Two More Teas, Please
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.