The full version of this article was published in `Centrepiece for a Peripheral Nation' Craft Victoria Autumn 1995

Copyright 1995 Kevin Murray

Last modified 10 October 1996

The Australian Tea Ceremony

Curatorial briefing notes by Kevin Murray

The range of British influence is demonstrated by the extremes of public and private life. A walk down Melbourne's William Street, between Lonsdale and Bourke, provides a readily identifiable set of British symbols in Australian public life. The formalities of the court--the wig and gown, legalistic phrases, deference to the judge--differ little from those in Old Bailey. It would seem a relatively straightforward matter to identify these public trappings of British rule for review.

At the other end of the range, however, it may not be so easy to discern where Britishness begins and ends. If you had to summarise the Australian disposition, what would it be? The virtues of a `quiet achiever'--lack of fuss, efficiency, down to earth manner, getting the job done--place pratical value before the expression of feeling. In 1859, the best selling English moralist Samuel Smiles attributed his nation's colonising talents to a similar shy and practical character:

The English are inartistic for the same reason as they are unsociable. They make good colonists, sailors and mechanics; they they do not make good singers, dancers, actors, artistes, or modistes.

Likewise, Australian public life is mostly calm and orderly. When people gather on the street, they form queues rather than mobs. It is difficult to fathom just how far the Anglo love of order reaches in our unconscious.

The national identity of the decorative arts comes somewhere between the public and the personal spheres. We can look to domestic life for evidence of the role that the crafted object plays in keeping up English appearances.

As an example, take a cup of tea. Imagine a guest invited to share tea in a Camberwell home on a Sunday afternoon. She is ushered into the lounge room and offered an upholstered armchair in which to rest. During preliminary conversation--remarks on recent weather or the purple azaleas--the housewife begins preparation of a pot of tea. Unlike the Japanese tea ceremony, the drink here must be steaming hot--`bring the pot to the kettle, not the kettle to the pot'. The pot is fitted with a tea cosy and turned in a ritualistic sequence.

The tea is then brought in on a tray with china cups and saucers, sugar bowl, strainer, teaspoons, small plates, cake forks and a light flour cake, such a sponge, lamington or scones. While all drink from the same pot, the guest is granted a circumscribed choice--`How do you take it?' `White with two sugars, please'. Conversation then turns to family, home renovations, health and holiday plans. There is no room in this ceremony for fault or recrimination. The only disagreement will come as the guest refuses the offer of a final cup of tea to depart--`no thanks, it's getting late, I must be off'.

The character of this ritual becomes more distinctive when contrasted with ceremonies which await guests in other cultures. At the south-east edge of Europe, the entry of a guest into an Albanian home begins on a very different footing: shoes are removed before entering the home. In doing so, the guest sheds the means of individual mobility. Before settling on a rug with his hosts, it is customary for the guest to attend to the fire and request more wood. While this occurs, a grandmother sits in the background grinding coffee to a powder in a Turkish-style mill. Once ground, she places the coffee on a pot with water and sugar and boils it three times. This brew is then poured into small cups without handles or saucers.

Without asking, the guest is given one of these cups, often with a cigarette or an anise flavoured spirit called raki. This is received with thanks--`I pray to your honour'. After information is exchanged about families, the conversation turns to politics, particularly the trustworthiness of certain candidates. If the meeting goes favourably, the guest will often leave with a spontaneous gift.

The event can sometimes, however, be marred by insult. According to an Albanian proverb, `Hospitality honours you, but also creates problems for you.' If hospitality has been violated, the guest will be offered coffee with the left hand. In an extreme situation--when the guest is in a state of dishonour due to an unavenged crime--the traditional code (Kanun) prescribes that the host offers coffee from under his knee.

There aren't that many Albanians in Australia. At the most, those of Albanian background represent a third of a percent of Australia's population. Yet the presence of customs such as theirs is important in defining the peculiar Anglo strains that persist in the Australian way of life. At the heart of this difference is the production of objects which orchestrate the rituals that bind people together at an intimate level.