Britons are perceived to be a nation of tea drinkers and I am happy to be included within the generalisation. What is more refreshing, in any season, at any time of day or night, than a cup of tea? What is the one thing that is always missing on holidays beyond British waters? The typically idyllic (but generally fallacious) view of an English town always includes one or more tea shops serving leaf tea in bone china cups accompanied by crustless cucumber sandwiches and a three-tiered array of sweet delicacies.
However, over the past decade, the proliferation of coffee shops – note the two words, not to be confused with the Dutch single-word, and slight misnomer, ‘coffeeshops’ – has marked a change in the British hot beverage appetite. Looking at the companies’ histories, Costa began spreading its tendrils throughout the
in 1995 when it was acquired by Whitbread, and Starbucks started appearing on every other street corner in 1998. Despite Costa having been retailing in the UK for longer, it seems to have been the American style Starbucks that led the nation’s change of heart. UK
I remember several years ago being in a Starbucks in the
and gawping at the incongruity of people sitting with laptop computers, or books, or a pad of paper and pen, working. Yet, I am now sitting in a Costa writing this in long hand (a strange experience in itself), watching people come and go with their cappuccinos, lattes, and sickly flavoured coffees; despite making my coffee last for nearly two hours, I have yet to see any of the British public with a pot of tea. US
Being a weekend, most people seem to be coming in to relax, meet friends or to read the newspaper, but during the week, I have seen business meetings take place and exchanged the silent acknowledgement of solidarity with other people working and monopolising a seat for more than the twenty minutes it takes to drink a massimo coffee. While I have been scribbling, a teacher has just taken her seat: she has, like me, bought a combination of school work and personal reading and the obligatory bucket of coffee.
Apart from the increase in coffee as the drink of choice, the blurring of the boundaries between the spaces of work and home and the public and private is interesting. (Eavesdropping, I learn that she is also a secondary English teacher.) While people have always brought work home, the concept of bringing it home to take it out to complete in public feels indicative of the exhibitionist lives that many of use now lead online when we tweet our every move or regularly update our statuses. Through the internet’s democratisation of society (more blurred boundaries) we seem, as a nation, to be slowly losing our stiff-upper-lipped, tea-drinking identity. But are we becoming more European with our café (a word deriving, of course, from the French for ‘coffee’) culture? No. We are becoming more American with our adoption of the coffee shop as a space for working and thereby losing more of both our personal, and previously private, space and identity.