Jeff Howell on why tea drinking in the building industry quite rightly retains a colossal symbolic importance
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The Independent Online
The shock events of 1 May are still reverberating around the building industry. Nobody has been able to talk much about anything else. Foreman, electrician, bricklayer, carpenter - one topic of conversation has dominated on site - is the pyramid shaped tea bag really an improvement? It was election day when the triangular box of free samples appeared on the doorstep of the job. Everyone in the country has had one, apparently; Brooke Bond have a better distribution system than the Liberal Democrats. The views expressed on the new product have largely reflected trade demarcations. The plumber is sceptical about the manufacturers' water circulation claims, while the carpenter appreciates the design, which always leave a corner stick out of the cup to aid removal (there is never a teaspoon on site, if there is, it has been stuck, wet, into the sugar bag); this is acknowledged as giving the pyramid bag an advantage over Tetley's round tea bag which, presumably, is the competition. The labourer pointed out that the pyramid is not actually a pyramid but a tetrahedron. This caused a moment or two of reflection, but I pointed out that the labourer is not actually a labourer but a sculptor, so what would he know about shapes?

The degree of attention given to the debate (and I mean concentrated attention; we're talking blind tasting tests here) is an indication of the importance tea drinking plays in the life of the building worker. Tea is a stimulant and its consumption is symbolic and ritualistic. Not quite on the level of your Japanese tea ceremony, granted, but an important ritual nonetheless.

When you are working in someone's house, the punter sometime seems to think you spend too long drinking tea and not enough time working. This is very rarely the case, although what can happen is that different trades may be partaking of refreshment at different times. This can give the impression that there is always a tea break going on; there might be, but not everyone is taking part in it. The wet trades, and plasterers especially, have their routines dictated by the setting times of the materials and will have their breaks accordingly.

The builders' tea ceremony has another manifestation when it is played out in the cafe. Builders go to the cafe for breakfast at 10 o'clock. All of them. If there are five jobs on the go in the vicinity of a greasy spoon cafe, then the workers from all five sites will be there at 10. Any talk of staggered visiting hours or flexi-time is out of the question. So you get thirty blokes queuing up at 10, and at half past the place is empty again. That's part of the ritual. Another part goes like this: suppose there are four of you from your site; you all order separately at the counter and pay for your own breakfast, but the first one up gets the teas in for everybody, as though it's a round of drinks in the pub. Then, halfway through breakfast, the next one gets another round in. And so on. If you try and buck the trend, by buying yourself, say, a cappuccino, you can get yourself a reputation as a pinko vegetarian agitator. The sort who remembers the real significance of May Day, for example.