Coffee and Harvey Milk

In which I meet the organiser of the Proust Book Group, and discuss New York, collaboration, posh tea and meditating with Marina Abramović.

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It’s a slow afternoon at work – my boss is on holiday and my clients are clearly too anaethetised by the warm weather to call or email. I take a late and extended lunch break and text Michael, the organiser of the Proust Book Group, to see if he wants to meet up. He claims to be in South Kensington shaking hands with Marina Abramović, which sounds terribly chic. I suggest a more sobering experience to bring him back to the corporeal plain – a coffee at one of my favourite New Zealand-owned coffee bars in Clerkenwell.

It’s a baking hot day. The heat is dry and intense, with scarcely any humidity, and I’m relieved that it’s dress down Friday and that I’m not in a business suit. I walk past the second-hand jewellery stores, and see the occasional withered patriarch heaving along in an ill-fitting black suit, yarmulke pinned on in readiness for tonight’s Sabbath. How hot and uncomfortable they must be on such a hot day.

Michael is sitting on a bench outside the cafe in the sun with his eyes closed, serene and cat-like. He’s beautiful in a Puckish way: slim, curly-haired and with a tan the colour of honey – a product of his recent holiday to Croatia, he tells me.

He explains that he hasn’t been sleeping well lately. Too much Proust, I ask? It seems a most appropriate malady for a man who’s going to lead a discussion group on the world’s most famous insomniac.

We chat away over our caffè lattes about our lives as journalists – mine past, his present – and our shared interest in creative writing. I talk about my French writing retreats, and the appeal of the “shared togetherness” they offer. Michael also sings the praises of working collaboratively, saying he wished he’d learned earlier in life how to “release” control of his ideas by bringing them to and working with other people. I realise that’s the appeal of joining a book group to read Proust – finding solace and encouragement from others rather than slugging away on my own.

I ask Michael what drew him to Proust and what he liked about it. I’m relieved to hear him say that he undertook the project, like most of us, to see whether he could finish, and for the pleasurable feeling of smugness at being able to say he’d finished. Maybe reading Proust is to the literati what running marathons are for athletes – an Olympian challenge to sort the pros from the wannabes.

I ask him if he feels that reading Proust has “sensitised” him, as the tiresome Mr de Botton claims in How Proust Can Change Your Life. He describes being inspired by Proust’s ability to describe the consciousness of the moment, and his illumination of the loveliness in ordinary things. Michael talks with a smile about the joy of being alive to Proust’s focus on cloud formations in the sky or the way that the sea changes from day to day. It sounds lovely, and as meditative a state as he’s just been in with Marina at the Serpentine.

We talk about a mutual sense of action and inaction, which feels as if it becomes more prescient as we hurtle towards 40. (He is a few months younger than I am). I talk about the experience of being mugged as an unwanted but nonetheless galvanising experience to wake up and make changes in his life. He describes living in New York through 9/11 and returning to London soon after. “I’m an honorary New Yorker,” he says, in a tone that feels proud and melancholy at once.

It’s time for me to go back to work, so we walk to the corner. He’s celebrating his boyfriend’s birthday this weekend, he says, with a New Orleans-style funeral procession. It sounds intriguing. Later as I walk back to the office, I see him whizz past on his bike – no helmet, no hands on the handles, and lighting his little hookah pipe. He looks relaxed, free and impossibly cool – more will-o’-the-wisp than man.

After a fun date with K, a hairy bear in Marylebone, I get home to a postcard from my friend and Gemini twin Jodhi in New York City, featuring three of the official Harvey Milk stamps released by the US Post Office. I remember my now-forgotten request to my New York posse asking them to send me some. Only Jodhi has remembered. “I got the last three stamps in Chelsea,” she reports, in her elegant cursive script. I imagine her schlepping down 8th Avenue in her pinstriped suit and Thomas Pink tailored shirts, flighty gay boys scattering in her wake, as she searches the 7/11s of Chelsea for stamps.

It’s a gorgeous card, and goes straight on my fridge door. I must write to Jodhi soon. Hell, I need to go back to New York – between the chat with Michael and the postcard, I’m reminded of how much I miss it.

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