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A Christmas Rant

I was listening to the summer fare on ABC radio.

For those of you who don’t live in Australia, ABC radio is our public broadcaster. It offers the most intelligent and intellectual news, discussions on a wide variety of topics such as politics and economics, society, world events and so much more.

So it’s generally considered not the sort of radio that anyone under 60 listens to, and I have listened to it more or less continuously since I was 19, because I’m not the sort of person that any anyone has in mind when they make fatuous generalisations.

For 48 weeks of the year it is fantastic, but over summer it has two functions:

  1. To broadcast the cricket
  2. To make the days where there is no cricket as bearable as possible

Generally, they fail at number 2. They do stuff on the cheap over summer, so the programmes become National. So instead of your beloved local presenters, you get voices you don’t know, they stop mentioning the time and they have the forced jollity of a volunteer drama teacher in a prison.

It is during this activity yesterday that they had a segment called “Your family’s unusual Xmas gift-giving practices.”

Several people, whom I shall mildly sneer at, had families where a ‘Kris Kringle’ was the norm, but where people drew numbers from a hat, went up and picked a present, and then a later person could force you to swap your unopened gift for one they had pulled from under the tree and decided they didn’t like.

On one level,  I applaud the generally heroic attempts to turn gift giving into a competitive sport where you can outwit Aunt Mildred, palm off young Jonny, aged 5, with a cheap shaving kit and get to run around singing “We Are The Champions” when you open the digital radio that someone else won in a competition and didn’t want. It’s very Australian, and it must be noted that there is no cricket on the radio on Christmas Day, so we need our sports fix.

But I hate the idea of a Kris Kringle. “You will buy one gift, to the tune of $40, and stick it under the tree”.

There are so many things wrong with that it’s not funny. but let’s move on to even more despicable practices.

There are families where there is a dollar limit to gift giving. “You will spend no more than $2 on a gift for each adult”. I remember being at a  family gathering many years ago where apparently this had been organised by one family member without telling anyone else. They would whine “but WE ALL AGREED on the $2 limit” as they opened a crystal tea set* or new Mercedes convertible* , and looked smug as one of their recipients opened a free calendar that had clearly come with a box of tomatoes from the local greengrocer**.

I understand the rationale behind setting limits: it’s because you’re cheap and uncaring.

But even worst are those the smuggest of the smug; those who declare “Well we’ve agreed that the adults don’t get presents at Christmas time”. BAH HUMBUG. You miserable, cheap bastards. You dress up your pusillanimous and miserly ways as a virtue “Well, it’s all about commercialism, isn’t it, and we’re above all that.”

Above it? You’re beneath contempt. You avoid dipping your stingy short arm in your deep pocket; you avoid making an effort to get out and get gifts; but mostly you are declaring to the world “I am so damn selfish I can”t be bothered thinking of a nice gift for anyone else”.

‘It is better to give that receive’ is one proverb that I believe is innate in us. Giving is the greatest gift of all. How dare these cheapskates try to hold the high moral ground?

And the economic argument? So you’re almost flat broke? So what?

What does it cost for two pieces of cellophane, some string, half a kilo of butter, some flour and some sugar? Bugger all, really.

Giving shortbread to everybody for Xmas is easy. And you can think about the shapes and decorations you use. You can use your imagination to make a really personal gift for your loved ones, and without a shopping mall in sight.

One year we owned a teashop. 80 hour weeks, no spare cash at al. So everyone got tea.

But every person got a selection of tea carefully thought out to suit them. That’s the whole idea. It’s the thought that counts.

So, skip the humbug, enjoy gift giving, and have a Merry Christmas.

I hope I get some tea.

*Exaggerated for comedic effect
** I wish this had been exaggerated for comedic effect. It was me that got the calendar.

 

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Tea and Life, Tea Stories

The Night Before Teamas

‘Twas the night before teamas,
And all through Tea Trade,
Not a blogger was stiring,
Not a rant or tirade.

Nicole is online,
but not blogging of tea,
she’s solving some geek stuff,
of great complexity.

In France there’s Xavier,
A bed he’s tucked in,
With a book by Maynard Keynes,
And a Tie Guan Yin.

And have we no scandal,
being writ on these pages?
No, Jo’s making chai,
And it’s taking her ages.

Katrina’s Tea Pages
Don’t write themselves,
But she’s interviewing Santa,
About his tea-making (and elves).

And Purrfect Courtney,
Is not blogging tonight;
It’s three cats and an Earl Grey,
In the flickering firelight.

