Shena Mackay is mentioned in the sleevenotes of Saint Etienne Present Songs For Mario’s Café, a collection that came out on the Sanctuary subsidiary Discotheque in 2004. The concept was an imaginary soundtrack “for cafés and café folk”, with the title being a nod in the direction of St Et’s own composition which refers to a Kentish Town café, and is part of a tradition of songs that pay tribute to real eating places. The Little Nibble in Dexys’ ‘This is What She’s Like’, Laugh’s mention of Manchester’s Alasia café in their frantic classic ‘Take Your Time, Yeah!’ and the gloriously sweet harmony pop of ‘Kardomah Café’ by Liverpool’s Cherry Boys immediately spring to mind.
It sometimes seems like there have been hundreds of Saint Etienne related compilations covering everything under the sun, but this Songs For Mario’s Café CD, which tied in with a series of short films the group were making with Paul Kelly about London’s disappearing cafés and tearooms, is the real deal with sweet soul and beat ballads galore, and a spectacular opening sequence which takes in Tony Hatch, Donovan, Birmingham schoolkids The Bobcats, Tammy St John’s version of the Fangette Enzel song ‘Dark Shadows and Empty Hallways’, Ruth Copeland’s ‘Music Box’, and Candy & the Kisses’ ‘Are You Trying To Get Rid Of Me Baby’.
Café connoisseur Bob Stanley’s liner notes mention how he came to London in the mid-1980s and got involved with the underground pop scene, hanging out at “cafés like the Regent Milk Bar on Edgware Road, Gattopardo at Kings Cross, and the Oval Platter on Charing Cross Road for cheap lunch and an hour or so with a paperback (favourite reads: Richard Brautigan, Shena Mackay, Keith Waterhouse).”
Apart from the joy of discovering Shena’s earliest books, there was probably for Bob the thrill of reading Shena’s remarkable Redhill Rococo which was set among the Surrey people he had grown up with. When that novel came out in 1986 it was slightly disorientating for those of us who were just discovering Shena’s 1960s work, rather like the whole thing with Shelagh Delaney and The Smiths, catching up with A Taste of Honey and The Lion in Love, and Sweetly Sings The Donkey and Charlie Bubbles, then realising she had written the beautiful screenplay for the superbly evocative film Dance With A Stranger and belonged just as much to the present day.
Julie Burchill was the person who at the time really got behind Redhill Rococo in a massively infectious way, and she was quite right because it was the most radical novel of the time in the way it portrayed Pearl Slattery and her chaotic, falling apart family in such an appealing and sympathetic way.
Shena, herself, has always been brilliant at working cafés into her stories. For example, in her debut novella, Eugene Schlumburger meets his mate Charley Baker for a coffee in the City: “They went into a small café which was empty except for the Italian proprietor, who was reading a comic. They slid into a yellow plastic seat. There were red and green plastic tomatoes containing tomato sauce and pink salt and pepper flowers on the yellow speckled tables.”
In Music Upstairs, Sidonie kills time in cheap cafés, trying to make a coffee last. In An Advent Calendar, apart from John Wood’s parents’ transport café, there is a scene where he goes to the Wimpy on Upper Street, Islington, and is put off by the skinheads sitting in there: “Its décor was typical of its kind; to John it looked frightening; circles of cropped heads above marbled and mottled Formica, ketchup-colored chairs, rings of heavy brown boots on the floor.”
Jay in Dunedin dreams of returning in triumph to the Double Egg, a working man’s café: “He would come back one day, clean and shaven with money in his pocket, and order a double-egg breakfast with all the trimmings. The works.” In the short story Barbarians the loathsome Ian Donaldson comes unstuck in a Portuguese café a couple of miles from home. In Heligoland there is the Gipsy Rose Café presided over by the lovely Rita. And the tea room at the Horniman Museum pops up in Dunedin and Heligoland.
Shena’s Heligoland came out in early 2003, shortly after Saint Etienne’s Finisterre LP was released, which was a lovely coincidence: old school fans of the Shipping Forecast ahoy! Shena mentions a Saint Etienne church in her story Swansong, and actually appears in the film Finisterre: A Film About London which Saint Etienne made with Paul Kelly and Kieran Evans. In the booklet which accompanied the original DVD release Michael Bracewell praises the poetic voiceover track which is interspersed with commentary from a variety of figures including Shena, Vic Godard, and Mark Perry.
Shena’s brief appearance is brilliant, and very much one of the highlights of the film. She speaks very precisely, softly, sounding a little distracted, dreamy, then coming back into focus vigorously, over footage of the then threatened New Piccadilly café which is very much part of the Saint Etienne London mythology. She refers to using a One Day Travelcard and how travelling around the metropolis has become very unpleasant, everything taking far longer, there being too many people, with general standards of behaviour on buses and tubes going down the tube (which is a perfect Shena-ism), but how sometimes she get that London feeling, and remembers why she loves it.
At the end of her Finisterre appearance Shena mentions how she loves the rain and finds it invigorating. Every time that appears on the screen it seems as though Blossom Dearie should come in right on cue to sing about how she loves London in the rain. Blossom actually appears in Shena’s story A Pair of Spoons where in one of the great moments in literature a police inspector appears in Vivien and Bonnie’s shop and starts to sing along to ‘Moonlight Saving Time’, adding “I caught one of her shows at the Pizza on the Park.”