Long before I’d had any thoughts about the importance of ceremony, I understood the nature of a cup of tea. As a child in a very small flat with two argumentative parents, a cup of tea – one of the normal eight to ten cups a day – meant that they were getting on or making up: nobody suggested tea in the middle of a fight or in the sullen unresolved aftermath. Tea was recuperative, it made things better, or it celebrated uneventfulness, emphasising that nothing was wrong. And making tea was the only thing I was allowed to do in the kitchen – for some reason my left-handedness was not considered an impossible handicap when wielding a boiling kettle, as it was when handling knives, saucepans or plates – so I felt not only that I participated in those cherished moments of family peace but was often enough their high priestess. There were plenty of hateful meals, but never, as I recall (though God knows I can recall wrong), a miserable cup of tea.
Of course, I had to be taught how to make the tea. There is only one way to make it, which is the way you do it. This was Jewish tea, or so I think of it now. No teapot was used. A little boiling water was dribbled onto loose tea leaves in a strainer, just to wet them. You waited a moment and then trickled more water slowly through the wet leaves into each cup, into which a very little milk had already been poured. I’ve never seen tea made this way since – perhaps it was an early version of teabags, though I think they were already around in the 1950s – but I got the impression from my parents, both children of immigrant Eastern European Jews, that there was no better way to make it. Teapots were scorned. They made contemptibly lukewarm, stewed tea, not the burning hot, intensely flavoured medicinal liquid that made you gasp as you sipped it. The drip-and-strainer method produced a fiendishly strong brew, an opaque deep red brown, which was then sweetened with two teaspoonsful of sugar. You weren’t supposed to taste the milk, it simply stopped the tea being transparent. My grandfather, whom I remember meeting only once, in a room somewhere in the East End that smelled of old age and another world, drank tea like this, but only after he had poured some from his cup into the saucer from which he slurped. I was stunned with admiration, but my mother’s face curdled: like many things from which she hoped she’d escaped, this was not a nice way to behave.
I knew that the outside world had tea, but it was so different as to seem unrelated. On Sundays, sometimes, my father took me to tea at the Ritz, another kind of ceremony. Thick carpet, silver teapots, tinkling china, high-rise cake stands, doilies and, I only later understood, the possibility of catching the eye of a divorced or widowed woman with a little cash in the bank. My mother was partial to Lyons’s teashops, self-service, though with nice ladies who poured the tea from big metal pots, and often enough another woman sitting at our table to whom my mother could get talking and tell her miserable fortune to. These were public teapot teas, where we pretended that we were just like everyone else, with cakes or buns. Each parent tried to get their drink as much as possible like the stuff they made at home, letting it sit in the pot for much longer than anyone else’s, or asking the tea ladies to pour away half the quantity of milk that waited in each cup. But the tea itself wasn’t all that important: this was tea out in the world, it was performance, watching and being watched, telling all to sympathetic strangers, and as different in meaning from tea at home as live theatre is from television.
Tea has stayed with me as a drug of choice where others have palled or become unobtainable. Making and drinking it provide comfort, stimulation, relief from boredom; in a shapeless home-working day it acts as structure, displacement activity, avoidance strategy and a way of focusing. (Tea-breaks, of course, are synonymous with contentious British industrial relations.) I dropped the strainer method and adopted tea bags, made in the mug, but the drink (Assam with no more than a drop of milk and two heaped spoons of sugar) turned out the same: hot, strong and syrupy. If chicken soup is Jewish penicillin, my kind of tea was Jewish opium. But then, recently, I moved, and there was no longer any milk delivery, and idleness, my reluctance to go three hundred yards to the nearest shop to get a carton of milk, made me change the way I’d been drinking tea for more than fifty years. The thing about tea, what it meant to me, was that it was always instantly accessible. The idea of having to think about it – have I got milk, is it sour, do I need to go out and buy some more? – deprived tea of its essential pleasure: its availability whenever and whyever I might want it. I dumped hot, sweet, sticky tea overnight and entered the world of tea buffery.