Mixing and baking,
Voila! A christmas log,
It’s no wonder Verity
Hasn’t time to blog.

Ralph doesn’t drink tea,
and so is beyond saving.
Rachel could blog of that,
But there’s a cat that needs shaving.

Where’s Ravi Lochan?
He’s wandering estates,
We hope he types his tale soon,
As we don’t like to wait.

Surely there’s action,
From the Beasts of Brewdom?
Who love tea and blogging,
and don’t lightly eschew them.

But Geoff’s in a snowdrift,
He hopes it won’t take too long,
To rush home from his late shift,
And rustle up an oolong

There’s no action from Munich,
Because Ken’s eating cheese
And showing his friends,
His 10 latest teas.

And the Devotea is dreaming,
Of a magical sleigh,
in which to circle the world,
and share tea, Teamas Day.

And if Tea Trade falls silent,
for one day each year,
which all of its bloggers,
spend with their near and dear,

They’ll all raise their teacups,
To salute another year,
And give thanks to Jackie and Peter
That Tea Trade is here.

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Tea and Life

Ahem.

Today, I started with a cup of tea. It was Persian Princess, one of my own blends. Later, I resteeped it, but for a lark, I added a pinch of Rotgut Tea.

Rotgut Tea is what is in a canister I keep on my bench top. Every time I find a box of tea covered in Chinese or Hindi text and it’s worth pennies, I buy it and try it. If I don’t like it, I add it to The Rotgut. Sometimes I buy a well known brand with an iconic name (e.g Brooke Bond’s Taj Mahal Blend) only to find it tastes like tea-stained sawdust, so in it goes. Overall, it’s mostly CTC.

So, I’m drinking a blend you’re unlikely to have had unless you are one of the 50 odd people in Australia who have purchased that blend, and on top of that, I’ve added a pinch of what can only be described as a tea mongrel.

So, let’s review it.

For my method, I stuck the leaves in a pot. Well, the Persian Princess ones were already there. All up, they were kind of brownish and smelt like black tea.

Then I placed some water in a kettle. Of course, I filtered it first, as Adelaide water is harder that Chuck Norris.

I then bought it to boil, and poured the boiling water on the leaves. I gave it precisely the amount of time it takes to let a cat in, collect the paper, send a funny tweet about the paper, let another cat in and the first one out, fall over a third cat and curse.

And I liked it. It tasted like strong black tea, with an edge of danger, a flash of excitement, a six pack of sarcasm, a scintilla of parliamentary democracy and a smidgen of remorse.

I tasted leather, tannin, muscatel, chardonnay, honey, raisin, that gum on the back of stamps, 4 kinds of cheese, walnuts, new car smell, lavender, roast lamb with paprika potatoes, Bertie Beetle and the merest hint of the mythical ambrosia of the pantheon of ancient Greek Gods.

Dear Reader, by now, you’ve probably realised that I’m not seriously reviewing this tea.

But really, why should it be valid if I do? It’s unlikely that anyone else will have the same tea, the same water, the same amount, the same ambient temperature. The same sized pot. The same lingering garlic aftertaste of last night’s pizza. The same mild attack of hay fever.

And even if they did, there’s the small matter of personal taste.

For example, no amount of persuasion is going to convince me that Genmaicha works, except possibly as a stuffing for pillows in homeless shelters. To my highly refined palate, it tastes like stale – perhaps burnt- rice, grass clippings and under all that, thin, bitter, unpleasant Japanese tea.

On the other hand, I like a Lapsang Souching to be similar to a 1970′s Glam Rock concert: loud, brash and so foggy you can’t see a chain-mail-gloved hand in front of your mascaraed face.

So, is there a benefit in my reviewing either?

People who agree are going to nod; people who don’t are going to send me letters, (Dear Sir, I must protest at your drawing a parallel between the 2009 GyoSanTyoHalibutMika and giraffe vomit…) and the vast majority of the world will remain comfortably ignorant of my very existence.

At this point, we need to consider the idea of biting the hand that feeds.

I’ve just been accepted into the Association of Tea Bloggers. Woah!

You might recall I was rather upset to be rejected a while back. Whilst it was true that I didn’t actually meet their standards, I still got on my high horse.

Actually, I have a history that suggests such transgressions, even to those that are kind to me. I’ve written about books by Sarah Rose (@thesarahrose) and Katrina Avila Munichello (@teapages) – and these are books I’ve loved – in terms that would make lesser people hire an assassin. Tea companies that have kindly sent me tea have been forced to explain how well they treat their workers. Well-meaning tea nerds have been lampooned on a regular basis.

