Thursday, December 07, 2006

4 p.m. - Time for Tea

One drinks tea to forget the world's noise; it is not for those who eat rich food and dress in silk pyjamas.
T'ien Yiheng, c. 1570

The calming ritual of tea is another of those idle pleasures that have been sacrificed to productivity and profit in recent years. Whoever first conceived the idea of taking it at four o'clock was a genius. This is because 4 p.m. marks the point in the day at which one's energies are turning. The long, listless, flat hours between two and four, when it is impossible to do much and when the sensible idler has taken to his bed, have come to a close, and our brains are once again stirring. It's time not to do, but to think about doing.

Tea should be a time for gentle chat and reflection, a cigarette, a little mental workout. It should last for at least half an hour. I remember tea being a wonderful part of the day when I had a holiday job as a removal man. Removal man, by the way, is not a bad job for an idler, because it offers 'paroxysms of diligence' followed by long rest periods. We would work and sweat and toil for an hour or two, then take a break. I enjoyed this rhythm much more than the endless tedium of office-based admin jobs. There was a lot of driving, which was fun, long lunch breaks and, of course, the tea break. The tea break was absolutely sacrosanct, and it was taken properly. There was none of this grabbing a quick cuppa (oh vulgar word) while staring at your screen.

I also remember very clearly that it was during the tea break that the removal men's conversation would take on a rather more visionary aspect. Morning conversation would centre around farting jokes, sex stories and generally taking the piss out of each other and innocent bystanders. At tea time, however, the men, reclining in the back of the truck with the shutter door open, looking out on to the street, would enter a more languid state. They would describe beautiful places they had been to on holiday, talk fondly of children or wives, or discuss their dreams of a better quality of life.

In a strange way, this sort of tea break has a lot in common with the tea ritual of China and Japan, which was intimately bound up with the seeking of enlightenment. like many life-improving inventions, tea was discovered during a moment of pure inactivity. According to legend, in 2737 BC the Chinese herbalist Shen Nong was sitting under a tree, staring into space, when a leaf from a wild tea bush floated down into a cup of boiled water that was sitting in front of him, creating the first ever cup of tea.

There then seems to be a gap of about 2000 years in the history of tea before it appears in government tax records of 400 BC. Around this time, Zen Buddhist monks in japan took to tea like Catholics to red wine. The monks, it is said, drank tea to help with meditation. it sharpened the intellect and helped them to stay up for hours. Looked at another way, then, tea was used as a tool to help one do absolutely nothing for as long as possible. In other words, it helped you to be idle. After all, what is meditation but total inactivity? Tea became almost a religion in itself, becoming known as The Way of Tea.

Buddhism certainly seems to me the most human of all religions, the most life-giving and fun, for the paradoxical reason that it embraces suffering. There seems to be none of the guilt or sense of indebtedness that ruins Christianity for most of us. As well as using tea for meditation, the Chinese were also keen on the ritual aspects of the beverage: its preparation, the serving, the decorum and politeness around sharing tea. Indeed, Confucius suggested that by behaving correctly in social situations, one promotes the smooth functioning of society in a way that please heaven. So it appears that tea sought to combine the collective and the individual. It was a meeting place between the inner and outer worlds. Its purpose was to harmonize.

Now in England during medieval times and in the sixteenth, seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries there was a different social harmonizer: beer. Beer was brewed at home and drunk morning, noon and night. A good wife would ensure a steady supply: good employes attracted labourers with the quality of their ale. It was the national drink for a chaotic and strong-willed country of ruddy-faced boozers. We may not have been particularly refined, but we knew how to have a good time. Thanks, however, to new trade routes, tea began to filter in to English culture in the late seventeenth century. It was at first fashionable at court, probably because it was expensive and rare. But its popularity began to spread.

One early apologist for tea was Dr Johnson. There was none of the oriental refinement in the way he drank it, and the custom of tea at four or five o'clock had not yet been invented. Dr Johnson's attitude to tea seems to have had more in common with an inner-city crackhead than a Zen Buddhist. Here is how Johnson describes his habit:
[I am] a hardened and shameless tea-drinker, who has for many years diluted his meals with only the infusion of this fascinating plant; whose kettle has scarcely time to cool; who with tea amuses the evening, with tea solaces the midnight, and with tea welcomes the morning.
Johnson became renowned for the sheer quantity he drank and graceless speed at which he drank it. one evening, his friend the painter Joshua Reynolds observed that Johnson had drunk eleven cupfuls. Riled, Johnson answered: 'Sir, I did not count your glasses of wine, why should you number my cups of tea?' He then softened and asked for a twelfth, in order to bring his tally up to a round dozen.

