Our final topic was perhaps an odd one to tackle over mid-morning coffee and anyway, in the end, nothing was actually resolved. Frank and I had met for one of our occasional coffees, initially convened to review the progress of a project we were both involved in. That business done, it was on to more substantial matters. After starting on one of our old chestnuts – the pros and cons of obituaries – we moved on to the topic of the buzz one gets from being with people who are super intelligent (both of us have met some-such). Then it was to full stops, in fact to their under-use, both in writing and in speech. Why are written sentences so often over-long? And in speech, why don’t people use full stops to allow them (and us) to stop for a breather? And we had a practical suggestion. Why aren’t full stops marketed as medicine for political windbags to be inserted regularly to allow listeners a moment to catch up with their trains of thought?
Finally we turned to philosophy, more specifically to the question, “Should philosophy be taught as a subject at university?” But, no sooner had we exchanged our first impressions and started working on definitions, than discussion had to be curtailed. Looming was Frank’s relationship with his parking meter; in ten minutes his time would expire!
By now the café was almost full, and as we prepared to leave a man approached us and with great courtesy asked whether he and his wife might take our place at the table. “Of course, ” we replied, adding as a mischievous afterthought, “but only on condition that you continue discussing our question on philosophy. We feel we need the answer!”
The man replied saying that, speaking on behalf of both of them he was confident that our request would be honoured. We left amused, puzzling over the idea of a table being reserved for discussing particular topics and, in this instance, on a subject of someone else’s choosing. Frank headed off to his car, and I went to the florist. Just before we separated I promised that I would go back to the café to discover what had happened.
The idea of chairs in a café, or anywhere for that matter, being the preserve for puzzling over particular issues or for engaging in a particular intellectual activity passed on from others, seemed odd at the time, but is it so unusual? There are only a limited number of thoughts one can, or at least should, have when sitting in a pew at church. And a similar constraint pertains when sitting in the dock in court. Similarly when I sit in a classroom at the Institute Français my mind immediately switches to the business of French. Anything else would be wrong. And, by the time I sit down in a theatre or cinema my mind is reset; “while sitting in this seat you will suspend disbelief.” And, in terms of passing on ideas, there are certain parlour games where at the sound of a bell the next participant has to continue a story taken on from where the previous participant left off.
So what did the inheritors of our café table do? I wandered back after I had bought my flowers, having paid for them after negotiating the withdrawal of money from a cantankerous hole-in-the-wall. By then, almost an hour had passed. They were still there, chatting energetically – indeed it took a while for them to notice that I had returned. Hoping against hope that their theme was philosophy, I was soon to be disappointed. It became apparent that the man’s original confidence had been misplaced. His wife had immediately vetoed the subject, preferring to tackle ‘Influential women in public office’.
The couple had certainly gone for a thoughtful alternative and at least the table had continued its role of hosting serious debate. Furthermore, their topic had some practical value – they explained that it was the subject of a book she was writing. Perhaps they will hunt me down and ask me to read and comment on the first draft, just to get their own back. The funny thing is that I would almost certainly do so if I were asked. I might even read it at my regular table in our now shared café.