I have just been to the best job interview ever. Which is good, because I have had some real stinkers.
A job interview is not the kind of thing that makes you want to leap out of bed in the morning. It’s not like you’re going to be having lunch with George Clooney at the Savoy and, if you hit if off over the Poire Belle Helene, he’ll be asking you to write his next movie.
No. Job interviews, generally speaking, are a weekend spent with dentist in-laws, being examined on philosophy and arse-licking, condensed into an hour.
The weirdest job interview I’ve ever had? That would be the one in the advertising department of a local radio station. It didn’t go too badly. At first. I impressed the head of advertising with my choice of music for some processed cheese (Air on a Cheese String), but then he asked me, quite seriously, what famous actor I would choose to play him in a film. And what film it would be. What kind of question is that??? My mind, poor at the best of times in these situations, went completely blank. I stared at the guy, who was small, pinkly balding and perspiring freely, and then, in a splurge of sycophancy, I mumbled, ‘Oh, that would have to be Samuel L Jackson, of course, because he’s the coolest man on the planet.’
‘And the film?’ he pressed, smirking slightly.
‘Er, oh…’ and then I blurted, ‘Babe the sheep pig, because he looks like you.’
Most crushing job interview? That would be one I had in the seventies, when no one had really yet got to grips with equality. It was for the job of junior reporter on a weekly paper, and it all went swimmingly until, at the end, the editor said, ‘Well, it’s a choice between you and a young man. So, of course, I’m going to give him the job.’ Yes, he really said that. Mind you, he also said he’d call me back in six months, and he did. So, fair play. (ish)
Most time-consuming and ridiculous interview? That would be for a multi national bank. Not in the money department, you understand, but as editor of a staff newspaper. When I got notification of the interview, a friend said to me, ‘They’ll ask you what you like doing in your spare time.’
‘Oh, that’s easy,’ I replied. ‘Lying in bed and eating chocolates.’
‘Nooo!’ said friend. ‘You can’t say that.’
‘Why not? They’ll think I’m being friendly and humorous.’
‘Banks don’t have a sense of humour,’ counselled the friend. ‘Say, that whatever time you get home, you like to go out for a run. Otherwise they’ll think you’re sluggish and hopeless.’
And it came to pass that, during the interview, I was given several bizarre tests cunningly designed to reveal the inner me (including building the Forth Road Bridge out of plastic straws). Efficient people with clipboards watched my every move, and would ask at intervals, ‘How do you like to unwind after a day at work?’ (Oh, I have to go for a run. It’s absolutely my favourite thing). Or, ‘What’s your favourite pastime?’ (Running, of course, or possibly going to the gym. You can’t beat an hour or two on the treadmill – I mean, it did wonders for Oscar Wilde); or rank, in order of preference, your ideal method of relaxation: a, watching TV; b, lying in bed; c, eating chocolates; d, going for a five-mile run over muddy terrain in the dark (Yes, you guessed it.)
And, get this: I got offered the job. I didn’t take it though. It was too much like hard work.
Which brings me to my latest interview. This was for a job as an adult education tutor for my local county council. Zero hours contract, mind, and no cast iron guarantee of any work, but it was worth a go. So I jumped through most of the hoops online, and was called to interview last Tuesday at a former stately home in the depths of the lush spring countryside. They (whoever they were) started building the house about 900 years ago out of the glowing local stone, and the Victorians put an end to it with fancy bits of brick. It had gothic doorways, and crumbling turrets and lush untidy lawns with a stand of beehives at a safe distance. It was the kind of place that made you want to take a cup of tea out onto the terrace and conjure up a best selling romance, while the cook and butler got busy with the bacon and eggs. (Enough pointless description, ed).
