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…

Tuesday Poem

Storming Teacups

I sit with friends outside the café, cup in hand, and fix the world’s problems. I am the cappuccino kid, frothing with anger. I am the peppermint tea with honey, busybeeing everywhere.

I start to collect china as others gather books. My coffee cups speak volumes. I have a small expresso cup, decorated with Aboriginal designs. Is this how I visualise Aboriginal issues? A storm in a coffee cup, a far-off cyclone in Darwin? A Town Called Redfern, where blood has stained the concrete, as there isn’t much wattle around? I sip, and cradle the fragile, storming cup, enjoying my bitter short black. My frown replicates the lines on the cup, as does my smile.

I have a larger, more solid cup which boasts a kangaroo and emu rampant, and the words “Commonwealth Parliament”, proud as any bumper sticker. This capacious cup and saucer was Made in England. It says so on the base. This is a cup for Indian tea, a cup for colonial sipping. I wear a long white dress, a hat to shade my skin and I practise swooning. The cup, however well made, seems to be cracking around the sides, and a small cleft runs from the word Made past the emu. Surely my firm cup will not break, my crest shatter? I delicately place the cup back on the saucer, and the fault-line is hidden.

I have an old cup which says “Buy Nicaraguan Coffee”. Now that things have changed again south of the biggest border, which coffee should I buy? Perhaps the one that tastes the best. A favourite cup of mine is the one that states “Freedom for Women: Women for Freedom”. The tea-lady pours her liquid into this cup, but somehow she doesn’t look particularly free. Her tea makes me insatiable, and the phrase “dry as a witch’s tit” is conjured up from the steam, cloyingly.

But who would smash a cup? They are useful. They are decorative. I stroke my china pets, these devices for drawing boundaries between air, liquid and table. My extrovert cups hold in our conversation, delineate the possible from the flowing surge of ideas. We sit, cups in hand, painting new worlds like flowers on porcelain. I put out my little finger to hook the fishy thoughts which fly from the cup, through the air, challenging our demarcations.


This work (prose-poem? creative non-fiction?) was written way back in the Old Days of 1993, and published in Blast magazine. This brings back so many memories, not least of one of the friends mentioned in the first paragraph, Lindsay Croft, a young Aboriginal man killed in a car accident in the United States while visiting Native American reservations, about a year after I wrote this piece. This gives the work a far more bitter taste, for me, than it would otherwise have.

For excellent poetry fixes, go to the Tuesday poem site. They’re be everything from expresso to latte, I can assure you.

On the buses

April 7, 2011

I wanna catch me some poesy...

No, this is not a post about a hideous 1970s (?) British comedy called On the Buses, but about poetry recently published on the bus network in Canberra.  The ACT government buys the advertising space on the buses for three months, so that people have something to look at that’s a little more interesting.  I’m delighted that my poem will be seen by an estimated 10,000 people.

Here’s my poem called ‘Dad’s tea’, which is about (drumroll…) tea.  Click to enlarge.