RACE horses run on oats and red apples which, though swelled with juice, remain crisp to the crunch of their big, goofy teeth. The cars of show-offs run on petrol drawn from the wells of ancient lands – and they roar or hum according to the height of the skirt worn by the girl on the pavement.
But workmen run on tea infused in wide dunking mugs, whose lily innards have been stained the brown of coffins. It bristles their brushes, sharpens their chisels, steadies their ladders, lightens their hammers – and guides their hands to the chain in the loo. Whoosh!
A workman without tea is almost unimaginable, an angel without wings – like a knee without a cap, a bottom without a crack, a teacher without dandruff, a teenager without a slouch, a vicar without a platitude.
No sooner is the front door opened to the chap in overalls than the canny householder says that he or she has just put the kettle on. It is the act of a diplomat. The word “tea” itself is often skipped and replaced with the simple question – “milk and sugar?”.
In my experience, the boss and his bull-shouldered, full-bellied mate, who strikes matches on his chin and can demolish a church with a glance, take lots of sugar; while their delicate companion, who once prayed to be a poet, still hopes that a hint of the tea leaves’ subtle flavour will filter into his beverage. It is not unknown for a workman to request coffee, but it does strike a rather discordant note, often prompting a slightly snooty tone in the response, “I’ll just see if we have any”.
When I was a young man the notion of a tea break was enshrined in all our working practices except, perhaps, open heart surgery and atom splitting.
In the newspaper office, progress on even the most important scoop would be delayed for a cuppa, always brewed by the youngest member of staff, thus ensuring that the tradition would be maintained.
Of course, the place of tea in our culture stretches way beyond work. My late mother saw it as vital to the appreciation of any activity. The wonders of Rome and the gaudy splendours of Versailles were nothing, if they could not be savoured with a cuppa. She would attend the funeral of a dear friend, listening intently to the hymns, the prayers and the tributes. At the end, she would declare that it had been a “good send-off”. I smiled at “send-off”. It was like being sealed in a trunk marked “destination unknown”. She would then go home for a nice cup of tea. Tea was always “nice” on such days.
From time to time, coffee does break through as the more fashionable drink. During the skiffle boom of my youth, frothy coffee was all the rage for a while, drunk in bars by cool young people, who listened to the juke box, skipped homework and talked about the Bomb. But the craze passed, only to be revived in the 1990s and early this century, when the economy seemed to be booming and the country was on a spree. Thrusting executives strutted the parade, carrying cardboard beakers of frothy coffee, which had been given all sorts of fancy names. They can still be seen, but the strut is a little less sure these days. Tea is again favoured by many.
A couple of weeks back, I was with the chaps at the counter of a café, deciding which coffee to order. “You know, I’d really sooner have a nice pot of tea,” said one. We all agreed. Sadly, though, it is rarely served loose these days. Those sealing bags, originally made of silk, have gained the ascendancy.
Coffee and tea drinking have co-existed here since the 17th century, but tea seems more deeply rooted in our customs, maybe because it reflects our changes in mood, a gentle comforter when life is not so easy.
May I be bold enough to suggest that you put the kettle on before the plumber knocks. And why not peep into the biscuit barrel while you’re at it?
LISTEN to David Charters on his picture podcasts at www.liverpooldailypost.co.uk