William Burroughs and the strange demise of London’s first espresso bar

In 1953, a momentous event occurred in Soho. London’s first proper coffee shop – one equipped with a Gaggia coffee machine – opened at 29 Frith Street. This was a place where teenagers too young for pubs could come and gather, and it is said by some that the introduction of this coffee bar prompted the youth culture explosion that soon changed social life in Britain forever.

Inside the Moka Bar

The Moka was an instant success, selling over a thousand cups of coffee a day. The author John Sutherland recalls, ‘the Gaggia machine, a great burbling, wheezing, spluttering monster, would grudgingly excrete some bitter caffeinated essence.  It would be swamped with steamed-milk foam and dusted with chocolate to form its ‘cappuccino’ hood… Glass cups and brown sugar (lots of it) were de rigueur.  Frankly, 50s espresso was no taste thrill.  But it felt smart as hell.’

By 1972, coffee bars where everywhere and the teenage revolution was firmly established. At this time, the author of ‘Naked Lunch’, former junkie and all-round Beat legend William S Burroughs was living in London, quietly going about his business in St James’s. He lived in Dalmeny Court, Duke Street, and loved the plush gentlemen’s shops of the area, not to mention the ‘Dilly Boys‘, young make prostitutes who hustled for clients outside the Regent Palace Hotel.

Although Burroughs was fond of the finer things in life – he got his shoes from John Lobb, hat from Locke’s and bought most of his food in Fortnum and Mason’s – he did at some point stumble into the Moka Bar, and was not impressed by what he found.

Burroughs and friend Brion Gysin in London

Burroughs at this time was getting sick of London – sick of the licensing laws, sick of the crap food and small drinks, sick of the weather, the terrible service and sexual hypocrisy. He was also sick of the Moka, which he believed responsible for an ‘outrageous and unprovoked discourtesy and poisonous cheesecake’.

The Church of Scientology, Fitzroy Street

Burroughs decided to mount a sound-and-image attack. He had previously launched one of these against the Church of Scientology, of which he had been a member, turning up at their headquarters at 37 Fitzroy Street every day, taking photographs and making sound recordings. He believed that ‘as soon as you start recording a situation and playing them back on the street, you are creating a new reality’ and that repeated exposure to such an attack would lead to ‘accidents, fires and removals’. After a few weeks, the Scientologists did indeed move, round the corner to 68 Tottenham Court Road.

Photo taken by Burroughs during the operation

On August 3, 1972, Burroughs turned his attention to the Moka. He would stand outside every day taking photos and making recordings by tape, and then return the next day to play the previous days recordings. Burroughs was convinced he was winning. ‘They are seething in there,’ he said. ‘I have them and they know it.’

On October 30, 1972, the Moka Bar closed.

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13 responses to “William Burroughs and the strange demise of London’s first espresso bar

  1. I might give this a go myself. Though I imagine these days one might receive an ASBO, or a punch in the eye.

  2. Do you think this would work with Starbucks?

  3. Who’d have thought that something as simple as an eccentric junkie hanging around taking endless photographs and playing inexplicable tape recordings every day for three months could close down a coffee bar?

  4. Calling partisans of all nations — Shift linguals — Cut word lines — Vibrate tourists — Free doorways — Photo falling — Word falling — Break through in Grey Room — Towers, Open Fire!

  5. This post is scant on details. Burroughs elaborates in his writings that he would make the recordings, them home and edit them by interjecting what he called “trouble noise” – sirens, people shouting, weeping etc. He would then return to the scene and play these recordings at a level barely audible to passers-by, to ensure they blended in to the surrounding street noise. This created an imperceptible feeling of unease for the listener, aware that something was wrong but unable to say what. Much like aversion therapy, patrons and locals associated the Moka with these feelings and stayed away. Business dropped as a result.

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