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The Other Side of Everything

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Written on August 25, 2006, and categorized as Secret and Invisible.
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Tea is the first drug for which I ever developed a serious habit. In our home, the kettle and the pot where available to all at any time. The one rule was that if the kettle was filled and boiled, you had to shout out (unless in a perilous late rush) “Does anyone want tea?” Not to do so was rude and insulting and you would almost find yourself left out of tea-drinking in the next family tea round.

Cut to: a wet, English afternoon in winter, sodden coats, hats and boots distributed everywhere from the hall to the bathroom, red noses and cheeks on seven faces, steaming mugs of tea held in wind-bitten fingers, and the taste of the pot-brewed brown liquid lightly scalding your tongue as you talked steam-driven conversation around a fire, tea restoring warmth, lifting the spirits after an afternoon in the rain.

As a child I rapidly became good at the tea-making art. The reason for this was two-fold. Mother was (is) a tea-head. To make a decent cup of tea in the morning was an essential task which went a long way to establishing your “good” credentials. The second was that it meant you got the best cup of tea possible, the first top up of a seriously stewed, tannin- and caffeine-laden brew, more potent than should be available to children under 40 for medical reasons. Sod Pepsi Max – just two or three cups of home-brewed tea would put the buzz of Indian and Ceylon in your veins, get you through your hour-long commute to school – often a combination of car lifts, bus journeys and long walks laden with bags – exercise books, text books, sports bags, musical instruments. It was exhausting and tea was necessary.

Cue to: the dog-end of a blistering teenage row. Cruel words have been said in haste and repented, but a useless combination of pride and spent anger have landed the protaganists in a moral slump. Then tea, the gentle ritual providing a normalising structure of events to follow after the chaos of shouted accusation and wept contrition, boiling and brewing replacing failed language and love.

Tea we are told dehydrates you – it is a diuretic, as my Aunt Judy says brightly “Tea, tea, makes you pee!” Except now, we are told, no it doesn’t by Dr Carrie Ruxton, and colleagues at Kings College London.

This scientific advice may be as useless as the advice from tobacco-companies that smoking is not addictive and doesn’t kill you, since the funding for this work comes from the Tea Council, but, like anyone who loves tea, my heart is made happy (and probably healthy) by the following:

“Dr Ruxton said: “Drinking tea is actually better for you than drinking water. Water is essentially replacing fluid. Tea replaces fluids and contains antioxidants so its got two things going for it.”

She said it was an urban myth that tea is dehydrating.

“Studies on caffeine have found very high doses dehydrate and everyone assumes that caffeine-containing beverages dehydrate. But even if you had a really, really strong cup of tea or coffee, which is quite hard to make, you would still have a net gain of fluid.

“Also, a cup of tea contains fluoride, which is good for the teeth,” she added.

Some of the findings are remarkable – in older people, tea represents 70% of fluid intake. They also found “clear evidence that drinking three to four cups of tea a day can cut the chances of having a heart attack.”

Cut to: a funeral in south London. It is morning, so heavy drinking is out of the question until after lunch, which is one reason that the interrment was scheduled for 10.30 am. There is the usual procession of black, ill-fitting jackets and shoes, white shirts blanching the faces of the scared and sad. “21 wreaths…” mused a highly-freaked-out friend of the deceased, “and he was 21 years old… ” Somehow the coincidence and the observation spooked the assembled mourners.

“Let’s go and get a cup of tea for fuck’s sake,” muttered the budding 17-year-old alcholic, at which all faces lifted with hope, and the spell was broken.

Polyphenol antioxidants are coursing through me as I write this. In fact, in the same way that Phillip K. Dick wrote on amphetamines and Alan Ginsberg wrote on marijuana, Blog of Funk is constructed upon the foundations of a morning walk and the daybreak cuppa.

Cut to: the stage crew room. Studying like a bastard for “O” levels, the dreaded “thou shall not fail” exams we take on this god-forsaken rock aged 16, I would freqently suffer an almighty crash as the huge amount of caffeine ingested at 7am ran out by 11am. So, aged 14, I joined the stage crew, whose tasks were numerous and involved lighting, prop construction, and all things technical and dramatic. Reason? A tiny room to cram into for morning break, with… a kettle! This essential tea injection meant I would last the rest of the morning without fighting desperately closing eyelids as the drug left my system.

The discoverer of tea, according to Chinese lore, was Confucius. Of course, Confucius is attributed to have done everything and said everything that was great and good, so it probably wasn’t actually He. Maybe it was his mate, though, or more likely, his Mum. The story is that he was boiling water and leaves from the tea-bush were blown into the pot. There is a marvellous “Confucius” quote about tea, which goes,

“The first sip is ecstasy, the second, enlightenment, the third, madness…”

One of the madness-inspiring aspects of tea is the endless variety of it’s forms. In the same way people make lists of favourite films and books, I make lists of my favourite teas.

