My Uncle Harry was in the 8th Army in North Africa.
When I was little, he used to tell me stories about his time in the war.
He told me how ‘Jerry Cans’ got their name.
They are strong, durable, 5 gallon containers with handles and spouts, perfect for carrying any liquid, water or petrol, in any conditions.
You could run over them with a lorry and it wouldn’t even dent them.
The problem was they were German, the Brits didn’t have them.
What the Brits had were called ‘flimsies’, a cross between an Oxo tin and a biscuit tin.
Even if you drove over a bit of rough ground they were likely to burst apart.
So, he said, the Brits used to raid German fuel dumps and steal all their jerry cans.
Eventually, the authorities caught on and began copying the German design, but the name stuck with the soldiers.
They wouldn’t give up their jerry cans, and another thing they wouldn’t give up was tea.
He told me every man used to get a quart of water every day for washing.
That seemed like a waste, so they used the water for making tea and washed in petrol.
In the middle of the desert, tea was more important than smelling nice.
They made the tea by cutting the old flimsies in half, filling the bottom with sand and petrol and setting it alight, then filling the top with water and boiling it up for tea.
It was called a Benghazi Burner.
We may find it hard to believe the importance they placed on tea, but Churchill didn’t.
In 1942, the British government bought up the entire world’s supplies of tea.
Churchill decided it was that important to the morale of the British people.
Apparently, the largest government purchases, by weight, in 1942 were: 1) bullets, 2) tea, 3) artillery shells, 4) bombs, 5) other explosives.
The tea had to be strong and black, so it could take milk and sugar, it came from Ceylon, Assam, and Africa.
The British squaddie would often stop his tank for a brew up.
Which is the reason that, since 1945, every British tank has been designed with tea brewing equipment built in (it’s called a BV: boiling vessel).
Now no one has to stop fighting in order to have a cup of tea.
Gordon Smith, my art director, always liked to go on SAS survival courses.
He once went on the complete obstacle course in Herefordshire.
He told me that at the end of every exercise there’s a big tea-urn, which gives the soldiers an added incentive to finish, plus a bit of extra energy for the next one.
But maybe we think all that’s a bit old fashioned.
With Starbucks, Costa, and Café Nero this is a coffee culture now, no one drinks tea anymore, do they?
Well apparently they do.
This is an excerpt from a letter from a serving soldier, in 2014: “When you’re wet, cold and miserable, and feel that you need to curl up and die from tiredness…you may be covered in mud, stinking from not being able to shower for days or weeks, cold and tired, but a brew seems to take all that away. The jokes will start and morale gets better. The simple act of being able to share a mug of tea with your mates, who look and feel as bad as you do, is awesome.”
To us we may think the whole world is coffee bars and wine bars, because that’s all we know, all we drink are skinny lattes or white wine.
But the rarefied world we know isn’t the whole world.
And it probably isn’t the world of the people we’re supposed to be talking to.
People for whom tea isn’t a herbal drink, people who take milk and sugar.