches of venison and so on.

Let’s take a step back to the Aztecs, how does the use of chocolate in London relate to its colonial history?

It’s only really after England seizes Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655 that they secure a steady flow of the cacao beans. It’s a symbol of colonial enterprise, and, of course, Jamaica would become one of the worst places for the slave trade. I have this appalling image of this really vicious plantation owner or his lackey whipping the slaves in Jamaica and then, on the other side of the world, this man in his beautiful flowing periwig and cravat reclining in a St James’s townhouse sipping the chocolate without the slightest bit of concern about how it was cultivated. A bit like people taking cocaine today.

Then, obviously, it was a luxury. It was more expensive than coffee, more expensive than alcohol or wine. By consuming it you were saying ‘I am superior’. This is taken to quite a demented conclusion in places like White’s Chocolate House, or Ozinda’s, or the Cocoa Tree, three of the most famous in St James’s. Because you have the wealthiest members of society, and the most profligate, what do they do? They just gamble to a kamikaze level. Horace Walpole recalls one night in the Cocoa Tree where £180,000 was riding on the throw of a single die, and that’s a game of hazard in which there’s no skill at all. It’s just pure luck. It was a nihilistic culture of just throwing away money for the sake of it — quite alluring in a warped way — which added to this sense that chocolate was this exotic thing tinged with danger and mystique.

Book 2 is on tobacco, and this is The Smoke of the Gods by Eric Burns. This book has another huge historical range, from pre-conquest America to modern Europe. Is this why you chose it?

I chose it mainly because it was the only history of tobacco that was actually readable. The fact that it had that global and chronological sweep was, of course, pivotal. It’s really well written. It’s written by a journalist. He said he would never write anything unless it had been verified by three separate sources. The way he writes about the impact of tobacco upon the culture of wit in Shakespearian London and how it affected the Mermaid wits in particular — Jonson, Spenser, Marlowe — is incredibly lyrical. It’s got this razor-sharp journalism, but also this poetic prose, with a really good pace, and a great title.

What is the history of tobacco arriving in London?

It’s popularly assumed that Sir Walter Raleigh introduced it. That’s not actually true. It was introduced — so far as we know — by a merchant adventurer, John Hawkins. Again, there’s a lot of mistrust and suspicion of it to begin with. But after a campaign to make it palatable it’s a huge hit and you start seeing tobacco houses sprout. This is in the late Elizabethan period and according to one pamphlet there are 7000 of them by 1614. That’s a suspiciously round number, I suspect that’s just shorthand for ‘a lot’. But if it’s true that would mean there were more tobacco houses than there were taverns and ale houses combined. Other sources, other diaries, especially diaries written by foreign travellers like Thomas Platter (who was a Swiss medical student), or Horatio Busino (who was a chaplain to the Venetian ambassador), testify to the extraordinary popularity of tobacco. They go so far as to say that men and women in London would keep their pipe underneath their pillows at night, so if they woke they could gratify their longing. It’s also claimed that young children in the grammar schools would smoke a pipe for breakfast because it was assumed to be an excellent substitute for food.

Things we take for granted if we smoke — the fact it is smoke, you breathe it in and then breathe it out, you see it rising up into the air, then it just vanishes — was a whole new level of sensuality. It gave a zest to life. It was seen, again, as this kind of mysterious, exotic thing that was really magical. According to eyewitness accounts, it was a massive, massive smash hit. You couldn’t go to the playhouse, you couldn’t go to a tavern, you couldn’t go to a dinner without everyone drinking tobacco, as they called it. But there were also medical reasons. It was hailed as this infallible prophylactic. It would cure you of depression, they thought; it would cure you of insomnia; they said it was a perfect way to regrow fingernails that might have been ripped off; also for sick cats. It was a really ‘useful’ thing. People who were dying of the plague were routinely told it was their own fault because they hadn’t smoked enough and pregnant women who miscarried ditto.

It’s tempting to say ‘they didn’t have a clue,’ but in fact they did. There was a modicum of scientific awareness. There was a pamphlet written by someone called Philaretes — presumably not his real name — in 1602 in which he managed to presage all of the nefarious effects of smoking. He said it hardens your arteries; he said that it’s full of poisonous fumes; he said it stunts the growth and it makes you thin (which in those days was seen as a bad thing). Thomas Platter, the Swiss medical student, said that he’d actually seen the body of a tobacconist (as heavy smokers were called) who’d been cut open and his insides were coated with this oily, unctuous stuff. He said it looked like the inside of a chimney. They were aware of it, but so magical did it seem and so great was the alleged benefit upon your health that they embraced it.