And let’s not forget that I have actually aggressively attacked “tea people” who were doing the wrong thing, according to my selective moral compass.

Erik Kennedy (@thetearooms) called me an iconoclast, and after I looked it up to be 100% sure, I agree. And what’s more, I enjoy it.

But I am at a crossroads. As a now respectable member of the Association of Tea Bloggers, do I, as we say here in Australia, “pull my head in”?

Do I stop stirring the pot metaphorically and just concentrate on stirring it literally?

Do I become a tea blogger than follows the tea community standard of “if you can’t say anything good about a tea, don’t say anything at all”?

No.

 

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Tea Stories

The Last Cuppa

“I’m Death. Pleased to make your acquaintance.”

I looked up and there he was. Pretty well as you’d expect. Black clothing. On the scrawny side. Big scythe, which he was swishing around in a  meaningful manner.

My manners kicked in.

“Please sit down, Mr Death. The kettle has just boiled.”

I indicated the second chair across the small table from my crumpets.

“Er, I don’t think you understand, Mr. Grundey. I’m here to collect your immortal soul.”

“Yes, yes, old chap”, I nodded. “But this is a really nice Margaret’s Hope. Second Flush, you know. And will only take a moment”

Death started to shake his head. “It’s quite against the rules, Mr Grundey. I have to collect your soul and … Margaret’s Hope, you say? SFTGFOP1, by any chance?”

“That’s the one”, I agreed, pouring the water into the kettle. “And to be honest, you look a little peaky. I’m sure you could use a nice cuppa. Refresh you for the day ahead.”

I set out another cup. “Go on, I won’t tell”.

“Well you can’t tell, can you, Mr Grundy? You’ll be dead.”

He guffawed good-naturedly and scrunched himself into the offered chair. I moved the crumpets to the middle of the table.

“So, a long shift today? ” I asked him conversationally.

“Well, there’s always plenty of work, said Death. “My father always said if I didn’t follow him into the family business. then the only other option was tax accounting, if you want certainty.”

Well, we both laughed. I suspect he didn’t get to laugh much. And my thought was, seeing as he was a six-foot skeleton with a scythe wanting to remove my soul, I’d best just keep him smiling.

I placed his cup in front of him, correctly surmising that an immortal legend and god-like figure would not want to be messing about with milk and/or sugar in a fine Darjeeling.

“So,” I ventured, “Is is too late for me to get one of those pictures in my attic? You know, the ones that age instead of me.”

We both laughed and then blew on our tea. His breath made a sound like a faraway train.

“Sorry, Mr Grundey. It doesn’t work like that. You have a moment in which to die, and yours approaches.”

I offered him the plate of crumpets, and he took one. I took the other and we both tucked in with gusto.

“Will I suffer?” I asked. “And is there.. you know, an afterlife? I’m not a religious man, you know?”

“Religion is neither here nor there. Mr Grundy. All the Gods left a while ago. They subcontracted out the afterlife to an outsourcing firm from the fourth dimension.”

“Really, what’s it like?”

“Well, the contractors were pretty lazy, so they just got the recently deceased William Morris to put up some wallpaper, and throw a few billion scatter cushions around. Later, they added some TV’s which are all tuned to ESPN.”

“Sorry?”. I paused in the midst of my last bite of crumpet. “So the afterlife is just one big hall, everybody who ever lived, William Morris wallpaper and sports TV?”

“And scatter cushions, Mr Grundey. They certainly liven the place up.”

“So’, I asked with a trembling tone. “Will I suffer?”

“Only for a few minutes, Mr Grundy. As long as it takes to choke to death on your second crumpet.”

“Would that be the crumpet you just ate, Mr Death?”, I asked.

Death looked down at the crumbs. “Ahhhh, damn it.”

“What does this mean, Mr Death?”

“It means, Mr Grundey, that you will never die”.

“Well, that’s certainly good news.” My brain was reeling. “Can’t wait to tell the great-great-great-grandkids”.

“That won’t be possible, Mr Grundy. You are now immortal… and there is only one job in the cosmos for an immortal.”

I felt the flesh shrink from my body as my clothes shimmered and changed into a black cloak. A scythe materialised in my hand, and a door appeared in the middle of my living room.

My campanion gestured toward it.

“Oh, well”, I sighed. “You win some, you lose some”.

He stood to one side.

“After you, Mr Death”

 

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Friends, Romans, Countrymen: listen up you load of bludgers

Let’s start with one simple change to history – let’s say Shakespeare was born in Burra, South Australia in 1925.