A contemporary called John Hawkins described Johnson's tea habits in a tone of amused horror: '... he was a lover of tea to an excess hardly credible; hwhenever it appeared, he was almost raving, and by his impatience to be served, his incessant calls for those ingredients which make the liquor palatable, and the haste with which he swallowed it down, he seldom failed to make that a fatigue to everyone else, which was intended as a general refreshment.'

Meanwhile, as the Industrial Revolution gathered pace, tea became more and more popular and began to replace beer as Britain's national drink. One reason for this development may have been that the new work rhythms of the factories did not suit all-day boozing. People grew tired and had to be perked up. In Cottage Economy (1821), his practical guidebook for the aspiring smallholder, reformer William Cobbett was unimpressed by this new custom:
the drink which has come to supply the place of beer has, in general, been tea. It is notorious that tea has no useful strength in it; that it contains nothing nutritios; that it, besides being good for nothing, has badness in it, because it is well known to produce want of sleep in many cases, and in all cases, to shake and weaken the nerves. It is, in fact, a weaker kind of laudanum, which enlivens for the moment and deadens afterwards. At any rate it communicates no strength to the body; it does not in any degree assist in affording what labour demands. it is, then, of no use.
Tea was urban; beer was rural. Tea was for wimps; beer was for men. Cobbett then goes on to prove how the habit is chronically expensive compared with beer-brewing, concluding:
I view the tea drinking as a destroyer of health, an enfeebler of the frame, an engenderer of effeminacy and laziness, a debaucher of youth, and a maker of misery for old age... [from tea-drinking] succeeds a softness, an effeminacy, a seeking for the fire-side, a lurking in the bed, and, in short, all the characteristics of idleness, for which, in this case, real want of strength furnishes an apology.
The strange thing is that these are precisely the arguments that were used against alcohol-drinking by the Temperance campaigners of the time.

But it is precisely tea's quality as a sort of nothing that makes it so attractive to the man or woman of reflective bent. It injects idleness into the working day. it provides a stop, a moment of calm. In 1821, the same year Cobbett published Cottage Economy, the great writer and seeker of the fireside Thomas De Quincey, in his classic drug memoir, Confessions of an English Opium eater, defended tea as follows,
From the latter weeks of October to Christmas Eve... is the period during which happiness is in season, which, in my judgment, enters the room with the tea-tray; for tea, though ridiculed by those who are naturally of coarse nerves, or are become so from wine-drinking, and are not susceptible of influence from so refined a stimulant, will always be the favourite beverage of the intellectual...
De Quincey drank tea all night, and although it could be argued that his enjoyment of it was somewhat amplified by the fact that he was out of his mind on opium during those hours, I think the point is clear.

It was a little later that tea as a formal social ritual took hold, around 1840. In a sort of parody of the harmonious Chinese tea ceremony, the English created a tea ceremony that, though well timed, was characterized by social obligation, status display, reservem awkwardness and stiff formality. I think of William in the Richmal Crompton stories and the absolute agony he must have gone through when having tea with great-aunts. In fact, I can still remember the awkwardness of tea with my elderly relations, when 45 minutes seemed to stretch into several days of total ego death.

Another positive corollary of tea was the urban Tea Room. Young secretaries and clerks would go to eat pastries and talk and dance. They continued to be popular beyond the end of the nineteenth century, and also provided venues for 'tango teas' during the 1920s. the Tea Rooms were also popular because they were the first sociably acceptable places where ladies could hang out without male escorts.

Afternoon tea as a social event lives on in parts of rural France. Only recently I attended a thé dansant at a village hall one Sunday afternoon in a small town in the north. The hall was brightly lit and rows of trestle tables had been set up. A little band with a Casio organ played classic dance tunes on the stage. Tea and cakes were served, as well as beer for the men. The audience was made up of local farmers and their wives, mainly in their fifties. It would be easy to snigger at the lack of sophistication but in fact there was a great spirit and lots of laughter and dancing.

