Tuesday poem: The tea-lady’s dream, 1970

January 21, 2013

The tea-lady’s dream, 1970

No-one wanted tea. I felt my stockings
thickening, darkening. Varicose veins
still wrote Chinese messages,
but sudden trousers held the blue.
My twisted wrist ached, and a warm smell
better than shortbread, browner than treacle
wrapped me in blankets of singing air.
New words jingled in my pocketed ears.
Foreign coins: crema, doppio, arabica,
even mugaccino. They sipped and said
You’re the city’s best barista.
I strained confusion to comprehend.
No-one wanted any tea.

P.S. Cottier


Now somewhere in the records of the Australian Bureau of Statistics, there will be an interesting moment discoverable; the exact year in which coffee outsold tea for the first time in this fair brown land. I suspect it was sometime in the early 1980s, but I am too lazy to investigate.

Certainly, tea was the thing in the nineteenth century. The iconic swagman was waiting ’til his billy boiled, not until his macchiato expressed itself. But somehow, now, we have moved from tea being the mainstay of most of the population, to coffee.

Ponder the changes to our land
with a latte in your hand…

I briefly worked at The University of Melbourne serving tea to students at the same time I was also employed as a tutor. (Not at exactly the same hours of the day, though. ‘Would you like sugar with your Kafka?’ was never asked. By me, anyway.) That was back in the 1890s, before Federation. Then, when I started at a very traditional Commonwealth Department in Canberra in the early years of last century, there was still a tea lady who pushed a trolley around. Incroyable.

Now the very idea of an electric kettle being shifted down the corridors of power to make tea (and yes, horrible coffee) by a woman seems awfully steampunk…or should that be steamplunk?

Of course, tea has made a comeback, but as a more specialist beverage, rather than as the drink that powered a nation.

I wonder how much tea they still drink in New Zealand? For the first time in 2013, click this feather and read the poems by other Tuesday Poets, most of whom reside in New Zealand, which, interestingly and surprisingly, is defined as a State of Australia in our Constitution, just in case they ever decide to join in the slightly bigger tea-party over the water.*

Tuesday Poem

(Australia Day is on January 26th, a date of mindless celebration for some, and mourning for others, and of quieter celebration with a spoonful of thought for yet a third group. I think knowledge of that forthcoming anniversary has seeped into this profound analysis of Australian history, incidentally. A year ago, I was also writing about tea, just before the last Straya Day.)

* It occurs to me that some people may not believe me, so here’s the actual definition section from the Constitution:


“The Commonwealth” shall mean the Commonwealth of Australia as established under this Act.

“The States” shall mean such of the colonies of New South Wales, New Zealand, Queensland, Tasmania, Victoria, Western Australia, and South Australia, including the northern territory of South Australia, as for the time being are parts of the Commonwealth, and such colonies or territories as may be admitted into or established by the Commonwealth as States; and each of such parts of the Commonwealth shall be called a State .

“Original States” shall mean such States as are parts of the Commonwealth at its establishment.

Now you’ve had coffee, poetry and law. Pretty good value, if you ask me…

5 Responses to “Tuesday poem: The tea-lady’s dream, 1970”

  1. marydanae said

    Yes, Penelope, that post was excellent value indeed. Sheesh – could we really join your tea party? NZ is BIG on coffee – well, the cities are – flat whites, lattes etc etc – excellent coffee – whereas provincial areas out of sight and sound of cities prefer tea in sandwich bars or – god forbid – instant coffee. (Btw I hate the practice of making a cup of tea with a tea bag – much prefer tea leaves in a pot – but the former is more common here.) Oh yes – when did coffee take off here – definitely the 80s – mid 80s – but from 1990 the cafe industry really blasted off I believe – with their flat whites and lattes and fluffies for kids. Happy New Year!

  2. pscottier said

    Yes, Mary, coffee in the country can be hideous. We call the little fluffy ones babyccinos here. My husband is a tea freak, and can’t function without it. His temper becomes strained…

  3. Lizz said

    Love the Tea-lady poem! Love the story attached to it! Thank you Penelope for insights into your survival jobs/work history pre-federation – you hold up well 🙂 Great blog.

    • pscottier said

      Yes, I’m not so bad for a greater than one hundred and twelve year old, am I?

      Events conspired to keep me away from your seminar on Sunday, Lizz. Events are sometimes a pain. I hope it went well.

      • Lizz said

        Oh I do remember you expressed interest in The Small Disturbance workshop – you would’ve brought so much to the group but indeed sometimes Events overtake us. Great bunch of poets. We had a suitably disturbing day thanks.

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