The Writers’ Secret Weapon


It’s a beverage whose trade was used to build a workforce of drug addicts

Last night at the Crime Writers Association Christmas Party someone reminded me that I wrote a couple of pieces about the ritual of tea, and asked if I could find them, so I’ve combined the main points into a single article.

This is my writers’ tea drawer. It has a matcha whisk, various green and flavoured teas, builder’s Yorkshire Tea (most important), coffees and biscuits. It is visited all day, every day.

To understand the key importance of tea in an English writer’s life (god forbid you should need to do such a thing) you have to see it as a ritual that’s deeply embedded in our culture, like going to church used to be. But if the British are so obsessed with tea, why are there no hip teashops, only coffee bars? Coffees can be fancified with complex rituals, from the patterning of froth to the ordering of ‘soy decaf flat white with a side of hot milk and a twist’ variety. (I actually heard an Australian chap asked for a ‘Big White’, and when the barista looked puzzled he berated her with ‘Everyone knows that’s a large flat white’.) Coffee is egalitarian, galvanises and energises. and seems younger and more hip somehow, even though it isn’t, and when it’s bad can be very bad indeed, but tea has lost ground to coffee.

Then there are matters of class and gender – ‘Builder’s tea’ is common and comes in a mug.

SCENE: Tony Hancock & Sid James are at Arthur Mullard’s tea stall

HANCOCK: Two teas please.

MULLARD: Wiv or wivaht?

HANCOCK: With or without what?

MULLARD: ‘Andles.

Flavoured teas, subtler and more delicate, allow supermarkets to sell dinky silken pouches to the middle classes. Teabags are inherently common. Loose tea ‘puts hairs own your chest’ and makes grouts, and you need a teapot and somewhere to empty it. Tea refreshes and calms and is relatively good for you, but it has a bourgeoise image. Bryant & May drink buckets of the stuff.

When I worked on Mike Leigh’s films like ‘Secrets and Lies’, American audiences laughed at something no-one had considered. Every time a character went to someone else’s house they got offered a cup of tea. This was seen as inherently hilarious. They thought it was a deliberate running gag, not a social tic.

Watching ‘Dunkirk’ you can’t help but notice how tea is used in the film. It’s pressed on survivors – Cillian Murphy is virtually drowned in the stuff and knocks one mug of it away – proof that he’s shell-shocked, the heretic! Later it is accompanied by jam and bread and handed to exhausted troops.

I regularly lug tea to Barcelona because they seem to have none, and always used to take it to America, where tea is made by pouring lukewarm water into a tumbler and handing you a teabag still in its packet. Tea should be Indian, a golden sepia colour, and have full-strength milk in it, added after. Ideally, it should come with a Digestive or a Custard Cream.

How you respond to an offer of tea is also a signifier of who you are. Visitors says ‘Only if you’re having one.’ Dads say, ‘I’m gasping’ or ‘I’m spitting feathers’. Grandmothers foist it on you on hot days because they insist that it cools you down. Tea is also a fantastic device for setting up scenes in books now that people no longer tap out cigarettes, but vape furtively alone. I asked a policer officer what she hated most about the job and she said, ‘The tea. Everyone you visit offers you one.’

Tea is a mild drug, but it’s heroin to writers. Now that I have a boiling water tap my tea consumption has risen further. My neighbour loves his although he added. ‘My mother can’t get the hang of it. We’ve had the Savlon out a few times.’

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 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. Her gossipy but well-meaning friend 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. Tea defined radio plays for decades; the rattle of the cup was ubiquitous.

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.

There’s rarely a time when I don’t have a tea mug on my desk. What I’d like is an infuser for loose leaf tea that actually works. Scientists have found that the catechins (antioxidants) in green tea extract increase the body’s ability to burn fat as fuel, which accounts for improved muscle endurance. Drinking tea could help reduce the risk of heart attack. It has other properties too, from protecting teeth to boosting the immune system. And tea without milk has no calories.

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, 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. 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.

20 comments on “The Writers’ Secret Weapon”

  1. Brooke says:

    We’ve had this argument before (trade used to build a workforce of addicts). So let’s move on. I have several infusers for loose leaf tea that work really well–no leakage, pour easily, fit on desk, easy to keep clean so tea doesn’t taste like dish liquid. Can offer suggestions… .

  2. Peter Tromans says:

    Boiling water tap and tea bag in a mug! Yikes, it’s destroying the ritual. And then putting milk in it. No, a thousand times, no!
    I may disagree on tea, but am totally with Mr F on Budweiser and all the horrible headache generating stuff that so many of the population consume when they could drink decent ale.