We should all help to reintroduce tea as a daily ritual, to make it sacrosanct. But how should we take tea? how should we enjoy it? I think we've largely got it wrong at the moment, unless you're lucky enough to be a removal man. tea should not come ut of machines, it should not be served in plastic cups with the tea bag still swimming around in it and slurped down while staring at a computer screen. So let us turn to the Chinese to find inspiration for the reinstatement of the tea ritual. This sixteenth-century poem describes the various ideal conditions for the enjoyment of tea:
When one's heart and hands are idle.
Tired after reading poetry.
When one's thoughts are disturbed.
Listening to songs and ditties.
When a song is completed.
Shut up at one's home on a holiday.
Playing the ch'in and looking over paintings.
Engaged in conversation deep at night.
Before a bright window and a clean desk.
With charming friends and slender concubines.
Returning from a visit with friends.
When the day is clear and the breeze is mild.
On a day of light showers.
In a painted boat near a small wooden bridge.
In a forest with tall bamboos.
In a pavilion overlooking lotus flowers on a summer day.
Having lighted incense in a small studio.
After a feast is over and the guests are gone.
When children are at school.
In a quiet, secluded temple.
Near famous springs and quaint rocks.
So reads 'Proper Moments for Drinking tea' by Hsü Ts'eshu. I particularly like the idea of tea with slender concubines but I'm not sure whether most Western wives and girlfriends would tolerate it. But the other suggestions are not beyond the bounds of possibility. Further Chinese guidance comes from Lin Yutang:
There is something in the nature of tea that leads us into a world of quiet contemplation of life. it would be as disastrous to drink tea with babies crying around, or with loud-voiced women or politics-talking men, as to pick tea on a rainy or cloudy day... Tea is then symbolic of earthly purity, requiring the most fastidious cleanliness in its preparation, from picking, frying, and preserving to its final infusion and drinking, easily upset or spoiled by the slightest contamination of oily hands or oily cups. Consequently, its enjoyment is appropriate in an atmosphere where all ostentation or suggestion of luxury is banished from one's eyes and one's thoughts... the preparation and drinking of tea is always a performance of loving pleasure, importance and distinction. In fact, the preparation is half the fun of the drinking, as cracking melon-seeds between one's teeth is half the pleasure of eating them.
It was with the idea of a celebration and a rebirth of tea-taking that we introduced a tea column into the Idler magazine, and appointed the legendary fisherman Chris Yates (of whom more in the Fishing chapter) as our tea Correspondent. Yates's first piece, an attack on the tea bag, revealed him as a natural ancestor [sic] of the Chinese tea writers:
Tea must be taken slowly, yet modern society - with its alarm clocks, exercise bikes and its rush to work - has created the tea bag, which is an abuse of nature, and the quick cuppa, which is a cardinal sin... tea-making, like tea-drinking, must be a leisurely, contemplative affair, the mind calming as the loose leaves are given ample time to swirl, separate and glow in your teapot, the spirit rising as you pour the golden fluid.
It is extraordinary how few people use loose-leaf tea and how much they are missing out. Tea bags are supposed to be more convenient and quicker, but being the essence of 'tea in a hurry' run completely contrary to the real spirit of tea. It is actually far more convenient, not to mention more elegant and pleasurable, to keep half a pound of loose tea in a caddy near the kettle than one of those vast and ugly boxes of tea bags. Loose-leaf tea is also easy to throw away - no soggy tea bags spattering brown juice on the sides of the sink.

Let us now look at two of tea's enemies: the first is, paradoxically, the Tea Council, which promotes tea as merely health-giving and useful. It has a horribly colourful and buzzy website which includes such vulgar images as a naked woman reclining in a cup of tea, and there is little suggestion of tea's provenance as an aid to enlightenment and social harmony. The website even displays tables of figures designed to demonstrate tea's nutritional value. But it becomes very clear after a moment's inspection of these that the only serious nutrients in tea come from the milk that we Brits habitually serve with it.

Tea's other enemy, of course, is coffee. Rather as tea supplanted beer during the Industrial revolution in the UK, the last ten years have seen coffee replace alcohol in the US, and the US-style coffee culture has now hit europe. The quantities are vast; the manner of drinking rushed. Whereas the traditional continental manner of taking coffee is to have a small cup in a café, we are now all to be seen carrying around vast paper flagons of latte. We buy coffee 'to go'; drink it on the hoof, in the car, on the train, in meetings, even, and saddest of all, while walking along the street. We have been invaded and polluted by joyless coffee.

Coffee is for winners, go-getters, tea-ignorers, lunch-cancellers, early-risers, guilt-ridden strivers, money obsessives and status-driven spiritually empty lunatics. It is an enervating force. We should resist it and embrace tea, the ancient drink of poets, philosophers and meditators.

Terry Hodgkinson, How to be Idle, 88-98

No comments: