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The Naff Caff

Dillon's Diner stands in a narrow alleyway in the centre of the city. At first glance it is a mean-looking building nestling between a baker's shop and a trendy gift shop (the latter frequented by tourists and those people who are eager to fritter their money away on largely useless items). It sits there solid as a rock, the wood surrounding the huge windows painted a workhouse green. Dillon's Diner is better viewed from within. The café is known locally, though not by the proprietors I hope, as the Naff Caff.

Smart people or tourists seldom visit the Naff Caff. From my place at a table inside I have a clear view of anyone stopping by to study the menu and to peer into the steamed-up windows; either they don't like the look of the people inside or the blatant message of the menu—sausage, egg and chips, bacon sandwiches, chicken nuggets, tea at thirty-five pence a cup, has no attraction for them as few of them ever come in. The clientele includes city buskers, Big Issue sellers, students from the local school and people who like me who welcome a cup of tea and a plate of chips cooked in vegetable oil. The Naff Caff is known by reputation or by those who, years before, wandered in on a wet day and got hooked on the atmosphere.

Almost everyone talks uninhibitedly. At one oilcloth-covered table a group discuss Unidentified Flying Objects and crop circles, whilst at another politics are more the priority. Occasionally people sitting at one table will leave it to join those sitting at another table if the conversation sounds more inviting. Sometimes voices are raises and raucous laughter fills the air. We all take it in our stride and most of the time so does Mr Dillon, the proprietor though he is idiosyncratic to say the least. He has strong political opinions mainly about the iniquities of local government. He will deliver speeches at the top of his voice either from behind his counter or standing at a table to harangue customers over their chips and baked beans. He rarely pauses for breath and his language is colourful.

One day Mr Dillon ordered a man off his premises for making racist remarks about a young Asian man. But on another day he banished a young woman because of her Mohican hairstyle and the three tiny rings she wore through her nose. She came into the café with her mother and her young son and sat quietly at a table waiting for a place of chips to be served to the little boy. Mr Dillon told her that "this is a respectable establishment and you will frighten my customers with that weird hairdo". This in a café where long hair and beards, ragged jeans, anoraks and appearances suggestive of lurking poverty are the order of the day. I witnessed the incident but it all happened too quickly for me to intervene. I chided myself for days afterwards for not having lifted a finger to protest.

The Naff Caff is cheap but it isn't chic and the grub is unremarkable. Even its nickname is derisory so why do so many people have an affection for it? Well, it is unpretentious, honest and clean. And it is alive. The clientele can either converse animatedly or sit silently over a cup of tea for two hours and nobody will give them any hassle. Within the walls of the Naff Caff dwells a little bit of socialism. The prevailing environment speaks of comradeship, mutual respect and social harmony. It was the customers who long ago created this idea. In what other public place have I come across people who will unashamedly eavesdrop on a conversation where a tricky and personal problem is being aired and make it their business to offer helpful solutions? And the astonishing thing is that nobody seems to mind. Perhaps it is that showing an interest in and caring about the fate of others is always preferable to indifference. The Naff Caff responds to a need in our society. Every city should have one.

HEATHER BALL