Only If You’re Having One
If the British are so obsessed with tea, why are there no hip teashops, only coffee bars? All sorts of theories abound. Coffees can be fancified with complex rituals, from the patterning of froth to the ordering of ‘soy decaf flat white with a side of hot milk and a twist’ variety. (I actually heard an Australian chap asked for a ‘Big White’, and when the barista looked puzzled he berated her with ‘Everyone knows that’s a large flat white’.)
Then there are matters of class and gender – ‘Builder’s tea’ is common and comes in a mug.
SCENE: Tony Hancock & Sid James are at Arthur Mullard’s tea stall
HANCOCK: Two teas please.
MULLARD: Wiv or wivaht?
HANCOCK: With or without what?
Flavoured teas are ‘lady-teas’, subtler and more delicate, which presumably allows supermarkets to jack up their prices and put them in unnecessary layers of extra paper. Teabags are inherently common and insipid. Loose tea ‘puts hairs own your chest’ and makes grouts, and you need a teapot and somewhere to empty it. Tea refreshes and calms, and is relatively good for you, but it has an older, more suburban image. Bryant & May drink buckets of the stuff.
When I worked on Mike Leigh’s films like ‘Secrets and Lies’, American audiences found them surprisingly funny; these most English of films appeared to travel well. But it turned out they were laughing at something no-one had considered. Every time a character went to someone else’s house they got offered a cup of tea. This was seen as inherently hilarious. They thought it was a deliberate running gag, not a social tic.
Coffee is egalitarian, galvanises and energises. and seems younger and more hip somehow, even though it isn’t, and when it’s bad can be very bad indeed, but tea has lost ground to coffee.
Watching ‘Dunkirk’ (which you absolutely have to see at an Imax in 70mm) you can’t help but notice how tea is used in the film. It’s pressed on survivors – Cillian Murphy is virtually drowned in the stuff and knocks one mug of it away – proof that he’s shell-shocked, the heretic! Later it is accompanied by jam and bread and handed to exhausted troops. And I bet after climbing out of that Spitfire Tom Hardy could do with a nice cuppa.
I regularly lug tea to Barcelona, because they seem to have none, and always used to take it to America, where tea is made by pouring lukewarm water into a tumbler and handing you a teabag still in its packet. Tea should be Indian, a golden sepia colour, and have full-strength milk in it, added after. Ideally, it should come with a Digestive or a Custard Cream.
How you respond to an offer of tea is also a signifier of who you are. Visitors says ‘Only if you’re having one.’ Dads say, ‘I’m gasping.’ Grandmothers foist it on you on hot days because they insist that it cools you down. Tea is also a fantastic device for setting up scenes in books now that people no longer tap out cigarettes, but vape furtively alone. I asked a policer officer what she hated most about the job and she said, ‘The tea. Everyone you visit offers you one.’
Tea is heroin to writers. Now that I have a boiling water tap my tea consumption has risen further. My neighbour loves his although he added. ‘My mother can’t get the hang of it. We’ve had the Savlon out a few times.’
The picture at the top shows my mum’s thing-you-kneel-on-to-plant-roses (does it have an actual name?)