The hipster is hesitant. He stands in the doorway, his ironic moustache tasting the air. If he senses danger he will slip away, perhaps to the vinyl shop next door. But all is well here. The hiss of the cappuccino machine soothes him.
His natural enemies – people with real jobs – are all at work. He pads to a table, opens something on his MacBook that looks ominously like a poem.
His pelt, a combination of vintage and bespoke clothes, allows him to blend into his natural habitat, but questions remain. Who are these strange denizens of Cape Town’s artisanal coffee boutiques? And why, given that they don’t seem to have to work for a living, have they decided to spend their days hunched over a table pretending to be artists?
He drains his coffee as he tries to think of something that rhymes with “the pain of my isolation”. He types “something something menstruation”. No. Delete. He prowls to the bar and returns with a tankard of limited-edition Danish mushroom beer. And that’s another thing. Why has he decided that a bohemian life is best lived in a place that draws ferns in foamed milk? Does he not understand that the only reason creative people flee to these establishments, to sit and poke at greasy keyboards, is because if they stayed at home they’d start breaking furniture or taking eight-hour baths?
But as he begins to type again – “the rain drops on our nation” – it becomes plain as the black-rimmed spectacles on his nose: he is not trying to be noticed; he is hiding. And he’s chosen his camouflage well.
Pretending to be an artist keeps you safe from having to prove that you are good at something: it is very unlikely that someone at the neighbouring table will start choking on a metaphor, prompting a panicked barista to cry out, “Is there a writer in the house?”
Even better, it allows you to appear busy without having to finish anything. Indeed, the longer the artwork remains unfinished the more impressive it becomes in the imaginations of your peers.
If the worst comes to the worst and you actually produce something – perhaps a series of sepia-toned photographs of empty swimming pools, or a short film called Sophie’s Choice, featuring your maid trying to decide whether to open an account at Edgars or Ellerines – well, criticism can always be deflected by the twin miracles of postmodernism and narcissistic denial.
But perhaps I am being unkind. Being cruel to hipsters has become almost as faddish as hipsters themselves. Which is a pity, because they don’t need cruelty. What they need is a hug, and to be taken by the hand and led back from the distant shore on which they have marooned themselves. Because for all their bleeding-edge aesthetics and preoccupation with modernity, they are essentially members of a cargo cult. Like those Pacific islanders who built coconut runways and control towers out of twigs, hoping that American manna would fall from the skies again, Cape Town’s hipsters are going through the motions, praying to a god they barely understand, convinced that if they perform the right movements – stirring their coffee, reading their James Joyce novels – then the god will touch them. A novel will appear on their MacBook. Their ironic packet of Lucky Strikes will transubstantiate into a screenplay. And then they will finally feel what it is like to have made something from nothing.
My hipster has finished his poem and looks sad. I want to go whisper in his ear; to tell him not to worry about trying to look like a poet. I want to say, “You were born to consume, now go and consume in the great traditions of your people. You are free; now indulge your freedom. Buy shiny things. Call up your friends and migrate like geese in a happy, honking gaggle, to those places where your species goes to mate. Find love in a ski lodge; find wonder under a China Sea moon. Then make appalling art about it, which will confirm to your friends that you are ‘the artistic one’, and then forget all about it, and do it again next year.”
I want him to do those things for himself, but more importantly, for the rest of us, who have come to this coffee place in desperation and despair.
Please, dear hipster, give us a reason to be here. Give us something to aspire to. Replace our vague idealistic anxieties with some concrete, grubby lust for material things. Show us that, when all this incessant typing turns into something lucrative, there will be a ski lodge waiting, and joy, and a masseuse. Please, dear hipster, go now and make it all come true. You are our only hope.
First published in The Times and TimesLive