573 - Look Mum, No Mermaids!

Remember that guy in the Truman Show who pretends to be the protagonist’s best buddy [1]? Who takes him out for a few brewskis on the beach when Truman starts to suspect he’s at the centre of... something? The buddy offers Truman the proverbial shoulder to cry on, but his apparent sincerity is fake. He too is part of the conspiracy, merely part of the décor, his friendship no more than cardboard. 

That’s what coffee-shop chains feel like. They’ll take your personalised order and write your name on the cup so it can be shouted out when your overpriced designer coffee is ready. But the tailor-made, name-tagged treatment is the illusion that masks a hyper-streamlined experience. Every store you enter will have the same menu and meet your expectations for the music, the snacks, the look and feel of the furniture. 

Coffee chains are conveniently uniform, but uniformly bland. Hence the aromatic blend of love and hate they engender in their ‘heavy users’ - that guild of professionals born in the internet age, hooked on power sockets and Free Wi-Fi [2]. These e-nomads, liberated by their laptops from the drudgery of static jobs, are now free to roam whole networks of ‘third places’ - all looking, smelling, sounding and tasting exactly the same. 

It doesn’t have to be that way. You could step outside of your comfort zone, and take your laptop - or even, come to think of it, your coffee - elsewhere. This charming map, produced by Herb Lester Associates [3],  locates a number of locations in Central London where you can have coffee, meet with friends or business contacts, or work on your next blog post, without having to tango with the twin-tailed mermaid.

“The creators of this guide have spent hours sitting at sticky tables having meeting or waiting for appointments, always with the niggling thought that there must be somewhere nicer to pass the time. After all, there are thousands of places to meet in London, why put up with something wretched?”

Having excluded places that are “too loud, too crammed, too smelly, too over-run with sightseers and school groups, places with bad coffee, and anywhere that requires membership, this map lists no more than two dozen “quiet spots to think, and secluded spaces to conspire”. Obviously, there are more. Don’t hesitate to add your favourites to the list. Here’s a brief overview of the ones already included:

1. The Barbican: “For anyone in search of peace, quiet and privacy, the Barbican’s notoriously confusing layout is a distinct advantage.” 

2. Bermondsey Street Coffee: “The large front window, with a distracting view of the unfolding street scene, is probably best avoided by anyone with serious work to do.”

3. British Library: “Nine out of ten self-employed layabouts agree that spending a day at the British Library delivers a feeling of accomplishment out of all proportion to work actually done.”

4. Club Bar & Lounge at the Grosvenor: “[Q]uiet and tolerably comfortable, neither of which can be said of anything in the nearby Cardinal Place shopping centre.”

5. Curzon Cinema: “A convenient meeting place but perhaps not conducive to more than a brief appointment.”

Northwest quadrant, including the Wallace Collection, "remarkably off the beaten path".


6. Fleet River Bakery: “In the colder months, the woody interior is a place of refuge, warm and intimate.”

7. Garden Cafe, Regent’s Park: “[T]he service is desultory[, and] cursory, superficial, perfunctory, half-hearted and unsystematic wouldn’t be wide of the mark either.”

8. ICA: “The tiled walls and raised bar area lend a slightly disorientating swimming-pool echo to this useful but unlovely cafe.”

9. The Jerusalem: “It takes discipline to conduct business in a pub, but if you’re suitably strong-willed, this atmospheric little hostelry is a very pleasant place to do it[.]”

10. Jerwood Space: “[I]t’s easy to overlook this very pleasant cafe which sits in a covered courtyard.”

Northeast quadrant, including the "notoriously confusing" Barbican.

11. London Review Cake Shop: “Possibly rather too charming for its own good, [it] gets very crowded.”

12. Look Mum No Hands!: “For the hectic freelancer, tearing through London traffic on a bicycle, this cafe-cum-cycle shop is a haven[.]”

13. Upstairs at Maison Bertaux: “It should be utterly charmless but the effect is quite the opposite[.]”

14. National Portrait Gallery: “Throngs of tourists make it very much an off-peak meeting place, but when the time is right this underground cafe is an ideal West End bolthole.”

15. Nordic Bakery: “Not the biggest or best-equipped place, but far and away the best-smelling with the air thick with the aroma of cinnamon buns.”

Southwest quadrant, including the Serpentine Boating Lake, "for those really secret meetings."

16. Photographers Gallery: “Small, functional cafe chiefly recommended for its location, so close to Oxford Street.”

17. Poetry Cafe: “In the back streets of Covent Garden, a rare, untouristy treat.”

18. Prufrock: “Large, airy, and often surprisingly empty, this is a spot justly renowned for its coffee[.]”

19. RIBA: “The totalitarian-moderne style of this setting only adds to its appeal as a place to conspire, and there’s ample space in which to do it.”

20. Royal Festival Hall: “[A]t the RFH, you’re spoiled for choice.”

Southeast quadrant, including Bermondsey Street Cafe, "with a distracting view of the unfolding street scene".

21. Russell Square Cafe: “A modest and friendly cafe in the corner of this leafy square.”

22. Serpentine Boating Lake: “A useful place for those really secret meetings.”

23. Wallace Collection: “Despite ever increasing footfall in nearby Marylebone High Street, the Wallace Collection remains quite remarkably off the beaten path[.]”

24. Whitechapel Gallery: “Well-lit, with comfortable chairs and good food and drinks, the only jarring note is that reading material is attached to the walls by cables to thwart light-fingered art-lovers.”

25. Wild &Wood: “If Ratty and Mole from The Wind in the Willows were looking for a place to meet and work, this would be it.”

Longer descriptions on the flipside of this map, which can be found in selected bookshops, or obtained directly via the Herb Lester Associates website


[1] Marlon, as played by Noah Emmerich, whose face seems purpose-built to convey disingenuity; hence often typecast as the mole, the backstabber, the dirty cop, etc. 

[2] Not a Chinese dissident.

[3] A small outfit specialising in cool stationery and quirky city maps. Not associated with yours truly.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.