Anyway, there I was with three other hopefuls, who teach music, drama and relaxation therapy. We all had to give a 15-minute lesson. The music teacher was first. She had all of us, including the county council types, up on our feet singing What shall we do with the drunken sailor and Oh, sinner man. She gave us tambourines and scrapy sticks and divided us up to so we could do part-singing. And it was truly joyful. (And mostly in tune.) Then it was the drama teacher, who emptied a bag full of masks on the table (I got the one labelled ‘confused’) and showed us how to mime. (Move over, Rowan Atkinson). My 15 minutes on how to write natural-sounding dialogue was a bit quiet after all that but, because I’d also had instruction on how to meditate from the other teacher, my nerves had flown away. I was having A Good Time. And guess what? I got the job! (And I’m hoping that the other three were taken on too, because they were really good.)
My classes are being time-tabled, and the leaflets are blowing out over the land. All I have to do now, is get some students. Music and mime, anybody?
Picture of Samuel L Jackson: commons.wikimedia.org
Picture of Babe the Sheep pig: simple.wikipedia.org
Get up in the dark for the taxi to the railway station. I’m off to Kunming this morning to meet up with Cheryl and Elspeth. Of course, with China being so big, the trip will take a day or so, but I don’t care. I have a soft sleeper, and it is supposed to be one of the most beautiful railway journeys in the world, hundreds of miles south through the rich tea-growing province of Yunnan.
The taxi is one of those lumbering Morris Oxford jobs. While we are waiting to draw out into the traffic from the hotel, some guy is riding towards us on his bike, but he seems to have fallen asleep; he is nodding over the handlebars, even though his feet are still pedalling. And then he jerks awake, sees us and, trying furiously to brake, falls off. The taxi driver just keeps going and leaves the bloke in the dust.
I get to the station and, because I’ve got a soft-sleeper, the guard leads me to a special spot behind the barrier to wait for the train. It’s not a ‘special’ special spot. It’s just like I’ve been parked. I’m waiting with two spectacular Germans. They’re big, shaggy wild rovers. They have big felt hats, woolly pullies, and packs with all sorts of stuff hanging off; cups and tents and a full canteen of sterling silver cutlery complete with grapefruit knives and a 25-year money-back guarantee. Ok, so I made the last part up. The Chinese are astounded by these men. They are hanging over the barriers gawping; one girl just stares, open-mouthed with her head on one side.
‘Don’t you feel sometimes as if you are in a zoo?’ I ask the men.
‘No,’ says one of the guys. ‘In Germany too, we get stared at.’
The train arrives and I find my compartment. The soft sleeper looks a bit tacky – horrible net curtains, dirty tablecloth, sticky carpet. Still, there’s a plant in a nice pot on the table and the other three occupants are nice too; a soldier, an agricultural professor who keeps dashing out to look at the scenery and a man who works in a chemical plant. There’s also his wife, who sleeps next door, but who spends most of the day in with us. She can’t speak English but she does speak Universal Mother Language and we understand each other perfectly. She’s a little dumpy, cheerful woman and she never stops talking. The soldier lies in one of the top bunks and puts his hat over his face, while she just goes on and on.
‘Look at her,’ she says, pointing at me. ‘All she does is eat chocolate and oranges and drink coffee. It can’t do her any good at all.’ Her husband looks at me, and we both smile. Then she feels the cloth of my ski trousers. ‘Thin, so thin. How does she keep warm? Eh?’ I offer her my jacket and she puts it on. ‘Thin, far too thin. Nice feel, though.’ She gestures at her big blue padded coat, the sort that all the Chinese, and Cheryl and Elspeth wear. ‘That’s what you need to keep the cold out.’ She makes me feel it. ‘Good thick stuff. Warm, hmmm?’
After we eat in the restaurant car, it’s more of the same. ‘Look at her. She uses her chopsticks as though she has one hand tied behind her back. Two hands, dear, like this. Look, look. Like this.’ And, ‘How old are you dear?’ (She does this by by placing her hand parallel to the floor and counting) ‘Don’t you miss your mummy and daddy?’
In the evening another agricultural professor, who can speak English, arrives. He has spent a couple of months in Germany, in Wastephalia as he terms it, and has already met the two German backpackers. The woman leaves for a bit and when I ask the professor to translate exactly what she has been saying, all the other men start laughing. The soldier in the top bunk lifts his hat off his face. ‘Mama, baba,’ he groans theatrically, and everybody laughs again.
