While some activists like to approach their political engagement with the fury and gusto of a hurricane in a hurry, many of us prefer to conduct our polemics in an altogether more leisurely fashion – ideally while eating a biscuit. So when I heard about Firebox, a new leftwing café which opened recently in central London, I didn’t need much convincing.
Their website fireboxlondon.net says their aim is to become ‘a point of departure for a lifetime of radical engagement, a meeting place and a starting point for a new left’. Judging by what I saw on my initial visit, it stands a real chance. When I popped along they were still setting up and the coffee machine had yet to be delivered, but even without the addition of caffeine everyone I spoke to was buzzing like a faulty fridge about the endlessly exciting possibilities for their new space.
It is unlike anything I’ve come across before, and a far cry from the hippy-dippy ‘organic Chai, whale song and alfalfa-sprout rissole’-style establishment one conjures up when picturing the cliché of a radical caff. Fair enough if that’s your thing of course, but I’m allergic to patchouli oil and tie-dyed clothing and to me these places feel more preoccupied with lifestyle than politics. But Firebox seems different: its roots are founded in the radical socialist tradition rather than a woolly ‘101 things you can do with a lentil/teach yourself bongos’-type of right-on-ness.
Precedents for the project can be found in both the International Club of the 1920s led by suffragette and leftie anti-fascist Sylvia Pankhurst, and – perhaps even more so – the Partisan Coffee House. This opened in London’s Soho in 1958 as a leftwing ‘anti-espresso’ bar, although just what they had against the humble espresso I’ve no idea. There they staged a range of events, including debates, film screenings, art exhibitions and music nights that attracted some of the leading intellectuals of the day: EP Thompson, Doris Lessing and... Rod Stewart. Rod (above), it is claimed, would pop along just to chat up the young, leftie female clientele.
Back at the Firebox, recent events included a meeting asking the important question ‘How fucked is the economy?’ and a day-long theatre workshop based on the ‘Theatre of the Oppressed’. No tie-dyed threads or randy rock stars in sight, unless the play ended up being way more avant-garde than expected.
In an era when coffee shop culture is dominated by sterile, homogenized clone cafés serving up empty consumerism in massive cups, and the only question being asked is, ‘What the fuck is that weird shape the barista has drawn on top of my drink?’, Firebox is a welcome, froth-free arrival.
Steve Parry is a comedy writer, performer and political activist. He is Welsh and lives in north London. You can contact him on Twitter @stevejparry.