Drink tea, eat parkin, and be merry, for tomorrow there may be trouble at t’mill.
Did you do all kinds of different holiday jobs when you were at school? Obviously I am addressing anyone elderly enough to have finished school and launched themselves upon the world. If you are in that happy state of still being at school, merely change the tense of the verbs and make them present.
A recent eruption of commentary about tea reminded me of my time at the local Bingo Hall where I worked one summer on the canteen. Happy days!
Well, I say “happy”…
They had their moments.
The ladies who worked permanently on the canteen were wonderful. They baked the cakes for the counter and any leftovers at the end of the day were shared out to take home. There were usually a couple of slices of something delicious which I took for me and my dad, and he would be waiting for me to get in so we could have a slice with a cuppa and catch up on the latest news and gossip.
Working at a Bingo Hall in the 1970s was almost like providing a social care service, albeit a very bad one. Pension Day was particularly busy because the regulars would pick up their cash and trot straight down to the afternoon session. It was an inexpensive way of spending an afternoon. For the price of a cup of tea, and maybe a shared slice of cake, they could sit in the warm with their friends. Most of them bought bingo cards as well, but it was all fairly inexpensive and probably cheaper than keeping the electric fire on at home.
It wasn’t a major career move for me, but I enjoyed the people (for the most part) and didn’t mind the work (for the most part). What I did dislike was having to bar some of the old dears. We had one or two who were, to put it frankly, doubly incontinent, and if we saw them coming we had to lock the doors so they couldn’t get in. The Bingo Hall was an old cinema that had gone bust. It was where, as I child, I contracted measles, mumps and chicken pox on three consecutive birthday treats. It’s no wonder I prefer the hygiene of Netflix.
The cinema doors extended in a great arc across the front of the building and were glass. When we locked them against one lady in particular she would stand on the steps with her face pressed against the door peering in and crying. It was very distressing for all of us. The manager would go out and try and persuade her to go home, and after a while she would totter away. In the harshness of youth I would feel really guilty but also relieved I wasn’t going to have to clean up after her again.
These tales of yesteryear are in fact tea-related, because while I worked there I discovered the most appalling treatment of the humble beverage that I have ever encountered. That is what I was really going to tell you about until I got distracted by memories of cake and old ladies.
We had a caller, let’s say his name was Andrew. I don’t know what his name was; we didn’t keep in touch and this all happened about 35 years ago. Andrew was a kind of rock god to the pension crowd. They loved his youth and voice and hair and the way he flirted with them. They really got good value for their pensions, let me tell you!
As a result Andrew rather thought he was some kind of rock god. He had a very high opinion of himself and liked to swagger about in front of the humble catering staff. He always had to be at the front of the queue for tea breaks so he could moisten his parched throat and prepare for his next performance. The little old ladies parted for him like the Red Sea, although they struggled to get their tea back to their seats in the 15 minute time limit. Serving tea at the Bingo Hall was like an extreme sport: a hundred or so old dears in 15 minutes with one hot tap. God help you if they wanted frothy coffee. (That’s what cappuccinos were called in the 1970s.)
So there was Andrew, lounging at the till waiting for his tea on my first day. I was allowed to sort him out, probably on the basis that the other staff were ready to throttle him and needed a break; or possibly the entertainment of watching me deal with him.
“Make sure you make it right,” he told me.
I bristled at that. I made a fine pot of tea at home, even as a young Electronic Bag Girl. My tea making skills were not be called into question. Things went downhill from there.
“I like it weak, with lots of milk,” he continued. He scooped the tea bag straight out of the water as I put it in. “That’s long enough!”
Then he poured half of it away so he could top up the milk.
It got worse.
“I take it with sugar,” he said.
“How many?” I muttered. “One or two?”
“Keep adding it until it won’t dissolve any more,” he replied. “Saturate it.”
I have a small scar on my chin where it hit the floor. It’s a memento.