Without milk, the tea itself becomes important. Just a little research – website hopping and catalogue reading – and suddenly I became aware that tea came in different colours, black, green, and even a white that had nothing to do with having milk in it. It was oxidised or not, or somewhat. It was rolled or chopped. It was FTGFOP1, TGFOP, FOP, GFBOP or BOP. It could taste or smell gutsy, intense, weighty, crisp, assertive, flowery, rustic, tippy, smokey, sweet, firm. It might be a First Flush Tukdah, or a Second Flush Castleton Darjeeling, a single-estate garden Assam or a lazily unfurling hand-rolled China White Jasmine Pearl. If it was Japanese, it might be shincha, not sencha, the earliest picking of the season, 88 days after the first day of spring, and £23 for 100 grams flown in from Mount Fuji. A Formosa oolong has a ‘divine, gently dry “peach skin” aroma’, while a Monkey Picked Ti Kuan Ying Chinese oolong is irresistible, with a ‘heavenly lingering crisp flavour’ for £15.80 for 50 grams. Monkey-picked? Really? Try not to think about where else their tea-picking fingers have been as you sip. According to De Quincey, who knew about drugs, tea is ‘bewitched water’, though to my coarse and chilli-blinded palate the more delicate China Whites taste like water pure and simple. Even so, it’s pretty water, faintly coloured by half a dozen drifting spear-like leaves.
Tea, it turned out, was intensely interesting; or at least it had the potential to be interesting for someone inclined to short sharp enthusiasms and who has to find a way to transform the emotional loss of a personal historical brew into a new cultural fascination. Lévi-Strauss said, on the subject of totems, that animals are good to think with. But what isn’t? It doesn’t matter much what you look at, the way of the world will be reflected in it. The product of the Camellia synensis bush is as good a paradigm as any. Take even a passing interest in the nature of the cup of tea you drink in the morning and it swells with its own history: an entire anthropology jostles for your attention.
If you are going to spend thirty quid on 100 grams of monkey-picked oolong, what are you going to drink it out of? A cracked earthenware mug has a kind of chic, but what about a Chinese teacup that had been sitting on the bottom of the ocean since a shipwreck of 1670 until retrieved last year in perfect condition, and is now on sale at your local auction room? A Yixing teapot, yours new for £25 or antique and priceless, wouldn’t come amiss, though you’ll need to spend an hour or two seasoning the new one. If you buy Japanese matcha, you had better spend several years attending classes by a master to learn how to brew it, froth it, pour it and meditate on it. Remember to infuse black tea with boiling water for two to three minutes, green and oolong with water at 70-85° for no more than 1½ minutes. You do have a tea thermometer, don’t you? Or do you prefer to judge the water by the Hsing Pien method, deciding from the size of the bubbles whether it is crab-eye, fish-eye or old-man water? Only red tea is made with old-man water. Did I mention red tea?
Fine and exotic tea is the perfect thing for the dilettante looking for something to pass the time, for the amateur wishing to develop an expertise, for the freelancer needing a distracting but precise activity to perform in an amorphous day, for anyone who wants to be able to think about what they take pleasure in. Tea is currently hot, here and in the States. You can read about it, cook with it (forget hash brownies, try green tea cakes), heal with it (drink tea and you will live for ever – flavonoids, polyphenols), beautify and slim with it (antioxidants, oxidation of fat), alter your consciousness with it (caffeine), and buy it from any number of websites and shops that have lately appeared. And still you can drink it.
Decidedly less charming and seductive is the history of the cultivation of tea, which is, of course, the history of imperialism, racism and social injustice. Consider only that tea is grown primarily in China, India and Sri Lanka and drunk in vast quantities in Britain and you can be sure that economic and political discrimination have been central to its production and consumption. Although Alan Macfarlane is a profession-al anthropologist, his book on tea, Green Gold, is a personal investigation, the work of a hobbyist (he has built a Japanese tea house in his back garden) rather than an academic study. He was born on an Assamese tea estate and grew increasingly aware of the inequalities in life and work around him. He writes of the nature of tea and its methods of production, and suggests that because it is made with boiling water, it may have been responsible for keeping great numbers of people alive in a world of water-borne fatal diseases, but much of the book describes the grisly social, political and economic particulars of the history of tea production.
There was a familiar degree of idiotic heroism in the attempt to grow tea in malaria-ridden India, though the compelling motive was further to fill British pockets by finding a way to deprive China of its revenue from the Camellia synensis, which grew there exclusively. The letters home of two young brothers trying to take advantage of what amounted to a tea rush in Assam have the qualities of boldness, brutality and tragedy for all concerned central to the history of British colonialism. John and Alick Carnegie, Empire wanderers on the make, borrowed their fare from the Mair Tea Company and ended up in cholera and malaria-infested Brahmaputra with a handful of imported bushes in uncleared jungle. Their letters deteriorate from chirpy, blind confidence to debt and sickness. ‘There are any amount of beautiful birds always flying about, jays with brilliant blue wings that look very pretty in the sun and great numbers of bright green parrots with long green tails and red beaks, I have shot two or three of them as their tail feathers make good things to clean pipes with.’ Alick’s two last letters describe John ‘in a dreadful fit of fever and ague . . . most seriously ill . . . his own doctor says he can’t live here unless the fever is stopped now. There is no other way of curing it. It is all very well but he has no money. I have only as much as will take him to Calcutta, without paying for grub &c.’ He himself is finding ‘three hours of illness every afternoon’ an ‘awful bore’. After that, there is no further record of the brothers. The ‘coolies’, shipped upriver in overcrowded boats without sanitation, had all along been dropping dead of cholera and smallpox, to the irritation of John and Alick: ‘coolies die awfully fast here, there are three dead here since I arrived and that only four days.’ ‘I have a splendid receipt for spleen and have cured a lot of chaps and dysentery too, two of them are dead but they die here very easily so they don’t think much of that.’
Finally, successive planters and numberless locals got the jungle cleared; the Camellia bushes began to grow in Indian soil and the dreamed-of profits flooded in. Mr Das, the present-day manager of a locally run Assamese estate, said to Macfarlane that
an Englishman told me that 25 per cent of the UK’s income in 1900 came from India alone, which tells you something. We should remember that the profits that were made between 1870 and 1970 beggar belief. I mean, some of these profits were embarrassing. It was not uncommon for a company to make two and a half times its issued capital in a single year . . . So if you balance over these years against how much they put back into these things, then it is not a terribly good story and I think people would be right to challenge it.
Now, the sahibs have gone, but it isn’t clear from Macfarlane’s pained rather than raging account how much better conditions are these days for tea workers. He quotes an American anthropologist who in the 1990s found child labour common, schooling ‘desultory’, illiteracy the norm and women labourers ‘often overworked, consistently underpaid, sometimes sexually harassed and bullied’.
Far less hesitant in her raging is Alan Macfarlane’s 81-year-old mother, whose essay ‘Memoirs of a Memsahib’ begins Green Gold. She ‘went out’ at the age of 16 and married a manager of a tea estate, but, unlike most of her peers, gradually failed to fail to notice what was going on around her. Like everyone else of her class and generation she had learned at school ‘that “Out There in India” there were dark people irremediably inferior, who were lucky to be ruled by Us . . . I breathed in from birth the assumption that Orientals were subject races, by definition. There was something called the Indian Mind which was changeless, shared by the entire Subcontinent.’ Loathing the company she found herself keeping, the club life and complaints about the natives, Iris Macfarlane insisted on learning Assamese from a local schoolmaster and finding out about the history of the area. Over her twenty years in India she made friendships with local families, visited holy men, and battled angrily to improve medical facilities and schools, but in the end was overwhelmed by her double existence. ‘I was sitting on my veranda one day when panic overcame me. The plants that twined around me were dangerous, poisonous. There was poison everywhere. I washed my hands incessantly to keep it at bay. As well as fear there was pain, and I was given pills and sent to hospital for treatment.’ She left India on a stretcher.
It’s some relief to know that in spite of the blinding upbringing there were those who could see what there was to be seen, but Iris Macfarlane herself doubts that fair trade reached Assam even after the Empire was long gone. ‘The Indian managers who took over continued “to flaunt a colonial lifestyle” as a contemporary author has put it. They were without exception the product of public schools . . . where their heads were filled with the same nonsense mine had been.’ So much for my new-found tea-tasting pleasures. Plenty to keep the mind and palate occupied, but ever so slightly, ever so noticeably tainted.