The image of the cathedral town (last column) is one of the enduring set of images that make up the notion of ‘England’ for many tourists, with the obvious physical presence of history and heritage stretching back centuries and the sense of a place that is in something of a time warp Part of that is the opportunity to experience a particular part of that image: the institution of English afternoon tea, at places like Bettys in York or Sally Lunns in Bath, where you can choose between a Queen Victoria’s Tea or a Jane Austen Cream Tea.
At first glance all this seems not a likely topic for pop songs, not really very rock and roll at all. If you are going to sing about refreshments, surely it should be something like Sham 69’s Hurry Up Harry: "Come on, come on, hurry up Harry, come on. Come on, come on, hurry up Harry, come on. We’re going down the pub..” Then you recall the penchant of rock’s aristocracy for following in the footsteps of the nineteenth century aristocracy, with the mansions and stately homes in Surrey and Oxfordshire - Bill Wyman actually became Lord of the Manor at Gedding Hall in Suffolk. With this in mind, it is then less surprising to find songs that seem to celebrate the tea-and-scones ritual that Queen Victoria and Jane Austen apparently enjoyed. Paul McCartney’s English Tea from 2005, for example; or Tin Tin’s 1970 early Bee Gees- sounding track Toast and Marmalade for Tea ;or the brief ode to afternoon tea that Sam Brown sneaked in between tracks on her 1988 Stop album
These and others remind the listener that songs about places to eat are part of pop music’s landscape and help shape perceptions of a place. Some already mentioned in previous columns are very evocative of a particular time and place. Mario’s Cafe, for example, of Kentish Town in the early 90’s; or Watford Gap, with its plate of grease and load of crap (this is a historical comment, of course, not a reference to the fine menus currently on offer), opening a window on the groups of the 60’s and 70’s trundling in their Transits up and down the M1.Or the seafront cafe in Every Day is Like Sunday, bringing the aroma of an out of season seaside resort with its greased tea.
There have been others over the years, with many using the backdrop of a cafe or restaurant to foreground a little story. Some of these followed a mini-Brief Encounter scenario set over a cup of tea or coffee - .like the Kinks with Afternoon Tea (again!) in an unidentified cafe, presumably North London:, “At night I lie awake and dream of Donna ,I think about that small cafe .That's where we used to meet each day and then we used to sit a while and drink our afternoon tea”. More recently (2007), Landon Pigg has described a similar romantic encounter in Falling In Love at a Coffee Shop. Suzanne Vega’s Tom’s Diner , a vignette in another New York coffee shop, was like a musical mini-film in its descriptive story.
Others have opted for such a setting to create a mood rather than tell a story and the song here from 2011, Breakfast in Spitalfields by Spanish born singer Juan Zelda, is one such of these. Spitalfields has come up before, in Cath Carroll’s reference to Hawksmoor’s lost underground in London, Queen of My Heart, her song about ‘mythical London, deserted 2am London’. In this song, however, it seems light and summery and rather mellow, not dark and secret. The duality of the area, perhaps. Old churches and plague pits by the towering glass-fronted office blocks, the wealth of the City banks a stone’s throw from overcrowded housing and poverty.
In watching the accompanying video I was reminded of an old TV advert from the 80’s for the Halifax , in which a loft-living yuppie in somewhere like Spitalfields , looking like he needs a smack on the nose, goes out on Sunday morning to draw out some cash to the sounds of Lionel Richie ( and presumably pays for his paper with a £10 note).
The narrator in this song distances himself from that side of Spitalfields, from ‘the men in suits who polish their boots’ and, judging by the video, he goes for a proletarian/rock and roll breakfast :in fact the sort of plateful that Roy Harper would have got at the Blue Boar in 1973.(If he had gone a bit further on to St John’s Bread and Wine restaurant by Spitalfields Market he could have had poached fruit, yoghurt and toasted brioche as well as an Old Spot bacon sandwich for his breakfast, instead of sausage and egg)
Hawksmoor’s lost underground still lurks there the same though, behind the summer sounds . As Cath Carroll commented earlier, “the past has never left us. It lives in the same space that we do”. It is all there still - plague rhymes and afternoon tea alike.