I apologise if you like your tea this way. I also advise you to get help. At once.
The art of tea is a beautiful thing, The English certainly don’t make tea the way the Japanese do, but our own rituals are important to us. Our greatest literary minds have devoted care and attention to it: George Orwell famously produced guidance on making tea just after the Second World War when it was still rationed. It was a matter of national importance.
I would put to you that Andrew was not in fact drinking tea. He was a kind of Nutrimatic vending machine as described by Douglas Adams; the ones that produce a drink almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea. (That’s pretty much all vending machines I think.)
But there was no need to put an innocent tea bag through that humiliation, was there?
What horrors have you encountered in holiday jobs? They seem a rich vein for anecdote.
Cheers, my dears, and as ever, Namaste.
I was watching one of those clichéd movie moments the other night instead of doing something productive. It was the moment when the hero says something similar to “That’s a line I will not cross!”. Usually there is dramatic body language attached, including miming drawing a line, presumably in mimed sand.
I recently discovered within myself a steely core of resistance in another area. In retrospect it was not really surprising but I was a little taken aback at the time.
It involved tea.
There is no doubt that clichés are popular because they resonate within us, and highlight something we all recognise. In this case, we all have limits to what we are prepared to do. Milgram’s infamous experiments purported to demonstrate that people can be pushed further if someone in a white coat and with an air of authority is doing the pushing. Whatever the validity of the findings it is true that authority figures can push us along, and potentially arguable that that is how organised religion gets away with so much. Let’s not go there today though.
The reason I am musing on this cliché is that I know I have my own limits. In some cases these are reflected in the charities I choose to support; for example, I prefer to donate to mental health charities rather than donkey sanctuaries, or overseas aid rather than diabetes. All of them are important but I have to prioritise. I will still put a few quid in any of those tins if shaken at me, or if someone is jumping from a helicopter, or whatever. I am just more likely to put additional time or effort into some of them, although sometimes it’s about what skills I have to offer or location and timing. I trust that other people prioritise differently and we all balance out.
I am a signed up professional so I adhere to a code of conduct. This means there are lines at work I will not cross either, and I have had occasion a couple of times in my career to have to stand firm. It has worked. People aren’t evil or stupid on the whole.
Back to the Tea Incident then.
I recently had surgery on both shoulders and as a result when I woke up from the anaesthetic I was severely restricted in movement. The nurses bustled about me and made me feel cocooned in a warm fuzzy glow. They brought me a glass of water with a straw because I couldn’t lift anything. I sucked it gratefully.
This was an English hospital, perhaps more importantly a Yorkshire hospital, so naturally the next question was not “how are you feeling?” but “would you like a cup of tea?”.
I indicated that I would. In fact I actually croaked out “Oh God! Yes!” and hoped it didn’t sound too desperate or needy.
The tea lady checked how I took it (strong, dark and handsome, if you must know), and returned with a mug of the beautiful brew. A mug, I repeat, because this is the home of right and proper tea drinking. God bless Yorkshire and the NHS.
There was only one small blemish on the tea horizon. She had put a straw in it.
“You can’t lift that,” she said. “So I put the straw in.”
“I’m not having tea through a straw,” I thought. I said it out loud too.
I reached forward through gritted teeth to lift the mug of hot, steaming liquid.
The tea lady sucked in her breath audibly.
The other patients all froze, eyes glued to my bed, like a group of medicalised meerkats.
Somewhere the orchestra played tense music at the rate of a rapidly beating heart.
The nurse at the next bed went into one of those slow motion dives across the room, hand outstretched, crying out “Noooooooooooooooooo!” as my arm wobbled and I winced with the pain.
Of course I didn’t spill it. It was tea. You don’t waste tea. It tasted wonderful.
As they say round here, even my dog wears boots.
What are the lines you won’t cross, great or small? What are the risks you will take?
