Written by Daniel Sharp
John Fast, a doctor, walked with a newspaper under his arm down the busy London street. He was heading towards the coffeehouse for a day of conversation and civility. Being a doctor was no easy profession; he had to deal with all manner of vulgar, uncouth individuals. It paid good money but it was hardly the life of a gentleman. And that, above all, was what Dr. Fast saw himself as. Perhaps his clientele was unsavoury, but he himself was a sophisticated and educated man far above the dirty people he had to deal with all day, every day.
Mrs Phillips’s Coffee House (and a genial old woman she was) was where he had learned many of the gentlemanly arts he was now not very good at. But at least he knew them, unlike the vagrants and the poor folk who crowded the city. This made him feel better about himself, made him feel that, despite his constant contact with the hoi polloi, he was fit for better society. In his day job, he felt tired and disgusted, but at heart, he knew he deserved better. He was a gentleman, yes. And today, dressed smartly, paper under his arm, clued up on all the latest political news, he was heading to his favourite place in the world – the coffeehouse – where he could engage in decent, civil conversation with decent, civil gentlemen.
The good doctor entered the establishment, nodded politely to his fellow gentlemen, took a coffee, and sat in a comfortable seat. The coffeehouse was small but tasteful. Mrs. Phillips was a fine woman and knew how to make a place look lovely without overdoing it and making it look vulgar and common. John settled himself in and looked to see who was present today.
Mr. Hunt, the lawyer, a thin man with an imperious temperament. John enjoyed his conversation but thought he was slightly too arrogant. There was Mr. Leigh, the most common member of the group, a rotund sailor turned merchant. Mr. Leigh was one of those few folks from uncouth backgrounds who was trying to better himself. Dr. Fast thought he was an admirable role model for the filthy masses outside. There were a few other gentlemen from various professions – more merchants, another doctor, a tailor, and three rather wealthy businessmen. Some regulars were missing from the group; perhaps too busy with their work – a terrible excuse, thought Dr. Fast.
And then there was Mr. Renfrew, the unofficial head of this coffeehouse group. Though equality was one of the rules of the coffeehouse, everyone looked to Mr. Renfrew to guide the conversation and allowed him to have the final word. For he was an old Anglo-Scottish gentleman, a self-taught philosopher who had lived on a considerable inheritance from his merchant father all his life. He had no wife or family, and spent all his time with books and the gentlemen of the salon (and once, John thought he spotted the old man entering the tavern across the street, which was rumoured to be a meeting place for mollies – but John was rational enough to dismiss the evidence of his own eyes).
The group exchanged greetings and waited on the wise old man to pronounce the subject of today’s meeting. Mr. Renfrew drank his coffee and looked around as if surprised people were waiting on him. This was a ritual he conducted at every meeting of the group. Raising his white eyebrows and patting down his rough grey hair, he began. ‘Gentlemen! How very pleasant to see you all here again – I hope you have all had an agreeable day thus far.’ The group nodded affirmatively. ‘Wonderful! Well then, shall we begin? I assume you all know the news today? Yes, it is true – the American colonies have declared independence. The war will continue. What do we all think?’ The group waited for Mr. Renfrew’s viewpoint. ‘Well, well, it is most obvious that the colonies should be allowed their independence, is it not? They are simply desirous of our settlement- for a Glorious Revolution and a Bill of Rights and all that. I cannot see why they should not be allowed that. I applaud them.’
And so, having set the tone and given the conversation’s conclusion, Mr. Renfrew sat back and let the group talk in circles until they came back to the point put forward by the old gentleman, who made some conclusory remarks. Dr. Fast sometimes wondered if the gentlemen were truly using their own reason or being guided. But who was he to dispute this? Mr. Renfrew surely knew best how the minds of men should work in harmony with their rational faculties. Satisfied, John reflected, as the conversation concluded, that he had certainly had a most useful afternoon. Yes, the colonies should be independent, of course! It was the reasonable answer.
As the good doctor walked home, he considered how lucky he was to be part of such a group. How fortunate he was to have such an education in gentlemanly virtues, how fortunate he was to not be led by tradition or authority as the common folk around him were. So blind, he thought, observing a dirty old woman begging, so irrational! Dr. Fast, of course, was an eminently rational man. He would never judge people, and would always come to his own conclusions, like with the American colonies issue. What a light in the darkness John Fast was! What a bright mind, what a decent man!
Feeling happy and satisfied, John glanced once more back at the coffeehouse. Across the street, the tavern and suspected molly house stood. How unfortunate that the coffeehouse was so close to a den of iniquity. He walked on, ignoring the sight of Mr. Renfrew entering the tavern, for Dr. John Fast was the most rational creature who ever lived.
At the tavern, Mr. James Renfrew drank with a gentleman companion, lamenting how unfortunate it was that he had failed, all through his life, to use his reason and the morals of society to restrain his unnatural and irrational desires. Soon enough, however, loosened from the shackles of morality by drink and cheerful company, he laughed for the first time all day with his gentleman friend, who kept him in good spirits, with nary a hint of rational discussion, all night. How odd that human feeling should produce more happiness than rational discussion. How odd indeed, John Fast would have thought, how terribly irrational.