UCL News


UCL student declares 'cafe society' dead

4 December 2009


Coffee in a French cafe ucl.ac.uk/drupal/site_news/sites/news/files/frenchcafeculturepaper.pdf" target="_self">Research paper: French Cafe Culture: A Microcosm of Society?
  • Independent article
  • UCL History
  • Ben Wood (UCL History) has spent his summer researching the demise of French cafe society in Paris and Aix en Provence as part of his degree.

    Ben was awarded a £1,500 grant from the Peter Kirk Memorial Fund to carry out the research, which encourages young Britons to travel to Europe and write about a subject of their choice. The fund was set up in memory of Sir Peter Kirk MP, the pro-European Conservative who led Britain's first delegation to the European Parliament.

    Ben was compelled to study this area because of the country's revolutionary past and the cultural and political boom of the 19th and early 20th centuries when the politics of Lenin, the art of the Impressionists, the philosophy of Sartre and the literature of Hemingway all centred on the French cafes. 

    Ben's investigation had two strands: whether intellectual cafe culture still exists and whether the café as a French institution can still exist in the modern era. While he was in Paris Ben met up with John Lichfield, journalist for The Independent who helped him research the project and covered Ben's story in an article published on Monday 30 November.

    Ben said: "What surprised me the most was that intellectual avant-garde culture, in the vein of that of the '20s and '30s seemingly does not exist. This may sound like I was expecting too much, but I had read about a resurgence of cafe culture in the '90s with the establishment of firstly philosophical and later political and psychological discussion groups in the cafes of Paris. I was keen to uncover some of this culture, but found it had mostly disappeared or that it existed in a form which was far from cutting edge or revolutionary."

    His research takes the form of a 27,000 word paper in which he concludes that the French cafe is thriving but that French cafe society is dead. The cafe remains vital as a place to eat, drink or rest but it is rarely a community in which strangers become, briefly, friends. "Intellectual debate is not as common in bars, cafes and bistros," he concludes "because it is not as common in society at large."

    UCL context

    UCL History is distinctive for the sheer breadth of its expertise, which spans the fourth millennium BC to the contemporary world. Its specialities are the Ancient Near East and the modern Americas. The department also covers the full range of European history from the classical Mediterranean societies, through the medieval and early modern periods to the present day. The department has several distinguished historians of Britain and its empire, and offer a range of courses on London history.

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