Written by Michele Kirsch
Unless you’ve been living in a parallel universe where Russell Brand has selective mutism, you’re likely to have heard about his social enterprise, the Trew Era Cafe. Trew Era is a coffee shop staffed mainly by those in recovery from drug or alcohol addiction. When I found out about it I thought “oh, hurrah. Breaking down stigma and barriers. Here’s a job I can do”. Not only because I’ve had barista training in a similar scheme, but also because I am a drug user in recovery. I also thought “we’ll be rubbish. We can’t organise our lives. Though we could probably organise a piss up in a brewery, except we can’t go near breweries, or pubs. Or in my particular case, pharmacies.
I am happy to say I was very wrong. The Trew Era Cafe at 30, Whitmore St, just the end of Hoxton Market, is not only like no other cafe or restaurant I’ve worked in, but it really does feel like the tiny start of a bigger change. Not just in my little life, but in the lives of those who come to the cafe. Random strangers talking about everything from the general election, to what they got up to the night before, or what’s going on on the estate where the cafe is located.
This is not the England we read about in the papers and despair of and yearn for the good old days. People do not hide behind their phones or iPads. They talk about important things. Sure, they might just be necking lattes and not setting the world to rights, but they have ideas on how to do so, and are not shy about sharing them. It’s the Russell Brand ‘when in doubt, shout it out’ way of communicating. The conspiracy of silence and hushed texting has filtered through the coffee. I know this because, having worked at the cafe, I see strangers strike up conversations with other strangers.It’s not all about Russell. It’s, broadly, about how to make life fairer for the poor and disenfranchised.
Recently, a guy came in who works for a major news network, and looks like George Clooney. I felt momentarily sad. I used to be a journalist. I used to look like George Clooney, well, no not that bit. After I serve him his organic porridge and coffee, I say: “So do you think print journalism is dead?”. He doesn’t look at me as if I am from planet Zorg, a planet that happens to make great coffee, but as if I am just a human being asking a normal question. He says: “That’s not really the question. We should be thinking about how to charge a flat fee for the internet instead of paywalls.” He tells me he is off to the British Library to finish his book proposal, and I think, this guy will get his book deal, he has something important to say and we’ve given him breakfast, so he’ll have the energy to say it.
On another occasion a uni student comes in and talks about a new currency. A new England. A smash it up and build it new philosophy, not too dissimilar to Russell’s. I think what an engaging and engaged young man. Not boasting about his hangover or what he and his mates got up to the night before, but of ideas and ideals. He’s what people of my age used to call Student Grant, after a character from the comic Viz. But Student Grant does not exist anymore. This poor guy, like so many others, will leave uni at least 40 grand in debt. Yet he remains hopeful that things can, and will, get better. What is it? Is it something in the coffee? The toasties? The cakes?
It must be said, the Brand brand helps. We get a lot of people coming in looking for Russell, wanting to give their card to Russell, wanting to work with Russell, wanting to have Russell’s babies. He did fund and open the joint, to much press fanfare and lots of, well, fans. He glided in in his yoga pants, talking about a revolution and drinking super green juice. The adulation from the non-press crowd (and some of the press) was overwhelming. I chatted to his lovely mum, more a woman of my generation, seemingly bemused by all the fuss. And his dad, a salt of the earth type who looked like he could murder a builder’s tea and a bacon roll (no meat in this cafe). His diligent and loyal assistant Nicola wanted to know if anyone had the Smiths on their phone, and for a moment I expected Morrissey to be on the blower, moaning “If you must go to work, tomorrow, well if I were you I wouldn’t bother”. But no. Being the oldie that I am, it took me a while to clock she meant the music. Who would have thunk it. Mr. Can Do Brand being a fan of oh why bother Mozzer? What they do seem to have in common is a love of England. Deep down, beyond the England of cuts and wars and NHS crises. Of english culture, wit, and patriotism in the best, inclusive sense of the word.
For now, I’m content to make coffee and watch the others pontificate on the rights and wrongs of this government and the next, but I am glad that this indeed is a new era. Where in one tiny spot in Hoxton, people are downing phones, downing coffee, and having the sorts of discussions that lead to action. I’m just happy to provide the caffeine to fuel it.
Words- Michele Kirsch
Photography- Jennifer Wallis