There was one further catalyst that explains its popularity. People thought that it was a brilliant spur for creativity. This is beautifully explained in Eric Burns’s book. It links into the four humours theory. People were told to breathe tobacco in with the force of the ocean tide and let it penetrate every last nook and cranny of their innards, and then breathe it out. The brain was seen as something possessed of cold, moist humours and they thought the heat of the tobacco would counteract these qualities, kindling what he describes as ‘a deft and lyrical wit, which allows you to fulfil your divinely apportioned creative faculties, bringing you closer to God and giving you brilliant ideas.’ They were the first generation of chain-smoking intellectuals.

Eric Burns is really good on the spiritual side of smoking. There’s a reason why he calls it the smoke of the gods. In the Mayan civilisations, it was thought that the smoke was an emissary of your prayers, so you breathe it in — the head of the pipe was shaped like a god’s head, so it was like a portable altar — and it mingles with your prayers. When you breathe out, those prayers are going to go up to heaven in the smoke. It’s a quasi-religious experience. But then when you get to London it’s secularised. But they do think it’s bringing them closer to God because it’s stimulating their minds.

Did people really use to pump tobacco into their anuses with bellows?

Yes, it’s this idea of cleansing yourself and exorcising foul humours. I don’t know if it would do you any good, probably not. They did all sorts of weird things. They used to sauté tobacco leaves in urine and they thought that gave it more miraculous healing qualities, which is why a Thomas Dekker character, in one of his plays, says, ‘Tobacco makes your breath stink like the piss of a fox.’ I like that staccato. Edmund Spenser hails the ‘holy herb’ and others call it ‘the greatest herb that nature did ever tender for the use of man.’ I like Dekker’s take, it sounds very caustic and, it cuts through these rhapsodies of the other wits.

Your third book is on Coffee, and this is The Diary of Dudley Ryder, 1715-1716. What’s Ryder’s relationship with coffee?

Dudley Ryder went to a coffee house about six times a day, apart from Sundays. He really wouldn’t have wanted to live in London if there had been no prospect of going to a coffee house. He doesn’t detail how much coffee he drank, so I can’t say that he was physically addicted, but certainly going into that space — the smoky candlelit space where you could talk to anyone — was woven into his social life in a way that seems quite extraordinary today. He would go to five or six different ones in the space of the same day. In that sense, he is the epitome of what Addison christened the ‘coffee-house politician,’ people with an opinion on everything, even though their opinion doesn’t really matter.

Was Ryder faithful to a particular coffee house more than others?

Yes he was. He had a favourite coffee house: John’s, in spitting distance of the Royal Exchange. Then, like lots of other middle-class males — and it was always males, women didn’t really go in unless they were prostitutes — he had a handful of second choices. One was Tom’s Coffee House, which was in Devereux Court, in the Temple. He also liked the London Coffee House and the Hackney Coffee House which was near where the old part of Mare Street is. He used to drop in there on his way back to visit his family.

He’d sometimes walk from his family home in Hackney to his lodgings in the Temple [a journey of just over four miles], back to Hackney, then back to his lodgings all in the same day and think nothing of it. He was a member of the mobile classes in both senses, in the literal sense but also in the figural sense in that he was an avid social climber, ruthlessly ambitious. The coffee houses were absolutely instrumental to his project to remould himself in the image of someone better.

In what ways does the diary of a private individual like Dudley Ryder change our understanding of the history of a city like London, which is so huge and so hybrid?

I think it’s absolutely crucial because it’s a micro-history and it challenges a lot of the broad brushstrokes you get in these epic, sweeping narratives of London: the fantastic books you get by Roy Porter, Peter Ackroyd, or Stephen Inwood, that tell the entire story of the history of London. What’s crucial in history is that you see all that — or at least part of that — from one idiosyncratic vantage point. That’s Dudley Ryder.

You can read general history books as much as you like about the importance of politeness, but it’s only after you read him talking about how he was stung by a wasp multiple times at lunch, and he was in absolute agony, but he says ‘I’m not going to show I’m in any flicker of pain and I’m going to bear this with courage like a noble Greek because people will think more highly of me.’ It’s only when it’s real like that that it begins to matter. People talk about the impact of the media in very general terms, but it’s only when you hear what’s going on in his head when he dips into a pernicious Tory newspaper that you begin to understand the partisanship of the press. Of course the flip side is you can’t just have history as this mosaic of very particular accounts because then you wouldn’t be able to generalise at all. You need interplay and when it’s done well it’s done really well. I’m thinking of The Voices of Morebath, a book about the impact of the Reformation on a tiny Devonshire village.

