Two Great British Obsessions – Tea and DIY
First-time DIYers and tea?
While a few people in our sample said that they preferred coffee or fizzy drinks when DIYing, tea was the choice of three quarters of our informants. For them, other drinks just didn't seem right. "It's British and traditional, like DIY. So they go together", said one, reflecting the sentiment of many others. But there was more here than just tradition. Tea gave DIYers a sense of common identity and played very specific roles throughout many practical projects.
Tea and DIY identity
The British builder's mug of tea is as much a part of his tools of the trade as his shovel or electric drill. First-time DIYers recognise this very clearly and see tea as a means to professional inclusion. To feel that you are not just an amateur bodger you have to behave like a professional. While wearing baggy trousers to reveal the 'brickey's bottom" might be going too far, drinking tea provides just the right degree of identification. A number of first-time DIYers who had worked alongside professional craftsmen articulated this very clearly: "I feel as if I'm part of the workforce if I'm drinking tea with them." "It's a bonding thing. Everyone drinks tea, no matter what you are. So it brings everyone together." This is not to say that builders (particularly the 'cowboys') were always welcome, as we will see later. But this desire to be part of a DIY tribe, emulating the customs and manners of its more senior members, was very strong.
The roles of tea
There were a number of specific points in the DIY cycle where the critical role of tea was identified:
- Choosing a colour from paint cards
- When returning from a trip to buy materials
- Just before starting a DIY job
- Discussions with builders and tradesmen
- During DIY
- At moments of crisis and self-doubt
- Admiring the finished job
Tea as transitional marker
Tea serves to mark the progress of DIY projects, from conception and deliberation to the celebration of a job done well. Apart from the beneficial properties of the beverage itself, tea takes on a ritual significance – what anthropologists would see as a transitional marker of progress and achievement, an essential element of the DIY rite de passage. Without the punctuation that drinking tea provides, the structure of the complex elements of DIY activity would be lost.
One can, of course, take this ritualistic approach to DIY to the extremes, as in the case of one of our informants: "I drink breakfast tea before I get started. Then I have Chinese tea during the job itself. Then it's Earl Grey when I have finished." For most people in our sample, however, these fine distinctions between types of tea were absent. Tea was tea, but with a rich variety of roles to play, both functional and symbolic.
Tea breaks were seen as quite essential to good DIY by the large majority of our informants. There were, however, a number of variations in this ritual, particularly with regard to the frequency and length of tea breaks during the work itself. Some took a break every half hour while others sawed, stripped, painted and hammered for up to three hours at a stretch without a cup of tea at all. But an interesting inverse relationship between break interval and break length is apparent. Where breaks are most frequent, they last for only five minutes. When they are least frequent, they may last for as much as forty minutes. Everybody, it seems, needs more or less the same total length of time for drinking tea during the day, but they divide this time up in different ways. There is a significant minority of individuals, however, (about 24%) whose tea-drinking and DIY are parallel activities; the constantly refreshed mug is ever-present.
Who makes tea?
The making of tea during DIY projects falls not just to the female nestbuilder, but to whoever feels that they are the least involved in a specific activity. There appeared to be an unusual level of gender equality among our informants, with men more than happy to make tea "if it keeps her busy." There was also a general feeling that making tea was the equivalent of 'helping'. Such is the centrality of tea in the DIY ritual that its production is not just the provision of refreshment, it is more like holding a dado rail exactly level while one's partner fixes it to the wall.
This is not to say that the enigmatic properties of tea are overlooked by first-time DIYers. Those who find DIY stressful, for example, feel that tea has a very special role: "It soothes me, whereas coffee just makes me irritable." "It's more refreshing isn't it". Others pointed to the fact that tea provided an 'energy boost' – it keeps one going when things start to flag. Tea also helped many DIYers to keep their attention focused on the task in hand, an aid to concentration and striving for a perfect result.
The seemingly contradictory effects of tea, both soothing and stimulating, are exactly suited to DIY, which shares in many ways both of these elements. Perhaps tea has become so inextricably bound to this special form of physical labour precisely because of its complex chemical properties. Whatever the origins, however, it is the iconography of tea – its associations and largely unstated social meanings – which maintain its crucial role in DIY, even among a new generation of nestbuilders whose tastes and lifestyles are very different from those of their predecessors.
This obsession with nestbuilding, of course, has traditionally been reflected in, and serviced by, a range of specialist magazines for the DIY enthusiast, full of technical details and the arcane language of mitres and tenons. Today, however, the new generation of DIYers seeking inspiration and technical advice needs only to turn on the TV sets. As our love affair with cookery programmes wanes, our screens are now filled with interior designers, decorators, and cheeky handymen – a new breed of celebrities in an arena of activity once viewed as either unremarkable and commonplace, or fraught with special difficulties and unanticipated pitfalls. DIY now appears as part of postmodernist chic – a cool and legitimate activity for young, first-time home-makers.
Having looked at the role of tea in DIY, we turned our attention to the practical activities themselves – the real purpose of DIY, its motivations and its outcomes. But firstly, what kind of people are these new DIYers, and are they somehow different from the less hands-on nestbuilders of their generation?