My husband’s family is American and many years ago my sister-in-law came to stay with my husband and me in England. I offered her a cup of tea, and her response was swift and unequivocal.
‘No, thank you. I don’t drink tea.’
It didn’t surprise me; I had lived in the States and knew that Americans did not hold tea in the same estimation that Brits did.
Two weeks later my sister-in-law returned home, but not before she had become a devotee of tea. What had happened in such a short space of time to convert her from a dissenter to a fan?
‘It’s the ritual,’ she said. ‘That’s what I fell in love with. When you came into the living room with the tray rattling, the teapot snuggled beneath its tea cosy, the saucers and cups and jug of milk and bowl of sugar and plate of biscuits, I was enamoured. Then came the sound of the teaspoon stirring the tea, the chink of cup on saucer, the dash of milk, the pouring of tea, the spoon of sugar and the offering of biscuits. It was too much. How could I not be smitten?’
I thought of this recently when a friend mentioned her theatre group, their imminent reopening after lockdown and the matinee performances to come. We agreed that in the afternoon, at a matinee, people want tea or coffee. She told me that the theatre had installed a machine.
‘A machine?’ I shrieked.
It appalled me. A machine for tea? Maybe for coffee, but never for tea. A paper cup, a button, hot liquid, that’s about it from a machine. What I expect in the interval is a sea of cups and saucers on the counter, an affable face behind an enormous galvanised teapot, the waft of steam, and the chink of teaspoon on saucer. I want to see the golden liquid pour from a serpentine spout and curl my finger through the handle of a cup. It’s not about the hot liquid, lovely though it is, but about the attendant sensory details.
‘No,’ I said, ‘a machine will not do.’
In her book, The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp talks about the importance of ritual in the creative process.
I begin each day of my life with a ritual. I wake up at 5:30 A.M., put on my workout clothes, my leg warmers, my sweatshirts…