The professor is a lovely man. He’s very earnest and, boy, does he love his subject. He tells me that China has almost doubled its agricultural production levels since the revolution and that they are doing the best to reclaim the desert for grazing.
We stand in the corridor and lean against the window while he talks about tea production, and grass growing and behind him the countryside unrolls like a silk painting. Terraced hills in green and yellow, wide rivers, and rice paddies with water buffaloes and people in coolie hats. It is story-book beautiful. (Unfortunately, none of my pictures come out, possibly on account of the camera being dropped down the toilet, so I have posted a picture of a random shack. Hope nobody minds.)
Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China and Tibet
In the evening we go to the market. I feel as if I’ve travelled about 500 years back in time. At least. The place is stuffed with pilgrims and families who have come for a trip to the big city. Some of them surround a teenager who is juggling with silver balls. He occasionally swallows them – they are the size of tennis balls – and then he brings them back up and gets on with the juggling, which is disgusting but I can’t not watch. What happens if one gets stuck?
There is a man selling the strips of stripy material that Tibetan women make their aprons out of. His price depends on the length of your arms. Agnetha agrees reasonable terms and sticks her arms out and he cuts a length of material which stretches from her finger tip to finger tip. I mime that I want some too and he agrees the same price. But he doesn’t reckon on the fact that I am way taller than her. The Tibetans all gather good naturedly to watch and when I stretch my much longer arms out, there is a good deal of laughter. The seller is not happy at the poor deal he has struck, but he can’t back out, and there are lots of jokes at his expense. Still, he comes round and gives me a smile with my change. The material is like thick felt, way too stiff to make a scarf out of. I have no idea what I’m going to do with it, but I’m very pleased with my bargain.
The market has grown up round the Jokhang temple, the most sacred in Tibet. According to Julie’s guidebook, it was built in 642, (just about the time my ancestors decided blue paint would go well with a goatskin loincloth). On one of the pillars there is a rather poignant inscription recording a treaty between China and Tibet in 822. It says, ‘Tibet and China shall abide by the frontiers of which they are now in occupation. All to the east is the country of Great China; and all to the west is, without question, the country of Great Tibet. Henceforth on neither side shall there be waging of war nor seizing of territory.’
The square is festooned with what looks like bunting but which is, in actual fact, thousands of prayers printed on rectangular pieces of paper bought or brought by the pilgrims who flock here. There are more pilgrims than you could shake a stick at; some, still not quite at the temple, are throwing themselves full length on the ground and getting up and repeating the process, but once they get to the temple, they have to go round it once, clockwise, before they can go in. In front of the temple doors there are more worshippers bowing and kneeling and prostrating themselves, I can even see children doing it, in a nearby gutter.
Inside the monks are chanting and it is dim and peaceful. There are several different rooms, all with enormous Buddhas and, in front of each, there are all sorts of offerings, from lumps of raw turquoise the size of a baby’s head, to rusting tin cans in which grass is growing. Every gift, from the richest to the poorest is honoured. And then there is a sudden commotion at the entrance and a blare of music and about four Chinese soldiers come in with a ghetto blaster. They swagger up to the altar, Chinese pop music bouncing off the walls, sniff at the yak butter candles and hold their noses. They laugh and point in disdain at the tins of grass. I find this so upsetting, but none of us can say anything. It would only make trouble for the monks, and none of them pay any attention. They carry on with their prayers and their eternal sweeping and eventually the soldiers push off, their music still faintly thumping after they have gone.
Hannah from New York pops round for a cup of tea before she goes tomorrow. She too is going to Kunming, so we might meet up. She’s had a bit of a rough time here. When she went to a sky burial a few days ago, there were five dead children. ‘There was a guy who was there the whole time,’ she said. ‘I think, from what he was miming, that he was the father, and he couldn’t bear to watch, just kept hiding behind a rock. I didn’t want to watch either. So I just held his hand. Poor guy. God knows what they all died of.’