It’s only a small change. He’d still write a bunch of  plays.

But there’s many a slip twixt cup and lip, or as Billy-O Shakespeare would have written, “it’s easy to spill ya cuppa down yer shirt”

So we would have such immortal lines as “Bugger me, is that a knife I see right in front of me own two eyes?” and from ‘Macca’-the tragedy of betrayal, murder and revenge-the evocative “Out, out you bastard spot” declaimed by Noreen McBeth, not long before the mulga trees start moving in a threatening manner toward the pub.

But it would still be Shakespeare. If  “the big-mouthed arsehole got what was comin’ him” is not exactly “done to death by slanderous tongue”, it still has a resonance redolent of its time and place ; albeit a later time and different place under our small change to history.

I’m aware that no tea has turned up in this blog yet.  But I’d quote: “how poor are they who have not patience?”, which is probably better that our Aussie Shakespeare’s “Shut your flamin’ trap and ‘old your horses, you drongo” to push the concept miles beyond what is warranted.

And so, we can use language as a marker of its time. Even in jest – I love Not The Nine-O-Clock News‘s fake Chaucerisms  so much that I can recall them from my 1984 desk calendar (“tittes as bigge as Melonnes”)- we can see the parameters of what is being said by the language.

And it changes. People regularly say “the proof is in the pudding” these days, as opposed to the charming and more exact “The proof of the pudding is in the eating”.  At some point that began to occur, and future scholars will no doubt wrestle with the implications.

Hey, I’m nearly up to the point I’m trying to make.

If you are quoting from an old source, you have the choice between quoting ‘as is’, with or without annotations, or “modernising” it.

If you happen to be American, then you also have another issue. Ever since the “Great Big Book of Simplified Spelling As We Americans Clearly Aren’t Smart Enough To Spell Stuff Correctly”, otherwise known as Noah Webster’s “An American Dictionary of The English Language” was released, you’ve had to contend with differences in spelling.

I don’t know why effigies of Webster aren’t burnt on street corners in the USA. Where is your pride, Sons and Daughters of Liberty? With one book, he managed to infer that the whole country was the equivalent of a ‘special needs’ student. I mean, these guys wrote their own Constitution, right? And apart from the spelling of “chuse” for “choose” they seemed to cope quite well. There is no evidence that George Washington considered throwing himself off of a bridge because he couldn’t cope with that “u” in colour.

Anyway, so here’s the point of the preceding twelve paragraphs: I loathe books that alter spelling in case the reader can’t cope.

If the text was originally Middle English, then fair enough, it’s a translation. The past is a foreign country. But there is untrammelled joy in figuring out not just what a passage says, but why it says it in that way.

Whenever I encounter statements like the two following, my impulse is to fling what I am reading across the room.

*certain British spellings have been amended

*certain archaic spellings have been amended

So, after that long, long intro, let’s talk about a book I flung across the room for that very reason. And then retreived.

The book in question is “A Tea Reader: Living Life One Cup at a Time”described by its editor Katrina Ávila Munichiello as a collection of non-fiction essays, old and new, inspired by tea.

I had a troubled relationship with this book from the start.

Arrrrgghhhhh, there’s a tea bag on the cover. I took the cover off immediately and read it naked. The book, that is.

And I also had a fit of jealousy. Here’s someone who has published a book of tea stories. Shouldn’t that be me, even if I haven’t actually done the work? What is going on, Universe?

But damn it, I like Katrina. I see her about twitter as @teapages and she’s clearly a lovely person.

And May King (@MayKingTea) who passed it on to me,  liked it. As did fellow Beast of Brewdom Ken (@lahikmajoe).

So I persisted. And the book won me over.

For me, it’s a little Sinocentric – I am, at heart a disciple of Indian teas. I have 32 Chinese ones in my cupboard, but that’s a section of my cupboard that dwindles slower than my personal Himalayas of Indian teas.

There are some great stories in the book.  I understand why one reviewer said that Katrina should have written more herself. But she plays the part she chose to play and does so well.

I loved a short story by Dorothy Ziemann, a poignant vignette about drinking tea with her father before he passed away.

The Mistri-Sahib, a paean to a Scots handyman/engineer on an Indian tea plantation, is my favourite. It’s great slice-of-life stuff with no backstory, no end credits.

Many of the stories have a great weight of assumptions – racism, greed, callousness are assumed and stereotyped; in other stories great love is professed- usually either a love for the whole of humanity, or the love of a really good cuppa.

