Two More Teas, Please

Great Britain


The last post clearly sparked something about the ritual of tea, so here are a few further points. As tea featured infamously in Britain’s past (from its key trading position in the Chinese Opium War, when we used it to enslave a populace, to the Boston Tea Party) it remained ubiquitous and cheap.

When the heavy bombardment of of Southern England began the world’s first government unit offering psychological help was set up to aid those bombed out of their homes, but it was disbanded because no-one could be convinced to use it. ‘I’ll be all right once I’ve had a nice cup of tea and a sit down,’ was the standard response.

A very funny balance to this was provided by Victoria Tennant, clearly working from her childhood memories, in the film ‘LA Story’, when she arrived at a pastel-coloured outdoor luncheon in LA having just alighted from a British Airways flight and is offered something from the ridiculously complex coffee menu. ‘As my mother used to say, I’ll be all right after I’ve had a nice cup of tea and a fuck,’ she says cheerfully to the horrified LA group.

In ‘Brief Encounter’ Laura says she feels sick at the railway station, but we know she nearly killed herself under a train. Gossipy but well-meaning Dolly Messiter is instantly on the case; ‘A nice cup of tea will soon buck you up,’ she promises. But the real counterpoint of the film is the ease with which the tea lady and her porter flirt; they’re working class and not held back by social guilt.

Tea ladies and charladies were the salt of the earth, and could always be relied on for a brew. ‘She’s all nerves and I’m on edge,’ warns one in ‘The Buccaneer’. In ‘Ladies Who Do’, the ladies who do get financial tips from the rubbish thrown away by male executives to better themselves.

In Japan, the tea ceremony is about ritual and control. I took part in one ceremony in Kyoto and would have nodded off but for the fact that I was sitting on my ankles for an hour and a half.

So drinking tea in any other way than the traditional one is to move it out of its social class, which is why tea-shops have their image problem. Coffee is socially fluid. For this reason, beer remains wedded to the environment of public houses, not private ones, but craft beer allows more social fluidity by appealing to the artesanally-minded. It makes sense that Arthur Bryant will drink beer (albeit independently brewed ones). One reason for the current fashion of craft beer is that you might sell it to a corporation and make a fortune, hence the excellent Camden Hells, begun locally near me, is now owned by Budweiser, whose bottled beer gives me blinding headaches.

We treasure the hand-made and try to shun the mass-market, but drinking a beverage whose trade was used to build a workforce of drug addicts didn’t bother us. Incidentally, when a friend of mine curated an exhibition about drugs at the Wellcome Museum, he placed on shelves all of the addictive consumables from our past to the present, including India tea. A Coca-Cola bottle also featured until the company threatened to sue and had it removed.


25 comments on “Two More Teas, Please”

  1. Chris Webb says:

    “when a friend of mine curated an exhibition about drugs at the Wellcome Museum, he placed on shelves all of the addictive consumables from our past to the present”

    Did he include cherry Bakewells?

  2. Chris Webb says:

    Damn. Now I’ve said it I’m going to have to go out and buy a box 🙂

  3. brooke says:

    A little fact-checking, please.
    “drinking a beverage whose trade was used to build a workforce of drug addicts…” Recent research concludes the (chinese) “workforce” wasn’t addicted, the trade was a complex system of interests, including the Chinese merchant class and royal officials.

    ” ubiquitous and cheap…” not always. For a long time, tea was a luxury item; think about it…it was a foreign good that had to be transported round the world.

    Coffee also has an ugly history–think of where it is grown. Socially fluid? Coffee houses were only for males; of course anything that began as a male club room becomes cool for the rest of us, although female coffee mornings were the thing in 40’s through 60’s.

    Take sugar with your caffeine? Perhaps a cigarette. Two big commodities of enslavement.

  4. Bill says:

    Just a note about the ubiquity of drug addiction in the 19th and early 20th century: It was all over!