And then, to round off her day, although this doesn’t really count on a dead children scale of disaster, Hannah got some bug and spent all night in the toilet room. ‘It wasn’t too bad until I dropped my book,’ she said. ‘Right through the hole in the goddam floor. It just fell out of my hands, and there was nothing I could do about it. My only book, can you believe it? I just cried. And you know what I was reading?’
We shake our heads.
I think she’s going to cry again. ‘Joseph Fucking Conrad’, she says, and then starts to laugh. ‘Heart of Fucking Darkness.’
Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China
The bus next stopped at Huaquing Hot Springs, where we were offloaded for three hours. It was bitterly cold. We ate jaozis in a shack and had a look round the springs. People were queuing up for baths and the surroundings were beautiful – but cold. Every tea house was closed. We asked a woman outside a pagoda where we could rest or eat.
‘Mayo,’ she said. ‘Not have. All closed.’
We trailed off, and then Elspeth, who had looked through the windows of the pagoda, said: ‘There’s loads of settees in there. I bet they serve tea.’
‘Right,’ said Cheryl, so we went in and asked the woman for tea.
She looked at us in astonishment. ‘Oh, you want tea?’ She was amazed that we wanted tea, when we had said we had wanted two different things.
‘We want to get warm,’ said Elspeth.
The woman bowed to the capriciousness of foreigners. ‘You sit down,’ she said. ‘I bring tea.’
The inside of the pagoda was richly carved and decorated a la Fu Manchu, but the furniture was strictly 1930s with sofas covered in lacy anti-macassars all lining the room. It was very warm and very civilised and we gradually thawed out with the tea, while the women at the other end of the room washed their smalls and hung them over the backs of chairs to dry.
Back for dinner at the restaurant in the People’s Edifice. I decided I ought to order the dog meat in brown sauce. I mean, if it’s on the menu, and it’s what the Chinese do, then I think I ought to try it. The waitress came and Cheryl and Elspeth ordered noodles as per usual.
‘I’ll have the dog meat,’ I said.
The waitress scrawled on her pad. ‘Two noodle, one dog meat.’ And then she disappeared.
‘It’s probably going to taste disgusting,’ said Elspeth.
‘I know,’ I mumbled.
Eventually, after what seemed like several days, the waitress came back and looked at me very seriously. ‘We are sorry,’ she said carefully. ‘But tonight, dog meat off.’
Relieved? You betcha.
Stayed in bed as long as possible – our train leaves at 10.30 tonight. Stuffed ourselves full of food at lunchtime and went off to meet the artists again.
There were four of them this time and we all crushed into this chilly, concrete cell. They gave us green tea and the Chinese equivalent of pretzels. None of them could speak English but they were all very good natured. The room was plastered with photos of impressionist paintings, Western book covers and their own efforts. They particularly wanted to draw us, they said, because they earned a few bob on the side by illustrating comic books and they needed a few European faces.
The flat was full of good smells, preparations for the Spring Festival, and we were asked to stay to eat, but we decided not to because Cheryl had used a restaurant’s chopsticks yesterday and was beginning to look very pale.
Back at the hotel the restaurant was full of visiting Hong Kong Chinese all celebrating the New Year. The waiters were pouring rice wine like they were just emptying the bottles. It was delicious – like apple froth and probably very powerful since it tasted so innocuous.
When we left the hotel, fireworks were going off left right and centre. The night was just a sheet of white shimmering light with head-splitting bangs. It was like the place was under rocket attack. I wanted to throw myself on the ground and put my hands over my head, but I didn’t; we all just ran like the clappers in case any of the fireworks hit us. The outside of the hotel was all lit up, the fountains were going, and people were setting off more fireworks on every street corner. Still, we got the train.
Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China: here we have tea with a monk
Today we caught a bus to Chang’an and then another one to Xiang Ji to see a Tang monastery.
The bus ride was fun. The old man standing next to me was amazed by our height and yellow hair. This was all translated by a diffident lad who had studied English for three years at night school. Elspeth was informed that she had yellow eyes.
‘I do not!’ she said indignantly, in Chinese. Much to the amusement of the rest of the bus.