It’s one of those books where you finish one story late at night, your eyes are drooping, but no, you’ll go just one more. And so on into the night.

An interesting exercise is to skip through and only read the stories and essays that are from the last ten years. As a collection, they say much about what is a happening now. Events may well overtake the worshipful paean to Greg “Three Cups of Tea” Mortensen.

But to me the wondrous collection of historical documents is the key to the book, and from Ancient China to the near past in the USA, they sing from the pages.

A great example is A Chat over a Cup of Tea, from 1871 by US writer Jehiel Keeler Hoyt. It is interesting in that a century after the tragic waste of tea in Boston Harbour (as it was spelt in 1773 ) he talks about the dining habits, particularly in relation to tea, in his own words “… of the English (I include ourselves)” …

Huh? An American author, writing in 1871, about the love of hot tea and of the USA being lumped in with England with regard to tea. Despite both English Breakfast Tea and the teabag being invented by unrelated men called Sullivan in the US (one was an English immigrant), it’s easy to subscribe to the “we chucked in the harbour and now don’t drink it” view of American tea history.

But this piece, that floats midway-ish between the events of 1773 and now, paints a very different picture, and I find it intriguing.

If only certain archaic spellings hadn’t been amended.

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Tea and Life

The Tea Ceremony

For all this talk of tea ceremonies and the Tao, or Zen, or Way, or Path of Tea, I usually put it in a pot and add hot water to it. How much more ceremony do you need?

Yesterday I baked some buns and biscuits and used the best china, but it was still a pot of hot water with tea leaves in it, decanted into cups.

But there is one tea of the day that is a real ritual for me, and that is the first cup.

Sometimes, but rarely, it starts with poetry or prose.

That’s because the radio station my clock radio is tuned into has some sort of Australian Cultural Spot at about 5.45, which is when my alarm is set for. I am hardly ever still asleep by then, but if I am, I can count on a few lines about the joys of mulga, brolga or sweeping plains until such time as I smack it one across the top and it shuts up.

“Well, Davo and me were droving a thousand head of cattle toward the Murrumbidgee stockyards when this galah decided to hoist his jocks up the bollock dray pole..” SLAM!

Not the most elegant of starts. It hardly ever happens , though.

Often I wake up well before the alarm and then have to extract myself from the bed without waking Lady Devotea, who does not believe that there even should be a five o’clock in the morning; let alone that it’s a suitable time to get up.

Before I move, I need to do a cat count. We have three cats. The chances are that there are up to two on the bed, and a sudden movement can ping one across the room, like an unwilling and surprised trampolinist, to its intense and noisy discombobulation.

Often, between me and the edge of the bed is Skyla, sleeping peacefully, but ready to move if I awaken before her.

Should I not awaken before her, she solves that problem by reaching out and digging precisely one claw precisely two millimetres into my flesh, very slowly. Very deliberately. Very effectively.

Regardless of who wakes whom, she stays curled up until I have levered myself out of bed, then jumps up and runs past me, out of the door and down the hall.

She stands outside the bathroom door, as she knows that will be my first destination of the morning. Once I emerge from there, she races to the kitchen, and stands expectantly by the food bowl.

She knows not to say anything until I fill the kettle. Once I have plugged that in, she will start making odd noises until the food hits the bowl. Then all becomes silent, except for a vague purring and crunching.

I will open my tea cupboard, and consider the seventy-ish teas there.

If I have a migraine, it will be Doke Bai Mu Dan.

If I don’t, it will be one of the others.

After carefully measuring the tea by tipping it into the pot until it seems about right, I will flick open my tablet PC and whip through a few screen of emails, looking for anything interesting. Check my twitter feed. All the time, awaiting the click.

Once clicked, I’ll pour. Whilst it’s steeping, I’ll nip out the front and get the newspaper for Lady D (I can’t be bothered reading paper ones myself) and let in any cats that might have that requirement.

Then I pour.

If you think I use the best china, you’re wrong. I use a mug of about the size of an imperial pint glass. I remove the leaf strainer from the pot and balance it on the side, ready to use again if I decide on a re-steep.

It’s time to start work. I have a nine metre commute ahead of me: Out of the back door, across the deck and into the office.

I pick up the teapot in my left hand, pick up the scalding hot tea in its huge mug in my right. I take a deep sip of the tea, and I begin my day.

Skyla runs out of the screen door as I open it with my back.

Another sip at the halfway point.

As I get to the desk and take my seat, I take my third sip.

Ceremonially. Ritually. Happily.

 

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