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?
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.