1. Darjeeling – the “champagne” of teas, whose subtle flavours dance across the tongue
2. Assam – a staple, with a firm, long taste
3. Orange Pekoe – combines a depth of flavour with unparalelled lightness
4. Jasmine – of course! It’s heaven after a meal
5. Lapsang Souchong – the smokey redolence matched by a unique taste
6. British Rail – always served strong and extra hot, and full to the lip of the cup to ensure spillage
7. Genmaisha Macchairi – green tea with roasted rice – your tea and your breakfast cereal in one!
8. Gunpowder – little bollocks of tea expand miraculously into unbroken leaves in hot water
9. Kenya – strong as an ox, orange colour, lip-smacking
10. Masala Chai – a spicy blend of cardomom, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, black pepper and coriander, served sweet with condensed milk for that genuine sub-continental taste.

Note that important, nutritious and tasty herb teas like mint, and Rooibos have been omitted in deference to the mighty Camellia sinensis, which rules the tea-drinking nations of the world.

When I became recently unwell, I was advised to cut down on dehydrating drinks, including caffeine. So, with little more than a few days of withdrawal headaches, out went coffee, now no more than a pleasant smell and a complimentary taste to walnuts in cake. But tea? How could I end this love affair which has been continuing for over 40 years? How can I not stagger up out of bed in the morning and make the first daily journey, not to the bathroom or the sink, but to the kettle? How can I sit and absorb the fact of my re-awakening to face another day without the half-pint of warmth in the belly, a comforting throwback to maternal milk? Now, thank God, I can take this new research into the medics, and we’ll sit around discussing the findings over a nice cup of tea.

Although tea drinking is falling, the average Briton still manages to drink 1,000 cups a year – we drink more than any other nation on the planet. I have often considered that in my later life, I shall not be resident within these shores, because I have always had a strong feeling that I shall live my final years in a hot country, and expire happily far away from the land of my birth. The more I consider my relocation options, the more one country calls me over and over again… the great tea-growing nation of India. Then at least, come hell or high water – and I am expecting both to arrive before I depart – I shall at least have my cup of tea.

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This thing has 8 Comments

  1. MissMuse
    Posted 25 August, 2006 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    I’ve developed a taste for green tea, but have to say I prefer coffee. 🙂

  2. Indigobusiness
    Posted 26 August, 2006 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    If tea were truly bad for you, it would be amongst the cruelest of jokes.

    Although the bit about fluoride being good for teeth is a despicable lie -there’s never been any evidence for that- but that’s a long and horrific and controversial story. I figure high fluoride doses in tea its only real shortcoming.

    There was a story on a teashop in the local news this week that spoke of the intoxicating and even hallucinatory qualities proclaimed of some teas. I should’ve taken notes.

    If tea were truly bad for you, the kids would be drinking a helluva lot more tea.

  3. twit
    Posted 26 August, 2006 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

    I probably drink more coffee than tea, but if I had to ditch one it would be coffee. A mug of Assam with my toast & marmalade, Ken Bruce (Radio2) gently prodding my mind, & being human starts to appear feasible for another day.

    (I’m going to stop there, as that’s possibly the most innocuous/mediocre thing I’ve ever written; it almost felt vulgar!)

    Good look with the health/tea-ingestion situation anyway.

  4. Lazy
    Posted 27 August, 2006 at 12:24 am | Permalink

    I’m drinking loads of different teas and I’m as hardcore an addict as they come.

    Beautiful beautiful elegy to the tea leaf! The wonderful things to have come from India… tea, hashish, South Indian coffee… these great gifts of mother nature…

  5. bigblue
    Posted 28 August, 2006 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    I drink loads of teas and herbal infusions. I like Earl Grey (someone told me it is not a proper tea) and Rooibos. I also read somewhere that there are now more tearooms/shops in Paris than in London?

  6. Lazy
    Posted 28 August, 2006 at 11:13 pm | Permalink

    They were absolutely right, Earl Grey isn’t a proper tea.

  7. Lazy
    Posted 28 August, 2006 at 11:16 pm | Permalink

    Think you might find Pakistanis Afghans Indians Chinese Persians Turks all drink as much tea as the Brits… all in their own style, not the standard insipid PG tips with skimmed milk and two sugars, please…

  8. Indigobusiness
    Posted 29 August, 2006 at 3:44 am | Permalink

    American Indians drink jimsonweed tea.

    Why fuck around?

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