Friday, April 16, 2010

Taking Tea with George Orwell

In 1946 George Orwell wrote A Nice Cup of Tea.
Orwell himself is hard to get a handle on. His works such as Animal Farm and 1984 are casually described as anti-communist – whereas in fact they are anti-totalitarian. Orwell envisioned a ‘democratic socialist state” – he certainly hated the Soviet regime, and also the intellectual left of Britain in his day – he describes them as “pansy-left circles” in his essay Rudyard Kipling.
But he is a product of his times. In the same essay on Kipling, he defends Kipling’s use of the phrase “Lesser breeds without the law” - which is widely condemned as referring to native Indians- by saying it clearly means Germans, and is therefore not racist; presumably as Germans are clearly both inferior and lawless!
Whilst his seven works of fiction and two non-fiction books are very clearly a body of work that shows his belief in an egalitarian and equal society and his barely repressed anger at the class system in Britain and the rest of the world, his 50 essays range enormously from gems such as How the Poor Die to pieces on literature, well-known people, social mores and seemingly random topics.
There’s Books vs Cigarettes where he described his horror that ‘working men” will buy cigarettes and not books, when it clearly costs less per annum to build up a small library than to smoke heavily; Orwell, of course, does both. The same essay seems to assert that all heavy smokers are men.
But he’s no carping socialist theorist. On many occasions, he left behind his middle class life and lived among the poor. He travelled the globe from his birth in India to Europe. He fought against fascism in the Spanish Civil War. He describes himself as “Upper-Lower-Middle Class”
So, onto A Nice Cup Of Tea.
It was written and published in post-war Britain.
Each document is a reflection of its time. Imagine if the US Constitution had been written in 1968. It would be a very different document.
Or if the Bible had been written as the events it purports to describe had been happening, not half a millennia later. For a start, kings who lived centuries apart wouldn’t turn up in the same room.
So, what does A Nice Cup of Tea say to us about Orwell’s 1946?
Firstly, I love the word ‘nice’.
I’d use ‘brilliant’, or 'superb’ or ‘exceptional’ if it were me, but Orwell says ‘nice’. When you consider that 1984 has a recurrent theme of the manipulation of language, the plain old word ‘nice’ both serves its purpose and reflects his status - it is very Orwell.
In his introduction, he decries that the art of tea-making is not more widely documented, given its status as “one of the mainstays of civilisation” in Britain as well as “Eire, Australia and New Zealand”. That in itself is an interesting list, given how widely tea is drunk across the globe. It’s basically a 1946 list of countries where white-skinned folk drink tea.
But in the introduction, we come to his “eleven outstanding points”. Yes, eleven. He does admit that “at least four are acutely controversial”. I’ll try to keep count.
His first point is to always use Indian or Ceylon tea. He describes Chinese tea – the only other option it seems – as “economical, and one can drink it without milk – but there is not much stimulation in it”. There’s one controversy already!
So it seems that pre-Partition India was a more expensive place to get tea from than war-ravaged China. I can’t imagine why, but this is clearly a sweeping generalisation that grows from a personal preference.
Secondly, he insists on a teapot, not an urn or such contrivance. He does not advocate a teapot of “Silver or Britannia”, though he’s keen on both ceramic and pewter. I’m pretty sure that if he were alive today, he’d also hate water boiled in plastic kettles. Or is that just me?
His third point is to warm the teapot inside and out by placing in on the hob, rather than swilling it with hot water. There are echoes of this in the Vietnamese tea ceremony, where hot water is poured into and over the pot to ensure even warmth.
Fourthly, George liked it strong – 6 teaspoons to a ‘quart’ teapot, nearly filled. We’ll work through the maths later.
Fifthly, he decries any form of tea bag or in-pot strainer. I have designed several anti-teabag tea shirts, so it’s safe to say that I agree. It is interesting that tea-bags were seen in post war Britain as a great idea by the Government – easier to dole out the rations – but not by the populace in general, and very much not by George in particular.
But I’ve got that as ‘controversy two’. It still rages today.
Next, he implores us to take the pot to the kettle for maximum temperature – keeping the kettle on the flame while you pour, in fact. In stark contrast to many tea aficionados today, here’s a man who liked a heavy load of leaves, stewed in boiling water.
He does talk about the idea of only boiling water once, which he thinks is a bit pointless. The quality of water is the key here – in Adelaide, South Australia, where I live, the water is 100% safe but also 100% undrinkable, it’s chlorinated, fluoridated and high in salt. Most cafes in Adelaide serve undrinkable tea simply because they don’t either filter their water or use rainwater. Here, if you keep re-boiling water, it gets much worse.
Stirring or shaking the pot is point number seven. It’s hard to argue. He also suggests leaving the leaves to settle.
Eschewing the dainty china associated with England, he implores us to use a “breakfast cup” - a mug in other words. Fair enough.It’s hard to disagree that flattish dainty china does allow the tea to cool quicker – and he clearly likes it hot.
I rather suspect this is his third controversy. Very much anti-establishment thinking.
His ninth point has been ravaged by time – he suggests pouring the cream off the milk. These days, most milk is homogenised, so it’s not really valid. When we owned a tea shop and used unhomogenised milk, we would get the odd customer complaining that the milk ‘must be off’ as they could see the cream floating in it there.
Let’s pause here to say that Orwell assumed that one would put milk in one’s tea. And I suggest that not much has changed. Last time I was in the UK, I had to be very clear that I do not take milk. That way it only turned up with milk in it about half the time! And none of your little jugs to pour it in yourself – the whole country seemed to conspire to offer me third-rate tea, pre-milked.
So, on to point ten – the most controversial of all. Orwell himself says “in every family in Britain there are probably two schools of thought on the subject”. Tragically, Orwell was a tea-in-first advocate.
I am very much a milk-in-first person- not that I take milk myself. My thoughts are recorded on my video blog in one of my very early entries, so I won’t go into that here. I’m quite annoyed that Orwell agrees with my Mother-in-law, though.
Point eleven is that one must not “destroy the flavour of your tea by putting sugar in it”. He’s quite keen on this one – he says “It would be equally reasonable to put in pepper and salt”.
It’s quite unusual to find someone so anti-sugar and pro-milk, Actually, not pro-milk so much as assuming that milk is necessary or normal.
After his points, he finishes by mentioning tea etiquette, but for me, the closing statement requires some analysis.
“ as to make quite sure of wringing out of one’s ration the twenty good, strong cups of tea that two ounces, properly handled ought to represent.”
So, it’s time for that maths. The two ounces referred to is the 1946 tea ration – it equates to 57 grams, which to me should actually make about 27-28 cups.
Assuming that a “breakfast cup” or mug is 250ml and that a “teapot holding a quart” nearly full is a convenient 1 litre, that means his twenty cups come from five pots of four cups each.
Unless he is part of a group of four that shares, it seems to imply that on five occasions during the week, he drinks four cups of tea,
I know rationing is what it is, but the thought of less than eight cups a day is quite distressing to me. It’s just something I take for granted. Not so in post-war Europe.
Of course, Orwell could escape rationing by dining out, and getting some tea there, but I digress. Many people couldn’t.
So, if he’s making five pots, that’s 11-12 grams in each, which equates to his six teaspoons. I still suggest that that is very strong. Even if you go by the maxim of “one each, and one for the pot”, you’d end up with strong tea, and another pot per week.
So, like all of Orwell’s work, it mixes strong opinion and definite ideas with some set assumptions about life that reflect his times.
At this point, I shall go and make myself A Nice Cup of Tea.

No comments:

Post a Comment