Today, my dears, I am somewhat exhausted from a drive down south and back to collect the Southern-based Offspring. Sigoth and I ignored the hysteria on the radio and set off with no more than a packet of chocolate hob nobs to sustain us through the perils of March snow. The journey was fast, uneventful and slushy. Coming back was faster, although I regretted my cavalier haste, discovering I had picked up the Yorkshire road atlas by mistake and was faced with having to improvise when we learned the M1 was closed on the northbound carriageway. We took the A1 instead and very jolly it was. By the time we reached God’s Own County there were patches of blue sky and the occasional glimpse of sunshine. The thermometer rose above zero for the first time. We were nearly home.
The worst thing about the trip was the utter lack of potable tea. To a true-born daughter of this sceptre isle, set in a silver sea, this is a calamity. The hotel we use when visiting the Southern-based Offspring is convenient for location, has ample parking and is close to an excellent Indian restaurant. However, the proprietors, no matter how sound in every other respect, feel that sachets fo UHT milk are acceptable for the in-room catering. My dears, they are wrong.
The result was that I arrived home having been deprived of the elixir of life for almost 48 hours. I was a wreck. The kettle was boiled and tea prepared within minutes of our return, and order was restored to the planets orbiting in the heavens. I felt strong enough to deal with the emails that had flustered into my in-box.
For those of you who are not familiar with the place tea plays in civilised life, I urge you to study this introduction to The Tea Code in British Etiquette. It may be of service if you ever visit.
Meanwhile, for those of you who need a musical version, please enjoy the tea rap – but only if you don’t mind some naughty words. Apparently rap is about rage and rage is about swearing. You have been warned.
When I am at work I often fancy a cup of tea, nectar of the gods, to ease my day. I like tea. If I had not had the fortune to be born British this may have been more problematic, but here tea drinkers are looked on with affection and understanding.
Sometimes. In offices across the land there is a terrible blight and I need to tell you about it. I will not shield you. Prepare to be shocked.
In many offices kettles have been replaced with…hot water taps!
The tap is supposed to dispense boiling water. My dears, the tap lies. The water is not boiling; it is warm but it is not boiling. It cannot brew tea, not even the mass-produced, bagged variety.
Office workers are betrayed, and in their agony they turn to instant coffee or immerse tea bags in the tap’s effluvium to produce a drink inaccurately referred to as tea, but in fact, not tea. No one is clear why the taps are there. ‘Elf and Safety is blamed, but I am not sure. I believe it is a conspiracy to weaken our moral fibre in preparation for the Great Invasion.
Meanwhile, colleagues offer to provide me with the elixir of life.
“Tea?” they ask brightly as they take the round. Some have already turned to the Dark Side and request the granulated coffee option. I can sympathise. We have all been tempted and not always resisted. We are only human after all and these taps are inhuman.
I continue to fight the good fight, today at least. “Yes, please,” I say, heart sinking.
“How do you take it?”
“Like my men, strong, dark and handsome,” I tell them. They remember that better than “Strong please, not too much milk.”
One colleague in particular is excellent at managing to wring flavour from a limp tea bag suspended in warm water. I applaud his ingenuity and am pathetically grateful that he turns his talents to providing me with a drink that is more palatable than the usual alternative. He understands and shares my pain. In fact, he makes it his mission to produce a drink that is recognisably of the tea family. Each time he succeeds it is a little victory against the Dark Forces.
There is a storm coming, possibly in a teacup.
A couple of weeks ago the tap refused to provide water at any temperature. It runs out now and then, as if dribbling luke warm liquid is so exhausting that it cannot be expected to meet our insatiable demands any longer. Drama Queen!
I needed tea. I don’t mean I just fancied a cup. I needed it. Like a junkie. The Want drove me. I knew there was a kettle, hidden away for emergencies. I asked around, wheedling. I found it and got it out and boiled water. God, that tea was good. Oh so good. I left the kettle out for other people to use until the tap was restored. I became a pusher.