We got off the bus in a hamlet. You could just see the monastery pagoda far away in the distance. We started walking towards it.
“Hey! Hey!” A whole horde of Chinese peasants were coming after us. We waited for them to catch up.
They gathered closely round us, feeling our clothes and talking about our hair. They wanted to know where we came from, and how old we were. Nothing sinister, just typical noisy Chinese curiosity.
“Where are you going?’
“To the monastery.”
“It’s over there.”
“Yes, we know that.”
“We’ll draw you a map.”
So we waited patiently while the man who seemed to be the leader, looked carefully through our Berlitz phrase book, and breathing heavily, drew two parallel lines on the fly-leaf. ‘Just go up here,’ he said, tapping the lines helpfully. ‘Turn right, and there it is.’
We walked off and they stood and watched us for a while, waving cheerfully if we turned round.
The monastery was built in 706AD and was beautifully peaceful. The garden all around it was lovingly tended. The entrance was a circular hole in the wall, just like you see in the movies. And the monk who let us in looked as if he’d walked straight out of the American Kung Fu TV series. There was an enormous Buddha in the main hall with great swathes of material hanging from the ceiling and a couple of the monks’ bikes parked in the corner.
As we were leaving an old monk with a seamed face asked us in to tea. He smiled and nodded at us as he pottered about getting the tea things, warming our cups and then pouring out the hot, clear, tea. Conversation itself was severely limited, on account of the fact that neither party could understand what the other was on about. Still, it was very soothing.
Went back to the hamlet and waited for an age for the bus back. But it was worth it. Two kids were playing marbles. The local mechanic had his shop behind us and was busy mending a bike and when the villagers spotted Elspeth’s camera they all came out and demanded to have their pictures taken. But it was getting colder and colder and we were glad when the bus came.
Continuing my 1985 diary of my trip to China. Here, I catch a steam train and drink some gin.
Thought I was in a prison cell when I woke up the next morning. But then I remembered I was in an empty room at the Beijing languages institute. We have to get a move on, we’re catching the train to Xi’an at 12.25. Cheryl goes off to rescue her bike from where she parked it a couple of days ago and Elspeth and I and Bill go into the city centre. Bill is short and dark and Hungarian and rather sexy. He says he’s called Bill, because no-one can pronounce his real name. Elspeth has an idea he is some kind of aristocrat on account of his manners, but on the other hand, no one is an aristocrat in Hungary these days.
We have to get to the Russian Embassy sharpish to see if I can get a visa so that when I leave China I can get the trans-Siberian train to Berlin. We travel by bus (getting on is like trying to get to the bar on New Year’s Eve) and by tube. They’ve only just started building this, and there are not many stations, but the platform we’re on is as big as a ballroom. Bill translates the Chinese sign for ‘warning’ on the train door for me. Literally it means ‘small heart’, or, ‘What you are about to experience will contract your heart with fear.’
I think this is it:
Doesn’t much look like a heart.
The Russian embassy is closed, but the guard outside is charming; all done up in green with a high fur cap. He can speak Italian, but no English. We find him incomprehensible; and the only phrase I know in Italian is, ‘I would like a strawberry ice cream, please.’ But he smiles at our pantomime of stamping visas and then said, rather shyly, ‘Monday, Wednesday, Friday; nine to 13.’ Just our bad luck it was a Tuesday. Never mind, I’ll get my visa when I come back. Say goodbye to Bill and make a dash for the train station to meet Chezza. Time is getting on.
The station is bigger than cavernous. Why do the Chinese like to have such enormous public buildings? Smaug could flap his wings in this one. And more people and luggage than for a cup final at Wembley. Apparently everybody is on the move for the Chinese New Year. The bag of choice is a big boxy plastic blue and white tartan bag, all square and tied up with string. Nobody much has suitcases. Bet we’ll see those bags in Britain, soon. Everybody stares at us. If we stop for a minute we get surrounded by people wanting to practise their English and look more closely at our hair and eyes. It’s a bit unsettling.