The Diary is an amazing read. Pepys is a brilliant diary, and one of the reasons for that — beyond the fact that he’s an intriguing individual, he’s not particularly religious, and he’s quite salty — is that he lived through cataclysmic events: the Plague and the Fire, and the only invasion of London since the Norman Conquest. Whereas Ryder doesn’t live through anything particularly epic. There’s the Jacobite Rebellion on, but beyond that the most exciting thing that really happens in terms of national events is that the Thames freezes over and he goes ice-skating on it. But it’s all about the nitty-gritty: what do you eat after you get pissed in a tavern? What’s the 18th century takeaway? What do you do in a mug house? How would you spend the two hours you’ve got to kill before you go out to dinner? These little portraits of everyday life, middle class life at least, make it such a valuable source.

How did coffee and the way that it was consumed change London?

It sobered people up, for a start. Before coffee everyone was either slightly or very drunk all day long because you couldn’t drink river water — or to some extent well water because people used to fall in and their bodies would decompose — unless you had a death wish. One might say the arrival of coffee triggers a dawn of sobriety and that lays the foundation for spectacular economic growth, as people are thinking clearly for the first time in their history. But more fundamental is the idea of sociability, that people should be allowed to have opinions on stuff that matters. That anyone who could afford to go into a coffee house did actually have a right to pass their judgement on whether the king was right to go to war with Spain, or on the dying words of the mendacious fishmonger who was hanged for coin clipping. I’m not saying for a minute these opinions were taken into account by the political elite, because they weren’t. But the idea that talking to and watching people are actually passports for improving yourself, and ultimately to a better life, is very powerful.

“Smoking was hailed as this infallible prophylactic. People who were dying of the plague were routinely told it was their own fault because they hadn’t smoked.”

It also helps develop civility and sociability. In the 16th century, at least, if you looked at someone the wrong way, if disagreements got out of hand, it could end up in violence or a duel. But in the coffee house people acted with a degree of decorum and equanimity. If you disagreed with someone you tried to persuade them that you were right and they were wrong. That’s a shift.

There were a few exceptions. I might mention one argument in the Grecian Coffee House about how to scan a Greek word in the correct way that became so barbarically pedantic that after about three hours it was deemed — I think by everyone else in the coffee house — the only way to resolve this would be for the men to fight a pistol duel outside. They did, and in the course of it one of the combatants, one of the pedantic grammarians, had his eye shot out in a scene worthy of the Odyssey itself. So there were exceptions. But overall you’re embracing the modern world, that’s what coffee did more than any of these other drugs that we’ve been talking about.

Your fourth book is on tea. This is Samuel Johnson A Critical Edition of the Major Works edited by Donald Green. What does Dr Johnson have to say about tea?

I’m so glad you asked me that. He has the following to say: ‘I am a hardened and shameless tea drinker who has for twenty years diluted his meals with only the infusion of this fascinating plant, whose kettle has scarcely had time to cool, who with tea amuses the evening, with tea solaces the midnight, and with tea welcomes the morning.’

He was addicted to tea, it was a genuine addiction, he used to drink tea all day long. He wasn’t into coffee or chocolate, he had long periods of abstinence from alcohol, but boy did he love tea. Dr Johnson was an ardent defender of tea, because what you get in the 18th century is a lot of people attacking this creeping influence of luxury, we talked about that a bit with chocolate earlier on. Jonas Hanway wrote an essay on tea, he had the audacity — in Dr Johnson’s eyes — to claim that tea was not only pernicious to the health, it was obstructive to industry and it was impoverishing the nation. Quite how it could be impoverishing the nation, since there was an excise duty on it and it massively bolstered the wealth of the East India Company, I don’t know. But Dr Johnson, who was a scathing reviewer of other people’s books, took to print to lambast him and that quote was part of it. Hanway was conclusively shut down.

How did tea come to London and what does its arrival tell us about London’s links to the rest of the world?

It arrived in the 1660s, that’s when it was first sold publicly, in Garraway’s coffee house. But strangely it was very heavily taxed, almost for a hundred years. Which meant that, whereas lots of people were going out to drink their brandy and their gin, their coffee and their chocolate, the only people who were really associated with tea were aristocratic women at home. It became seen as a feminine drink. It became gendered. The tea table in the drawing room was a mirror image of the male-dominated coffee house. Obviously, men satirised this in quite a jejune, nasty way and said it’s not a coffee house as they’re just tattling away and babbling about gossip. But there’s quite a lot of evidence from diaries to suggest that élite women were discussing politics, philosophy and religion: all the kinds of things people were talking about in coffee houses. From the 1730s the government begins to reduce the taxes on tea, then the domestic market is bombarded with this new herb, or plant, and gradually it eclipses coffee.