It’s still there. It turns out that I am not alone, that many of us prefer to boil the kettle. We smile and look a bit embarrassed and admit that we prefer to drink tea made that way, as if we should be ashamed of it. This is the evil of the tap, that we do not claim our God-given right to drink tea as free-born English folk. The coffee drinkers use the tap, because instant coffee is fine with less-than-boiling water. To be honest, nothing is going make that stuff OK to drink.
I think it may be too late to put the kettle away again. We know it’s there. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. You can’t pretend the kettle does not exist, any more than you can claim the earth is the unmoving centre of the universe. “And yet it boils,” you might say, so long as the Inquisition were not around.
If I am remembered for anything, let it be this. I found the kettle and brought it to the oppressed. And if that kettle ever disappears, then I will seek it out again. I will not rest. I will brew.
My dears, I have been thinking about tea and Star Trek.
To be fair, as a proud daughter of Albion, tea is my default position. It is, as we like to say, a truth universally acknowledged that a person in possession of English identity must be in want of a cup of tea.
This latest iteration of tea-related cogitation was occasioned by Victoria Coren’s rant regarding the inexplicable re-branding of Assam to “English Breakfast” (she was also ranting about American colonialism, so apologies to US readers if that feels a bit uncuddly. We love you really, and traditionally are only ever rude to people we like). It was a long time before I realised that this had happened. Assam was my preferred brew, and when I couldn’t find it I did start drinking the new blend instead. It was, and still is, quite inconceivable to me that anyone would change the name of Assam for marketing purposes (as I suppose they have done – I’m still not sure why).
Tea marketing, if you will bear with me, inevitably reminds me of Jean Luc Picard and the Earl Grey phenomenon. When Star Trek: The Next Generation was a regular feature of the TV schedules, his fondness for “Earl Grey, hot” saw a consumer boom in purchase of the tea. Each to their own, I say; Earl Grey has its place, although I tend more to the view of Sam Vimes that if you can see the bottom of the cup, it isn’t proper tea.
However, Jean Luc, for all his other perfections, always irritated me with the “Tea. Earl Grey, hot.”
Firstly, what is a Frenchman (even one from Yorkshire) doing drinking Earl Grey at any temperature? It’s the embodiment of the nobility and it’s tea, albeit of a particular kind. Have you been to France? Fantastic coffee; if I was looking for coffee, after Italy, I might try France. Tea, on the other hand, is less successful on the Gallic side of La Manche. It tends to be Lipton’s Yellow Label, which the UK exports to the Continent as the French export their least popular wine to the UK. Liptons, in my personal experiences, produces a drink that is almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea. In mainland Europe it tends to be served with hot milk or UHT milk.
Secondly, why does he have to specify the temperature? It is possible that a couple of hundred years from now everyone will be drinking cold tea in some kind of perverted corruption of best tea drinking practice. To which I say, don’t. Earl grey is to be drunk hot, unless otherwise specified. It would make sense, for example, for Jean Luc to say “Tea. Earl Grey, iced” to differentiate from the norm. The “hot” is completely redundant.
Thirdly, why does he have to specify his preference for Earl Grey anyway? Voice recognition, anyone? The computer systems on the Enterprise regularly identify him, and indeed other crew members, for all kinds of reasons: initiating self-destruct, finding lost people, firing on his mark, bringing up medical records, playing his favourite music. If they can pick music they can certainly remember what kind of tea he likes at what temperature and advise the replicators accordingly. He commands the whole ship by voice; if it knows who he is, it can certainly know how he likes his tea. Unless the French accent is a problem for the catering circuits.
Which brings me to: fourthly, why is it not “Earl Grey, chaud”? For once I am on the side the L’Académie française with regard to the use of the French language.
I suspect some of you will be shaking your heads in sorrow, and saying, “EBL, old thing, you’re just over-thinking it. Go and have a lie down.”
To which I replay: tea is too important to be brushed aside like that. Respect the leaf, people, respect the leaf!