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Brewing up

One minute we were in Brent Town Hall witnessing a Citizenship Ceremony, as a group of Somalis, Sri Lankans and Iraqis were welcomed as fully paid-up (to the tune of £2,500-plus) British citizens, the next in a beekeeper’s garden in Acton, west London.

19 August 2009

12:00 AM

19 August 2009

12:00 AM

One minute we were in Brent Town Hall witnessing a Citizenship Ceremony, as a group of Somalis, Sri Lankans and Iraqis were welcomed as fully paid-up (to the tune of £2,500-plus) British citizens, the next in a beekeeper’s garden in Acton, west London.

One minute we were in Brent Town Hall witnessing a Citizenship Ceremony, as a group of Somalis, Sri Lankans and Iraqis were welcomed as fully paid-up (to the tune of £2,500-plus) British citizens, the next in a beekeeper’s garden in Acton, west London. On the way we called in at a Blood Donor centre, the Bushey Tea Dance club and the Peace Hospice in Watford. What did they all have in common? A love of Tea and Biscuits.

This Radio Four mini-series (produced by Richard Bannerman) could have been made for the Home Service 50 years ago — except that our tour guide was a kilt-wearing Sikh called Hardeep Singh Kohli and the tea in Brent Town Hall was served in Thermos flasks. Even the biscuits were much the same as would have been popular then — Rich Tea, Ginger Nuts, Digestives, Custard Creams and Chocolate Bourbons. Kohli, though, mourned the absence of the Gipsy Cream, a Scottish classic now it seems out of production (check out the brilliant nicecupofteaandasitdown.com website for latest sightings of fossilised remains of these long-lost favourites).


The simplicity of the idea behind these programmes — how a love of hot water flavoured with dried leaves can bring very different people together — made for perfect radio of an old-fashioned kind, painting a portrait of Britain that shows how we have adjusted to the last five decades of rapid change. The beekeeper in Acton shares a twice-daily cuppa (or rather mugga) with his neighbour, a tailor from Slovakia who conducts his business from a shed at the bottom of the garden. They take it in turns to brew the tea and ring a handbell on the garden fence when it’s ready.

At the Blood Donor centre, Kohli asked how many of us give blood on a regular basis — only 5 per cent. A dauntingly low figure and a reminder that perhaps one should brave that needle. He met a man who’s been giving blood for the last 25 years after some anonymous donors saved the life of his daughter, born prematurely.

The series ended with a visit to the hospice, where tea and biscuits form an integral part of the life of the very special community. It sounds trivial and an automatic reflex — would you like a cup of tea? — but it’s both a ritual part of consolation and an opportunity for patients and family to relax enough to confide their fears. One of the nurses when asked how she copes with the tragedies of her working life told us that the most difficult patients to help are those who can’t accept what’s happening to them. At such times death becomes unnatural, unwelcome — and unbearable to witness.

On Thursday we discovered from the wildlife sound recordist Chris Watson how the song of the great tit is being adapted to our 21st-century environment. In A Problem with Noise (Radio Four, produced by Sarah Blunt) he explained how these birds of woodland (and my back garden) are singing at a much higher register than they used to so that they can be heard above the din of planes and traffic by the females they want to attract. The trouble is not all birds are as flexible as the tits and if they can’t change their tune they’ll soon find themselves unable to breed for lack of a mate.

Watson and his team have taken us on some fabulous journeys into the wild and isolated parts of Britain, but on this programme he was on a mission to alert us to the significant impact of bad noise. He also talked to an epidemiologist who warned of the links between rising blood pressure and the number of planes flying overhead, especially at night. This wake-up call should be played to all those in favour of expanding Heathrow.


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