Enjoying a cuppa with Harold the milkman
When I was a teenager in the late 1950s/early 60s, we had a milkman called Harold whose son Gordon Neate was a professional footballer with our hometown team Reading who played in the Third Division. Every Saturday morning, on his rounds, Harold was invited into our kitchen for a cup of tea and he would relate all the behind-the-scenes gossip about the club.
What intrigued me almost as much as the football tittle-tattle was that Harold would never drink his tea from the cup. Instead he poured the tea into the saucer and merrily slurped away, spilling much of it in the process. It looked like fun, so I tried the saucer-slurping method at breakfast one morning which prompted an immediate reprimand from my mother. My plea of "that's how Harold drinks it" simply drew the response, "Only the milkman is allowed to drink out of the saucer."
Harold was unusually animated one Saturday in 1959. That afternoon his son was making his debut for Reading's first XI. Harold was so excited he spilled the tea from the saucer all over the floor. But no one cared as we were all so pleased for him. It was lovely to see him so proud of his son.
Gordon, nicknamed "Fred" by his teammates, went on to play 99 games for Reading before a knee injury forced early retirement, after which he became groundsman at the old Elm Park stadium. When I watched Gordon playing at Elm Park I would proudly say to my mates, "I know his dad!".
Earlier this month came the sad news that Gordon had died aged 78. I saw a photo taken of him a couple of years ago and he looked just like his dad during his milk round days. I never met Gordon, but I got to hear plenty of wonderful tales, thanks to his dad's Saturday morning saucer-slurping sessions at our kitchen table.
God bless Harold and Gordon.
No tea bags, please
Writing about Harold is a reminder of what an important role tea plays in British life. It is estimated that the average Brit drinks four cups of tea a day.
One of my first childhood duties was the important task of warming the teapot, before adding two spoonfuls of tea leaves. This was in the days before tea bags which were to make things a lot more convenient. When tea bags were introduced in the mid 1950s, my mother did not approve of them, feeling they were a bit vulgar and not quite the real thing. However, the practicality of bags over messy tea leaves eventually won her over. Nonetheless, she always apologised to visitors when she used tea bags, as if it was some kind of social lapse on her behalf.
I was also put in charge of the tea cosy. This was a very responsible position for a youngster as the cosy played a key role in keeping the brew warm while my mum and her friends gossiped about the neighbours. I swear we had the same tea cosy for about 20 years and it was almost regarded as a household pet.
It was comedian Billy Connolly who came out with the thoughtful observation, "Never trust a man who, when left alone in a room with a tea cosy, doesn't try it on". And yes, I'm sure I succumbed.
It must not be forgotten that without tea there would never have been the "tea break", an essential element of the British worker's life.
George Orwell even wrote an essay for the Evening Standard entitled "A Nice Cup of Tea", referring to the drink as "one of the mainstays of civilisation in this country".
It is a multi-purpose drink, providing not only sustenance but also therapy. As 19th century British statesman William Gladstone observed, " If you are cold, tea will warm you. If you are too heated it will cool you. If you are depressed it will cheer you. If you are excited, it will calm you."
I wonder if Gladstone ever put a tea cosy on his head?
I must confess to currently drinking PG Tips which is a throwback to the 1960s when it was known as "Brook Bond, the tea you can really taste."
The tea proved popular in those days, partly because of the TV advertisements which featured chimpanzees and funny voices from actors like Peter Sellers and the Carry On crew.
In one ad, to the sound of 007 theme music, a chimpanzee, wearing a smart white jacket and black bow tie announces in sophisticated fashion "My name is Bond, Brook Bond."
In another ad, a weary chimp cycling in the Tour de France asks in a strong northern accent, "Avez vous un cuppa?"
Just dropping in
It is a British tradition to offer a cup of tea, no matter what the circumstances. My favourite tale comes from 1940 during the Battle of Britain.
Two ladies walking on the Sussex Downs witnessed a German Messerschmitt crash and later discovered the injured Luftwaffe pilot nearby, lying on the ground.
As they approached, the fearful pilot raised his hands and asked "Are you going to shoot me?" One of the ladies replied, "No, we don't do that in England. Would you like a cup of tea?"
He probably got some biscuits too.
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Bangkok Post columnist
A long time popular Bangkok Post columnist. In 1994 he won the Ayumongkol Literary Award. For many years he was Sports Editor at the Bangkok Post.
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