Lockdown Jottings – 04

Measuring out our lives in coffee spoons

I love coffee, I love tea
I love the java jive and it loves me
Coffee and tea and the java and me
A cup, a cup, a cup, a cup, a cup, boy! 

(From ‘Java Jive’, composed in 1940 by 
Ben Oakland and Milton Drake)

It’s the Easter bank holiday weekend.

When I used to work full-time, the arrival of a bank holiday signalled that it was time to take a break, to relax, to have a rest. Yes, for me, bank holidays have always been a time to put my feet up, to catch up on reading perhaps, or maybe watch TV. I might be persuaded out to socialise with friends in an evening, but mainly I stayed home and kept out of the way. Not once did I think I might be missing out on something more exciting happening elsewhere.

Of course, some people might think that being retired would turn every day into a bank holiday, but I can assure you, that for me at least, it’s nothing of the sort. I’m still very much on the go and in the thick of things. A bank holiday is still a valuable time to take a break.

Suddenly though, and thanks to lockdown, every day does feel rather like a bank holiday except, whereas I used to choose to stay at home, today I am expected to do so. For those of us who are not regarded as key workers who perform some essential role, we do our bit by keeping out of the way. 

And that’s true for many of the people I know. No one rings up to see if they can pop round for a coffee anymore. Today, we drink our coffee alone – well, not quite alone in my case: I live with my partner and he knows how to use a kettle. Like many married couples, we have our little rhythms and rituals – I look up from my work (or my nap), look at the clock and see it’s time for a coffee break – and one of us (usually him) gets up to make a drink.

At home, it’s usually the granulated instant variety – spooned out of the jar and into the cup before adding the hot water. Instant is quick and convenient: filter’s fine, but there’s more faff and washing up to do afterwards. No milk, and definitely no sugar, thank you: I’m an adult who likes his coffee unadulterated.

I can trace my evolution as a coffee drinker all the way back to my early childhood. I was raised on Camp Coffee (I kid you not). Back in the 1950s, this sweet, coffee-flavoured drink based on chicory was no doubt a more palatable offering for a child. A spoonful of the dark syrup per cup, add water, milk and sugar to taste. (Some years ago, I bought a bottle to relive my childhood memories. Let’s just say that I wish I hadn’t. I still have the bottle, all but full, which I’m keeping as a future museum exhibit.)

At some point, I progressed to ‘proper’ coffee (‘I’ll have a proper cup of coffee in a proper coffee cup’), originally drunk with milk and sugar. But the sugar shortages of 1974 (caused by a severe drop in imports of sugar cane, the impact of the three-day week, strikes at the docks and housewives panic-buying sugar), saw me weaning myself off my fondness for sugar – you either had to drink your coffee without sugar or not drink it at all. Not long after that, I stopped adding milk to my coffee. Working in an office where tea and coffee making was often a shared responsibility, I learned not to trust the milk. In a hot office with no fridge, it went off very quickly in the summer, even when stored somewhat precariously on the window ledge outside (I worked on the first floor back then). Drinking my coffee black and without sugar actually marked me out as something of a rarity at the time (trendsetter, even back then!).

Today, my day is marked out by coffee (and tea). I have coffee for breakfast. It doesn’t matter whether I’m having just toast, the ‘full (vegetarian) English’, or something in between – it’s coffee that kickstarts my day. If I’ve risen early enough, then coffee might also make an appearance for elevenses. At lunch though, it depends where I am. If I’m at home, it’s always tea that I drink, but if I’m in a restaurant, I switch to coffee – without fail. I have no idea why; it’s just one of those things I do and I see no reason to change. Mid-afternoon, chances are it will be another coffee (unless scones come with it, when I revert to tea – and Earl Grey if it’s available, please).

What I drink at dinner again depends on where I’m dining. At home, it will be tea that ends the meal but if I dine out, it will be coffee again. Later in the evening, I might have another cup of coffee just before I go to bed. Some say you shouldn’t have coffee before going to bed (how many times have people expressed surprise that I’m drinking coffee so late!) – but I find it’s not having coffee before bed that keeps me awake! I lie in bed thinking about the coffee that’s not circulating in my system……

Anyway, time for a break. I’ll look up in a moment to see if my partner catches my eye – and if he does, and I hear the kettle going on, I’ll dig out that CD I have by The Manhattan Transfer – one of the best renditions of the Java Jive you could wish to hear and the perfect accompaniment to my cup of joe.

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