  3. Patrick Kilgallon says:

    Don’t forget “This Happy Breed” where regular cups of tea were the cure to all manner of stressful situations. It would be a glass of wine or a gin and tonic these days. My personal preference is a strong Assam Tea so that I can use any leftovers to creosote the fence. Ginger snaps work beautifully with tea and I couldn’t agree more, it has to be full cream milk.

  4. Jo W says:

    This post came just at the right time. We’ve been out all day and dragged through some really heavy traffic and all we were thinking about was putting on the kettle to make a pot of builders. (Mouths like the bottom of budgie’s cage,squire!) so here I am with a half pint mug to hand.
    Not tea bags,loose leaf tea and a large tea pot. The grouts go in the compost bin. Aaaaahhhhh! 😉

  5. Brooke says:

    So that’s how to dispose of leftover Assam! No wonder my plants died.

  6. Debra Matheney says:

    Budweiser is weasel piss. I cannot drink it and abhor the tea inmost restaurants here in the states. Loose leaf tea from a pot with an infuser is the ticket. Milk, never cream. Think I will make a pot now.

  7. Peter Tromans says:

    Does anyone know why green Earl Grey disappeared? It’s one of my favourites, or was.

  8. Roger says:

    George Orwell’s excellent advice on tea-making:

    The tea provided by the army would have been sergeant-major’s tea, which had the good effects of benzedrine and none of the bad ones.
    One reason tea shops are less successful than coffee shops is that the very expensive machines and carefully trained baristas do make better coffee than you get at home, whereas the best tea comes from a china pot and boiling water. Anyone can make it, and everyone does, so no-one will pay preposterous prices for it. However, both used tea-leaves and coffee-grounds make excellent compost.

  9. Martin Tolley says:

    Fortnum & Mason still sell green Earl Grey.

  10. Ian Luck says:

    I’ve just enjoyed a cup of Earl Grey, or as my brother’s partner calls it, “Old ladies’ tea.” That reminds me of the first time that I ever tried it. I was living in Ripon, in North Yorkshire. I hadn’t been there long, but, as it’s not very large, I had met several interesting people, including a chef who had been introduced to me by the daughter of my employers. This chef ran a rather select tearoom, frequented by that kind of elderly lady who spends her time looking down her nose at everyone else, and likes nothing better than to sit with similar old ladies, and moan about everyone and everything around them. I believe the term for such a person is a ‘Momus’. Anyway, this young chef was getting fed up of them complaining all the time. He said to my very good friend that she was welcome to have tea there any time, which she did, and asked me one day when I hadn’t much to do. She told me that she enjoyed annoying these old ladies, which in turn amused the teashop’s owner. The only stipulation was that she ordered. I was fine with that. We went into the tearoom, and all these twittering old boots stared at us – my friend tended to dress then (1987), in what today would be referred to as ‘Steampunk’ clothes, and I was all in black, with big boots, and a battered leather bike jacket, and I had a really long fringe, which came down past my chin. We really annoyed them, and annoyed them more when we greeted the owner by name, and shook his hand. Food and drink were ordered, and the tea came, in a pot, with nice cups and saucers, a jug of milk, and a bowl full of sugar cubes.I then said quite loudly: “Shall I be mother?”, and poured the tea, which was Earl Grey. One sip, and I was smitten. It was like nothing I’d ever tasted before, and was like a shock to my tongue. And then the food arrived. An item not on the genteel menu, and which made me laugh at the incongruity of it in such a place. Sausage and bacon doorsteps. The owner made a show of bringing a big bottle of HP sauce to the table. My friend told me that she made a point of having tea there a couple of times a week, simply to disquiet the old ladies. “Keep ’em on their toes.”, she said. The doorsteps were wonderful, and we paid up and thanked the owner, who said to the ladies, as we left: “No complaints, ladies, no complaints.” , and waved at us as we left. The laserbeams of hate from half a dozen sets of rheumy eyes bit into us as we walked away. Did we care? No.

  11. snowy says:

    Tea is an interesting, if slightly odd thing. [Dragging volatile bits of plants into a solvent solution and then drinking it.]

    Having tried all sorts of things, I’ve settled on using a ‘Phin’, [if search engines prove little help in revealing what that is, try ‘Vietnamese Coffee Maker’ instead.] It makes coffee as one would expect, but it will also make tea: loose, round bags, mint from the garden, even pineapple weed.

    [To avoid disappoinment I should point out the later contains neither ‘weed’ nor ‘pineapple’, it’s a relative of camomile]

    Easy to use, fill up with whatever takes your fancy, in a quantity to suit your personal taste. Slide in the inner part, place on top of a mug and add boiling water. [The lid serves a dual purpose, it keeps in some of the heat, reduces spillage in transit etc. And then turns into a drip stand when inverted.]