    My grandfather once told me that there had been a high rate of drug addiction among respectable matrons in his rural midwestern American town. Opioids: morphine, cocaine, all legal. Prescribed by small town doctors who were doubtless patriarchs who had no sufficient medical knowledge to understand and cure any woman’s legitimate ailments; it all must be hysteria, and this shot will be the cure! Very Elizabeth Siddal, very “Long Day’s Journey into Night”.

    When Lord Macartney came into China, the Chinese Emperor’s personal income was, so I’ve read, something like three-quarters of Britain’s gross national product. The rest of the nation didn’t suffer; the place was boiling with money and prosperity. China wouldn’t accommodate the West, one result being opium, which strangles the nation, at all classes, and for a long time. My mother had a friend who recalled having to flee her family’s compound when Communists swept over the land. Her grandmother insisted on staying; my mother’s friend’s last memory of grammy was of a wizened old lady couched on her opium bed, puffing on her pipe. She must have been slaughtered as soon as the doors were breached.

    Of course, America had a big damn lot to do with China’s downfall and eventual rise as a communist country. I wonder whether any current western government takes all this into account when dealing with this nation’s urges and motives.

    And what is behind America’s war on drugs?

    I know this is a great digression from tea, but it seems as though that is where this thread was going.

  5. Bill says:

    And, of course, tea is lovely. Bracing good stuff!

  6. Patrick Kilgallon says:

    I find it fascinating watching films from the 40’s and 50’s where any character going through any sort of stress or crisis (or has simply finished a hard day’s work) just needs a nice cup of tea to put them right. Nowadays it would be a large gin and tonic, glass of wine, etc. I grew up drinking tea with breakfast as well as at tea time (we still call it that up North) and I used to love a nice strong cup of Assam, with full fat milk and sugar. Digestives and custard creams….nah, sorry Christopher it has to be ginger snaps. For some unknown reason I stopped drinking tea, but must put this right. There is a trendy type of tea shop in Newcastle open until 11 pm, largely frequented by students reading books. Might give it a try.

  7. Chris Webb says:

    Further to Bill’s comments, we tend to judge from a modern perspective but maybe to the East India Company at the time the supplying of opium was a respectable and even beneficial trade, given the lack of what we would consider proper pharmaceuticals. So exporting it to China – drug pushing on a grand scale, or just another market for just another product?

    The HEIC built Cutler Street Warehouses in the City to store high-value goods, including opium. They built a special underground warehouse with a large water main so it could be flooded quickly in the event of fire. Presumably they were of the opinion that the risk of clouds of opium smoke billowing round the City was not good!

    The warehouses still exist as offices, and still have something of a fortress feel.

  8. Jan says:

    Bill + Chris are both absolutely correct it’s hard for us to visualise the state of play where what are now illegal substances were once legitimate commodities of trade.
    Not going to stumble into any moral arguments here it’s just a different mindset.

    The drugs of the poor being variously cheaply produced gin originally from Holland, home produced potchine and brewery ales of various strengths not to mention hallucinogenic mushroom broths (- crazy as that may seem. ) The authorities of earlier eras saw no reason to legislate regarding the restriction of drug supply. Until drugs could be obtained and utilized by the lower classes – the middle classes and the poor legislation was simply not an issue. Like licensing laws which were largely formulated to keep workers sober for the WW1 war effort drugs legislation is largely designed to keep the masses engaged in legitimate economic effort.

    When opiates, including laudenham, were restricted to the creative’s and the wealthy society regarded their use as a “freeing of the mind” when accessible across the social spectrum causing the commission of crime to enable this usage the way the same commodity was regarded changed massively.
    Really odd how much of this drugs epidemic is – as Bill says – a reversal and reconstruction of certain trade routes.
    The international war on drugs can be viewed as our governments reaction to a trade they cannot tax or control or profit from. I’m not saying this is my own personal view but in the same way the west gained control over other nations the west now fears the same trick is being played back at them.