All the trains in China are green with a yellow stripe. Lots are steam trains. In fact, China has the only steam train factory in the world; in Dahong. You can get hard seats (like park benches) hard sleepers, or if you’re feeling really flush, soft sleeper (which apparently features net curtains and flowers). We’ve got a hard sleeper. It means that the carriage is partitioned into open-ended stalls with a corridor down one side, and each partition wall has three shelves with a thin mattress, a blanket, pillow and a small towel. The shelves are our bunks and there are six in each stall, with a table in between. There are fold-up seats all the way down the corridor, for when you get fed up sitting on your bunk. It’s only possible to sit on the lowest bunks; you bang your head if you try it on the higher ones.
There’s a public address system playing a woman singing a rather lovely, lilting song, to a sort of scraping violin and flute. It seems to match perfectly with the little brown fields and red-roofed houses going by. But, as time goes on, it gets rather wearing. There is a button to switch it off, but none of the Chinese do. It is not thought of as respectful to touch it. In the end, I can’t stand it any longer, and I press the button. There is immediate silence and, as the rumble of the train on the tracks gets louder, I turn to find I am being looked at by several rather expressionless people. I begin to wish I’d left well alone. Five minutes later, when the train guard comes in with a thermos of hot water, she switches it on again.
All the Chinese travel with little lidded cups for their tea. And the guards are continually coming round and refilling them. It doesn’t cost anything, but you have to supply your own tea. The Chinese just tip new leaves in and, as the trip goes on, the green sludge in the bottom of everybody’s cups gets thicker and thicker. We get the gin out.
Continuing my 1985 diary of my trip to China. Here, I get a taxi and have some chocolate biscuits.
Walking out of that door into the main departure area was like a blow in the face. Behind me, plush calm, in front, dusty heaving chaos. Everyone in thick padded coats and peaked hats and luggage piled everywhere. I had given up all hope of seeing Cheryl at the airport. My plane times had changed so much. I had difficulty in working out how long the trip had taken me, never mind how I was going to get to the languages institute where she and Elspeth were students.
I practically dropped the gin, when I saw her at the departure gate.
‘Where the bloody hell have you been?’ she said. (She’s from Yorkshire, so that’s quite a warm welcome, especially since she’d been waiting there, on and off, for three days.)
‘I’ve got gin,’ I replied, as we gave each other a hug.
She had got hold of a tame taxi driver who, when we got outside, had disappeared. After about 20 minutes he returned in a sky blue job similar to a 1950s Morris Oxford, which clanked up to the airport entrance. This covered the 15 miles to Beijing at a pace that would have put a funeral cortege to shame. Still, we were glad even of that when half way there it stopped dead. We were just considering the prospect of a bracing walk when the driver managed to start it again. ‘Thank God,’ said Cheryl with some feeling.
Peking was dark, foggy, cold and the buildings stretched on for miles. Finally we drew up at some gates that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a remake of the Hound of the Baskervilles. The taxi wasn’t going any further. This was the institute compound. Large grey blocks. Thick wadding curtains covered every doorway. Even the tree trunks were wrapped in wadding. The air smelt of cabbage, but it was clean and cold and crisp.
The guy who designed the institute had obviously had a lot of concrete and not much imagination; it was just a square box really, separated into small square rooms with a lavvy at the end of each floor. The place was home to students from all over the world. One Jamaican lad I met said to me, ‘Most other guys put up pictures of girls in their rooms. I’ve got a poster of Caribbean vegetables. It’s so beautiful. I just look at it every night and dream of home cooking.’ He looked at me hopefully. ‘You didn’t bring any mangos, did you?’
Cheryl and Elspeth’s room, though, was quite cosy with bits of material and rather kitsch posters of the great Chinese leaders stapled all over the walls.
‘Trouble is,’ said Elspeth, when I complimented them. ‘Everybody else thinks it’s cosy too; it gets quite crowded at times.’