What does it tell us about society? Obviously tea comes from the East, from China, whereas coffee was initially imported by way of Turkey, from Arabia. So tea speaks to a strong trading link with China, which became an intrinsic part of middle class identity — people having china tea cups — and the ascendancy of tea coincides with Britain’s ascendancy as the world’s predominant global power. Tea has now become the national beverage. Coffee was for a hundred years before tea took over. People’s associations with tea now are similar to Dr Johnson’s, that it’s soothing, it’s not like it’s going to be a fibrillator upon your mind like coffee. It’s something to help you unwind. Whether it latently still has these imperial connotations, I don’t know.

Did Dr Johnson have any problems with it seeming effeminate?

Not really. The time he was drinking it, 1740/1750, was after it had become more widely consumed. It was that period from the 1660s up until the 1730s when it was seen as more feminine. I suspect people in the earlier period did have a problem with that. Men were criticised for drinking too much coffee on the grounds that it was this agent of effeminisation. There’s a women’s petition against coffee that says it saps your virility and makes you babble and gossip. If people are saying that it’s coffee that’s effeminising, I think they would have said the same thing about tea. But then again, from a woman’s perspective, you don’t have the same complaint they had about coffee, which was that men were wasting their time, idling, being distracted — a bit like Facebook today — and it was up to them to take on the reigns of the shop, or whatever it was that they ran. Whereas tea, women were drinking it.

Your fifth book is London Calling: A Countercultural History of London since 1945, by Barry Miles. 

This book is fascinating. He’s a man who’s really lived it. It’s an authentic, personal account, but it’s great history as well. Obviously different to the other books because it’s within living memory. It starts with the end of the War, you’ve got a good decade where London is this really dreary, bomb-pocked, austerity-ridden place. Gloomy, not at all fun or nice. But then from the mid-50s, parts of it slowly seem to fade into colour. Soho is an area where that happens, and Soho looms large over this book. Also in the King’s Road in Chelsea, where you have what’s called the fashion quake, and people like Mary Quant quite deliberately break with tradition and actually make clothes for the young saying, ‘You can dress how you want, not how your grandmother dressed’. She went on to become the queen of the mini-skirt and the bob cut. Then, in Soho, you’ve got the arrival of the rock ‘n roll espresso bars and the teenagers who are flooding in and wearing dark sunglasses and sitting on coffins in places like the Macabre, playing skiffle music. Its coming to life. Then it really finds its stride when you move into the sixties, when there’s an extraordinary period of experimentation with drugs, LSD included. I was fascinated by the concept of the Chelsea LSD Centre, which existed.

Pretty much all the drugs we’ve talked about so far, the government tried to ban them. Tobacco is a case in point. King James I was one of the most formidable opponents of tobacco, he disliked it so much he took to print and he wrote a counterblast against it in 1603, he called it ‘this precious stink’. He was worried about a process of reverse colonisation. We’ve talked about how these drugs manifest Britain’s dominance over other cultures. But James I was worried this was actually reverse colonialisation. Because you were inhaling these foreign substances it was actually weakening your physical body, which then spilled over into the body politic. Metaphors are often conflated in that period, and it was his job as king to make sure the body politic didn’t become weak because it was prone to invasion. So he increases taxes on it by 4000%. It has no effect at all except to line the pockets of smugglers and eventually he realises the value of tobacco in the new colonies of Virginia and he capitulates.

With coffee it’s a very similar thing. Charles II tries to outlaw, not just coffee houses, but the sale of chocolate and tea in the 1660s. He hates the effects of it, the fact that it makes people think they can club together and have opinions on what he’s doing. He sees this as the start of a slippery slope, that he might end up the same way as his father did. He says, ‘If anyone’s caught selling this stuff a year from now, then they will face the most dire of consequences’. Complete failure. There’s such a grassroots outcry, which ironically was articulated most forcefully in the coffee houses themselves, that he’s forced to cave in.

Speaking personally I find it’s an intrinsically addictive city. I didn’t grow up in London but I grew up near London and whenever I left it I wanted to go back. I found it this euphoric and fascinating place where you could just walk on and on. If you’re bored in London there’s something seriously wrong with you. You can just walk and walk and walk and you always just find something. Going back to Dr Johnson, I don’t want to have to quote the great cliché — we all know what it is — he was obviously addicted to it. He came down from Lichfield and he didn’t go back for twenty years. He didn’t go back when his mother was dying. I think he went back for her funeral. He was a man who was seriously addicted to London, and some of the drugs — namely tea — that were sold in great quantities inside it.

Interview by Beatrice Wilford

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