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48 Hour Film Project
StarNow
48 EcoFilm Challenge
Sharmill Films
new-york-film-academy

THE PENNY UNIVERSITY

Recently, I read a story by Franz Kafka in which he described a man who wanted to hold a party with people who would come together without being invited. They could observe or speak without knowing one another, dine according to their individual tastes, appear or disappear whenever they wanted to, have no obligation to their host and yet, without hypocrisy, be always welcome. Eventually, we realise (writes Kafka) that in order to relieve his loneliness the man had invented the first café.

As it happens, I was reading this passage in my local coffee shop in Leichhardt, where I shared it with another customer with whom I’ve become friendly. Thus began a series of linked conversations with other customers which have been an enriching and extremely educative experience. My new friend went on to describe a short Persian poem which had been recited to her by another customer: ‘The slaughterer is weeping. He has fallen in love with a canary.” The following day I ran into the Iranian customer who had told her the poem and the resulting conversation led from poetry to spirituality and onward, most aptly, to synchronicity.

One of the many things I’ve learned recently is that the French philosopher Voltaire consumed between fifty and seventy-two (!) cups of coffee per day. When warned that coffee acts as a slow poison, Voltaire is reputed to have said, “It must be slow for I have been drinking it for sixty-five years and I am not yet dead.” And when coffee – or another of his deadly obsessions – had finally led him to his deathbed, Voltaire was asked by a priest to renounce Satan. “Now, now, my good man,” he said, “this is no time to be making enemies.”

I learned also that in 18th Century London, coffeehouses were known as Penny Universities, for instead of paying for drinks, people were charged a penny to enter. Once inside, they had access to coffee, the company of others, various discussions, pamphlets, bulletins, newspapers and the latest news and gossip. In England at that time, though great importance was placed on class and economic status, the coffee houses were frequented by people from all levels of society. Not unlike my local in Leichhardt.

The other day, a friend was explaining the benefits of a Livescribe smartpen, a piece of technology which can not only write, but also record handwritten notes, audio and drawings and then play them back at will! To a long-time Luddite such as me this is like something from the world of science fiction. But while my friend was explaining it, an elderly gentleman who was sitting alone at the next table kept looking over and smiling. We discovered that this old Sicilian had been tuning in to our conversation. Miraculously, his hearing was good enough to pick up what was being said, even above the background noise of the passing buses. And although by rights he might have been expected to be more of a Luddite than I am myself, he seemed to understand perfectly this new technology. My friend showed him how the ‘smartpen’ works and the elderly Sicilian was delighted. Had there been time I would have loved to have bought our new friend a coffee and found out more about his life. But I suspect I’ll have the opportunity to do this sometime soon. For this was just a normal day at my local Penny University, a place where I feel enriched on a daily basis.

Mike Fahrenheit