I put my backpack down and presented the girls with my other, heavier bag. ‘There you go, courtesy of the food hall at Marks and Sparks.’ They zip it open and fall like starving vultures on the goodies that spill out. Marmite, chocolate, camembert, smoked cheese, apples, chocolate digestives and chocolate; I had just filled my trolley with everything I could think of that you might not get in China. And it was practically vaporised. A German guy and a bloke from Denmark bagged the Bavarian cheddar with little grunts of delight. The gin made a very satisfactory glugging sound when it was opened. And, get this, I had remembered tonic water, and a lemon. Brownie points galore for me. One of the lads tugged out a cardboard box. ‘What is this?’
‘Tea bags,’ I said.
‘You brought tea, to China?’ he said.
‘Tea bags,’ I replied. ‘You know, for a proper cup of tea. With milk.’
They began to laugh. ‘You English,’ said one. ‘What would you do without tea?’
‘Tea and toast and Marmite,’ said Elspeth, dreamily. ‘Bloody marvellous.’
My mother, due to her superhuman powers, was let out of hospital at the weekend. Her health, at 94, was so good, that she was given an epidural, not general anaesthetic, when they pinned her broken hip. (She described the op as ‘like a party’).
She is now at home with a rota of carers in attendance. Being my mother this meant that, on her first morning back, she got out of bed in the morning to make herself some tea and toast (which took her hours, but she’s nothing if not bloody-minded), before hobbling back to bed so that she could graciously wait for the carer to arrive to help her get out of bed.
So she’s on the mend. But this is what fascinates me. Before she was allowed home she had to show the physios that she was capable of making a cup of tea. In fairness, I suppose getting a brew on does combine several skills. But I’m reckoning that nowhere else in the world is your tea-making ability evaluated by health professionals.
I mean, do you get points knocked off for not warming the pot, or putting the milk in last (or first, whatevs, ed) and does your inability to open a biscuit tin count against you? Do they want to see your fine motor skills evidenced by one lump, or two? And what happens, if like my mother, you can’t stand milk and ask for a lemon and a sharp knife (actually I know the answer to that; the aforementioned, and rather fazed health professional then allows my highly amused mother to play ‘lets pretend to make the tea’).
What happens in other countries? Do Italians have to rustle up an espresso? Are the French asked to uncork a bottle of wine? And do the Aussies have to pull open a tinnie?
Picture courtesy of http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cup_of_tea,_Scotland via Creative Commons
They say a picture tells a thousand words but when I get stuck on how to describe a character I give them a biscuit. Biscuits are central to British culture; and are really as important a talking point as the weather. If you can come to London and talk to a complete stranger at a bus stop about it being a bit drizzly today and how you’re dying for a cup of tea and a chocolate digestive, you will be getting that Real British Experience the travel agent told you about – especially if the person you’re talking to turns out to be an exchange student from Valencia.
Understand biscuits and you’ve got us bang to rights. Stay-at-home mums eat Viennese Fingers, pensioners will have a Rich Tea, comedian Victoria Wood made her name with jokes about Gypsy Creams, and talk show host Jonathan Ross arouses deep suspicion and a palpable sense of embarrassment in some Hollywood stars when he offers them his chocolate Hob Nobs.
In fact, we only drink tea as an excuse to eat biscuits. There are entire aisles in our supermarkets devoted to bikkies, which are not, by the way, to be confused with cookies. According to Linda Stradley of What’s cooking America, cookies are small cakes, and were invented in 7th century Persia to test oven temperature. Who knew?
As far as I am concerned, cookies are hard crumbly dollops of stuff, embedded with chocolate chips or raisins. Biscuits, on the other hand, are everything you can possibly imagine; from hard, flat, shiny Garibaldis, which I’m sure Tolkien was thinking of when he wrote about elven bread (‘We’ll have a nice cup of tea and a packet of Garibaldis, and then we’ll go and vanquish the dark lord.’), to Tunnocks tea cakes (the making of which practically destroyed the contestants on The Great British Bake Off last year).
And then there are the names of the biscuit manufacturers themselves. There is a story, in an advert for the Imperial War Museum, that a captured World War Two pilot, questioned by the Germans, said he had been flying a Huntley and Palmer bomber with a Peak Frean engine. Sweet.