Extract from the Series Preface
The Café Procope can claim to be one of the oldest cafés in Paris. In 1686 it began serving coffee in porcelain cups to men of fashion. Three years later, in 1689, the Comédie Française appeared opposite, hence the Procope’s current address, rue de l’Ancienne Comédie. The café became ‘theatrical’ and its customers of international renown.
The Phrygian Cap of French Revolutionary fame made its first appearance in the Procope when a bust of Voltaire was crowned with a red bonnet from the production of his play Brutus. Robespierre, Marat, Danton and Desmoulins would sport their bonnets rouges over Republican whisperings at the Procope. Benjamin Franklin probably overheard them and took their message westwards.
Upstairs, quietly, a young Napoleon Bonaparte, still a junior officer of artillery, was playing chess. Whatever he ate or drank that night he couldn’t pay for. He left his hat as security for the unpaid bill but never returned. Perhaps once he was Emperor he had little use for the hat, or was simply too embarrassed to reclaim it.
As you walk into the Procope, just to your left, secure in a glass case and surrounded by an ornate frame, is that very hat. It sports a red, white and blue rosette above a single gold chevron. Every time I visit Paris, I go to the Café Procope, doff my imaginary hat to Napoleon’s, turn immediately left and sit in the seat just inside so I can drink my coffee beneath Napoleon’s hat. I fumble in my pocket for my moleskin notebook and begin to scribble, sketch and to stare, people watching, with a slightly self-conscious manner.
It is here, beneath the hat, that I begin my stories, some far too long to be short; others not quite long enough to become novels. They are all set in cafés of the past, famous for their would-be famous writers. Two bookshops have been given the honorary status of café: Shakespeare and Company and the House of the Lover of Books.
Most of the characters we meet would be considered minor players, the forgotten or little known visitors to the cafés, yet it was they who often enabled the then equally unknown to take their first steps to fame.
Together the tales explore the plight of the aspiring, the achieving, the lonely and the inconsolable as their creative minds seek understanding and belonging in the tribal security of the café.