    Recommended for those that make tea with a bag, forget and come back to find their brew horribly stewed. No fishing around with a spoon to find the bag, praying the thing doesn’t burst in the process either.

  12. David Ronaldson says:

    I have boxes of Earl Grey and Darjeeling on my desk at work and similar available to me at home. Tea is comforting where coffee is inspiring, so my hot tipple depends on my mood or needs.

    Oh, and I have boycotted anything from the Camden Brewery now they have signed their souls over to brewing’s equivalent of Spanky.

  13. Alan Morgan says:

    Earl Grey. If locusts have not stripped the kitchen bare overnight, oh teenage locusts that they are.

    I didn’t drink tea until I was 20. It was three years after leaving the parent’s house before I found out that tea does not have to be half milk, heavily sugared, barely-brewed horror.

  14. Ian Luck says:

    My father loved tea, and if you made him one, it had to be ‘Strong enough to stand a spoon up in it’. It’s lucky he never went to the States. Strong words would have been used, including the phrase ‘Gnat’s piss’. I have a reference book called ‘How To Do (Just About) Everything’, which contains idiot proof instructions on making proper tea, with loose tea, a pot, strainer, and cosy. Amusingly, the entry starts: “When you’re feeling parched…” Such a lovely old fashioned word. Which dad would unfailingly use if you asked him: “Fancy a brew?”.

  15. Helen Martin says:

    Enjoyed Mr Orwell’s instructions. He’s particularly correct about the cup to use. Those flat coupe cups are just as bad for tea as the glasses are for champagne. The whole thing about putting milk (never cream) in first was to prevent a cup cracking from sudden heat, the same reason as the need to prewarm the pot, although if the boiling water is essential then pre warming the pot would keep it closer to boiling temperature longer.
    My parents had tea at dinner and Mother made a pretty decent cup. I didn’t indulge until after high school and then I started to drink it clear, no sugar. Still do, although after shock the sugar and milk are helpful or so medical people say. The tea we are served on Sunday morning is from an urn and is as described above. There is concern often expressed by non-tea drinkers that they’re not sure they’re getting it “right”. Since it is 16 tea bags in a large strainer ball I don’t suppose there is too much can be done, but it’s our group this week so I will try to maximize the flavour.

  16. Denise says:

    I have lived in the U.S. for forty years, and I never ever drink tea in a restaurant. They simply can’t make tea, it is absolutely true, luke warm water and a tea bag.!

  17. Ben M says:

    My wife and I still laugh about how it took us a while to get the hang of asking for hat tay (not a spelling mistake) in America in order to get a cup of tea, or ask you put it so well Chris, warm water and a teabag still in its packet.

    For me the quality of a brew goes much further than the tea. The type and quality of the milk is important to. I will not use UHT milk and only semi skimmed fresh milk will do. I’ve even blind tasted tea with 4 different types of milk for the disbelievers and identified each milk correctly. This brings me on to travelling abroad where the distribution of fresh milk for tea is scarce, especially in the warmer countries.

    I now take a small flask with me on my travels so that I can take fresh milk with me on day trips. I have been horrified in Germany or Switzerland where some very ‘well to do’ establishments do not have fresh milk but only the UHT stuff at best and normally just coffee cream, apparently its more convenient. So is just chucking down the sink and missing out the middle man.

    This is why I have developed a taste for coffee when abroad, only in the UK do we appreciate the importance of a good cup of tea.

  18. Helen Martin says:

    And of course, Ben M, it is the British definition of tea that is the correct one. (I wonder how the Tibetans (yak butter) and the Chinese (green in warm water in a thermos) to say nothing of the Indians (cardamom, cinnamon, milk, sugar and boiled) would feel about a “proper cuppa”. By the way, do not drink more than one cup of proper chai in the evening. If you want to stay up all night three cups will do you proud.

  19. Agatha Hamilton says:

    Tea with double cream. Delicious.

  20. Ian Luck says:

    Something quite disgusting in the world of tea: one of the large stores here in the UK brought out (and I have seen them) a ‘Pigs In Blankets’ flavoured tea, and a ‘Brussels Sprouts’ flavoured tea. Why, for heaven’s sake? WHY? Who are they aimed at? The hipsters who consider Kale a tasty treat? Reports are that they both taste utterly foul. There are some tastes that lend themselves to being made into drinks, and others that should stay far, far away. Sprouts and Pork definitely belong to the latter category, and should stay on plates, where they belong.

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