  9. Brian Evans says:

    Even the question of milk first or last is down to class. Apparently, rich people poured the milk in last to denote the fact that money was no object. It didn’t matter if the boiling tea cracked the bone china as they could easily afford plenty more. Admittedly, this argument lacks credibility as poor people couldn’t afford bone china. It was jam jars for them.

    Funnily enough, I was in Carnforth last Friday as it has an excellent second hand bookshop. We nipped over to the railway station (Heritage Centre, now, no less!!) as usual and had lunch in the refurbished buffet. I think they fail to mention that the real station buffet wasn’t used in the film-it was actually a studio set. Allegedly.

  10. Vivienne says:

    Queen Victoria regularly took laudanum, it was the va S the Valium of the day.

    I was taken to a Chinese restaurant in Gerrard Street when I was quite young, long before it was all touristy with arches and, when the tea arrived, I was really startled to find that it was.clear and apparently hot water with perfume. Not sure when the translation to !British’ tea happened.

  11. admin says:

    ‘I’ve a nice bit of Orange Pekoe I keep for the middle classes.’
    Check out Victoria Wood’s rather spiffing ‘Brief Encounter’ parody here –

  12. Bill says:

    Jan, good point about a reversal of trade- but, for centuries, all the Chinese sent were silks and spices! And how did we later repay them? And when did people come to know opium was evil? I must find out!

  13. Bill says:

    And when were Cutler Street Warehouses, with their interesting water mains, built?

    Sigmund Freud’s nephew, somebody Bernays, came to America and revolutionized marketing with his knowledge of psychology. He convinced generations of women to take up smoking tobacco. He knew how hazardous smoking was, but that stopped neither him nor his masters from pushing it on innocent people. Or not so innocent people, not that either deserved it.

    A Korean student of mine explained why so many Korean men smoke, and so very few Korean women do. All Korean young do not smoke before adulthood. All Korean young men are expected to serve in the Korean armed forces, beginning at age eighteen, which is laudatory but, as so many guys told me, terribly boring. When your ass isn’t being run off, there’s nothing else to do but- smoke. And smokes are dispense freely and for free. The Korean government colludes with tobacco companies to ensure ever-growing legions of nicotine addicts.

    Asbestos manufacturers in the 1920’s knew how dangerous their product was. People knew 2,000 years ago how dangerous it was to manufacture lead paint.

    Money, money, money.

  14. Bill says:

    And now I will make myself tea. I ain’t kidding. Love the stuff.

  15. brooke says:

    For those interested in economics and morality of tea, opium etc. try “The Hungry Empire.” And Robert Tombs (“The English”) comments: “unquestioned belief in the morality and civilizing influence of commercial freedom explains how a country (England) that was striving to stop the African slave trade was also striving to export opium to China.” He goes on to explain how the same groups of people were involved in both.

    Love the “Brief Encounter” parody!

  16. Chris Webb says:

    Bill, Cutler Street Warehouses were built late 18th century. The HEIC was abolished as a result of the Indian Mutiny in 1857 and I think the warehouse was then owned by the London & St Katerine’s Dock Company until taken over by the Port of London Authority. My grandad worked for the PLA all his life, and was at Cutler Street for a time. My Dad one pointed out his office to me – through the main gate, first on the left.

    After Dad died I inherited my Grandad’s collection of curios from his life in the docks, some of them not entirely safe or even entirely legal. They included a small glass jar containing what looked like bits of dirty blackboard chalk but actually labeled opium. I flushed it down the loo and threw the jar away. There was also some ivory. I have some idea it’s illegal to own that too, or at least to buy or sell it. Oh, and a big chunk of raw asbestos!

    In various forms (laudanum, or a mixture of opium and alcohol probably being the best known) it was used to aleviate, but obviously not to cure, pretty much anything. Certain classics of literature are even attributed to poppy-based substances.

