Peter Sipe asked me what I thought about a Washington Post article about the decline of tea drinking in Britain (apparently, it's dropped from 68 grams per week in 1974 to 25 grams per week 40 years later). I read it and shuddered with horror. Without a single shot being fired, the British have become a nation of coffee drinkers. It's as if the ravens have left the Tower of London.
The Washington Post claims that tea drinking is the most British thing there is, so what has gone wrong? I think there are several possible answers:
1. We've gone to the dogs
Tea was a quintessentially British beverage because it offered a mild, barely perceptible stimulation, as restrained as the twitching upper lip of a dying Spitfire pilot. It was a drink that vicars and maiden aunts could consume it by the gallon without unleashing repressed passions. Labourers cherished it because the act of drinking a cuppa offered a brief, elysian respite from the drudgery of their working day.
In recent years, we've turned our backs on moderation and self-control, placing more value on self-expression and cheap sentiment. We began to let it all hang out around the same time that city gents stopped wearing bowler hats (if I had the time, I'm sure that I could plot out a causal relationship) and this was accompanied by a growing preference for stimulants. The 'nice cup of tea' and the traditional pint of warm, weak beer became replaced by amphetamine-like coffees and ever-stronger alcoholic beverages.
We went from becoming a nation that kept calm and carried on through the Blitz to one that wept like infants when Princess Diana died. We've gone to the dogs.
2. Travel has broadened the mind
Around the same time that gentlemen were abandoning their bowler hats, British people were discovering the delights of having a summer holiday in a place where it didn't rain half the time. They loved the climate, but weren't so keen on the cuisine - "Ooh Joan, you can't get a decent cuppa anywhere and the food's so garlicky". After a life of eating bland, overcooked food and weak tea, Mediterrnean cuisine must have been as overstimulating as LSD.
But after a while, people got a taste for 'foreign muck' and the supermarkets saw a growing demand for more exotic dishes, while old favourites like suet puddings, faggots and fish paste sandwiches saw a steady, inexorable decline. Our changing tastebuds, once shaped by a national cuisine of flavourless food and drink, now sought something a little stronger than tea.
3. Tea has got worse while coffee has become nicer
Half a century ago, a cup of tea would have usually been made in the traditional way, with loose leaves in a warmed pot, brewed for at least two minutes before being served in decent china. On the other hand, a cup of coffee would usually look and taste like washing-up water.
Then two things happened: some bastard invented the teabag and coffee began to become drinkable.
The big coffee revolution took place in the mid-80s, coinciding with the advent of yuppies. I'm pretty sure of this because when I went to university in Wales in the early 80s, coffee in cafes was usually undrinkable, but when I returned to London in 1987, everyone seemed to be drinking cappuccinos. I felt as if I'd been away for 20 years.
Coffee became seen as the drink of the cosmopolitan, go-getting white collar worker, while tea was the choice of builders and old people (there isn't time to venture into the dark world of herbal tea here, but it was the drink of choice of some of the worst people I've ever worked with - individuals who'd perfected passive aggressive behaviour into a martial art).
Those are my three main theories. I'm not sure which one is the nearest to the truth.
I don't have strong feelings about the relative merits of drinking tea versus coffee. I like both, but I dislike the coffee culture that has sprung up during the last 20 years. I'm annoyed by seeing people walk around clutching cardboard cups; perhaps because it represents that whole '24/7' culture of being permanently on the go. Good people fought for their right to have a tea break. Everyone should stop and sit down for 15 minutes.
I also hate the wanky 'barista' nonsense, as if operating a coffee making machine is a specialist occupation, like tree surgery and stonemasonry. And why is there so much choice? Maybe we did need something more imaginative than black/white/with/without sugar, but if I offer to buy someone a coffee, I don't expect to have to remember some nonsense about a double skinny mocha decaf latte while I approach the counter. It's symptomatic of a spoilt brat consumer culture, in which all needs and inclinations must be catered for.
On the other hand, tea is the drink of a civilised nation. Like coffee it has caffeine, but at a level where it feels like a relaxant rather than a stimulant. Having a cup of tea isn't just about drinking; it's about stopping and gathering's one's thoughts. Unless you have a cast iron esophagus, a cup of tea cannot be drunk quickly and that is one of its greatest virtues.
The future looks grim, but the tide may turn and the new generation of young people may turn their backs on skinny mochas, tattoos and long beards. I live in hope. In the meantime, my household will continue to drink tea in the afternoon, accompanied by a slice of something nice.
I will finish with this homage to tea by Chap Hop artist Professor Elemental: