“The social politics of polystyrene”
My last blog post was all about lifestyle aspirations and, since writing it, I find something not-all-that aspirational has been on my mind – the takeaway hot beverage. I remember my first. Well, I don’t actually – but I can imagine what it would have been. A tea, milk no sugar. In a polystyrene cup.
Hot drinks just taste better in a polystyrene cup, don’t they? Or is that just me. I am always a little thrilled when I get my drink delivered in one. It rarely happens now though. The last time – a time I do definitely remember, it was that significant – was at London’s Victoria bus station one chilly Saturday morning. My sister and I were on our way to Chelsea – only via the somewhat scenic and not very glamorous route of The Bus. We couldn’t find where the number seven actually stopped. (Has anyone ever been to the Victoria bus station? Nightmare. But marginally better than the coach station.) We were a bit stressed. Then we happened upon a newsagents-cum-cafe, where everything was made better by massive cups of polystyrene tea for 65p. Memorably good value. We went back there especially three years later. It was £1.00. A smaller cup. That’s inflation for you.
You might, rightly, be thinking: what the hell has this got to do with anything, especially lifestyle aspirations? Well – can you remember when carrying a portable hot drink in public became a kind of social statement? When coffee drinking became a ‘thing’ – a lifestyle choice?
I can recall when the first coffee shops came to Birmingham in this way. I’d been watching Friends for a while so I didn’t question it, knew what to expect, and actually wanted to go there. Of course, there was no way in hell my parents would have taken me to a coffee shop – why would we spend money buying a hot drink we could so easily make at home? Cradling it for bloody hours, painfully making conversation with each other. Sounds hellish.
But then I got a bit older and earned some money. I was in sixth form. I was being attacked by Friends on the one front and magazine supplements on the other, so I knew what I wanted to spend said money on. Coffee Republic.
I had some free sessions in my timetable. So I would travel into town on the 46 (always the bus), get one of their hot spiced apple drinks (I hadn’t quite graduated to actual coffee yet), and walk over to the ‘city’ to people-watch the suits on their lunch breaks. And I’d sit on a bench or bit of wall for HOURS, with my (soon) empty cup. It was a real treat. Yet it was also more than that. For me that silly, portable hot beverage symbolised adulthood. It was where I wanted to be. I didn’t put it in the bin when I was finished – I wanted to be seen with it. It’s bonkers but they talk, those cups. Look at me! they say. I belong here, I’m so city chic! I earn enough money to be frivolously throwing at overpriced drinks that I don’t need!
I still do it now. I’ve got a cappuccino on the go as I type (no polystyrene in sight). Only now, I feel too aware of what I am holding represents to me, and to others. That Costa branding, Nero or Pret or whatever. Which one you pick is almost as much of a social calling card as the drink itself. Which is probably why I now crave the unidentifiable no-nonsense of the humble polystyrene. It’s a statement of a different kind, almost a protest saying I AM NOT RIDICULOUS. OR RICH. I GOT THIS DRINK FROM A VAN. I PAID LESS THAN A POUND. Hmmm.
Social politics aside, if there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to make you love something it’s nostalgia. Polystyrene pulls at my heart strings because it reminds me of growing up, of the first time I wanted to be like the grown-ups. Well, pretend to be one.
That first time you actually want to try a cup of tea. The first time you want to try one on the go, from the ice cream van, instead of getting a Coke. The association is as comforting as a steaming hot cup of tea after a long day.
It’s a shame polystyrene has gone out of fashion, but it was of course inevitable. And if the internet is anything to go by – polystyrene could kill both the environment and humans – then maybe it’s for the best.
But there’ll always be a place in this girl’s heart for weird creaky white stuff.