    It plays a significant part in the Aubrey Maturin novels, and Stephen Maturin has a servant who becomes addicted, is fired, and then cannot buy any more laudanum because he does not know what the stuff he is addicted to is called.

    Back on topic (sort of) I am surprised nobody has yet mentioned the Brief Encounter homage in Dad’s Army. You wouldn’t really call it a parody.

  17. jeanette says:

    I carry tea bags with me when I travel. I really dislike weak tea, and trains are one of the worse for using cheap tea bags … cheapskates.

  18. Peter Tromans says:

    If you had a serious headache in the days before aspirin, ergotamine or triptans, opium was undoubtedly most welcome. Indeed, codeine is still prescribed. Presumably, it influenced the Victroian attitude toward such drugs.

    Wasn’t a great element in the opium wars a problem of finding a trade balance between the west and China – something that may be relevant today?

  19. Vivienne says:

    Chris, I think I would be tempted to somehow try the opium, but not sure how. I confess to having an ivory necklace. It was a present and is probably 1920s, that sort of style. I don’t know what to do with it. I know it’s not illegal as it’s old, so I just keep it in a box.

  20. Jan says:

    Think its The Ancient Mariner which is cited as a poem that really is most obviously influenced by drug use. It’s a great poem The Ancient Mariner but in some of the later sections the way Coleridge describes the weird colours his character sees and his fear + dread. You can hear the echoes of talking with serious drug users in his expressions and how as a poet his main character describes what he experiences ……

    As someone said earlier at one time before technology opened up the field of research into analgesics opiates WERE the only reliable pain killers. Even now when people are seriously ill it’s opiates which are used to combat very serious pain.

    Better not wander even further off topic by burbling on about Coleridge and the Ancient Mariner but but it’s thought that when Coleridge and the Wordsworths used to do a lot of walking in the Quantock Hills not that for from where I’m based now they used to discuss reports of Captain Cooks 2nd voyage where Coleridge picked up ideas re the deprivation his mariner suffered. The Wordsworths for a time were resident in a vicarage not far from here I think in a village called Blackdown it’s only just up the road.

    I’m not 100% sure of the village name am bound 2 recall it soon as i press send. Of course after living on the Dorset – Devon border the Wordswirth then go up to the Lake District where inspired by the landscapes + by the stone circle at Castlerigg Wordsworth starts knocking out the poetry which fuels the largest tourist numbers in the UK. Really is industrial strength tourism the central Lakes. The East Devon /West Dorset tourist boards must wail and gnash their teeth like the Mariner about that transfer! Blazes!

  21. Jan says:

    Sorry the Wordsworths became Wordswirth.

    Jeanette is right if you go on a Winter break to Spain or Malta one of the things you see most often on the breakfast tables of the coffin dodgers (sorry descriptive term only) is a little box of
    teabags. Or a bloody big box for the over winterers.

    Now I live in middle of nowhere if I make a D. I. Y. Chinese – often with the assistance of my Uncle Ben – I nearly always make a cup of fruit teabag tea or that green tea to follow. Just to try and authenticate (!) the whole fakeaway experience.

  22. Roger says:

    “And what is behind America’s war on drugs?”
    It’s so monetarists can practise Keynesianism without admitting that’s what they’re doing, Bill.

  23. Jan says:

    Now that’s an interesting theory Roger. Not thought of it like that b4.

  24. Bill says:

    The last time I read Vanity Fair, the magazine, not the book, it had quite an article by some guy who searched the globe looking for old-time opium dens. He couldn’t find one; all poppies, it seems, goes into the production of heroin. It was the last amusing thing I found in that rag, which has descended into an up-scale People magazine (do you get People in the UK?).

    Though once a guy told me he had been able to try opium. Said it soothed his tummy.

  25. Jan says:

    Tell you what Bill there’s a couple farms in S.W. England and Welsh Wales where they grow poppies specifically for the creation of opiates for the medical market. Honestly. For obvious.reasons the locations aren’t exactly advertised.

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