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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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15 thoughts on “Friends, Romans, Countrymen: listen up you load of bludgers

  1. I love the way you rant. It is funny and sweet all at the same time. I am actually waiting for this book to be available for the Kindle and hope I enjoy it as much as you and the other aforementioned reviewers. From what I gather I will be waiting unil middle of next year. Patience is a virtue right? :)

    • Oh Rachel, you should really consider a hard-cover version of this one. The book is beautiful, and it lends itself to flipping the pages and unexpectedly landing on something you didn’t expect.

      Enough of my shilling…it’s obvious I’m ‘sold’ on this book.

  2. You know, I deal with so many Brits, or folk who learned Oxford English in school, that it’s really better professionally that I write like the natives do. It’d confuse me even more than I normally am confused to constantly switch back and forth.

    Hence my unAmerican spellings of words and phrases.

    Having said all of that, it doesn’t bother me in the least when I see the Americanised versions of these terms. How could it? For someone in my situation, that’d be truly ridiculous.

    I like the way you approached this book. My favourite feature is that the text can be read from any point and one might read one single essay, peruse a few or get lost reading something you’d not seen on an earlier inspection.

    When I want to write something tea-related and find myself wanting a topic, I simply flip through my copy of The Tea Reader…viola: instant topic.

  3. I’ve enjoyed reading all of the reviews about “A Tea Reader.” It’s fascinating to see the different perspectives and approaches. I must confess that this will forever be one of my favourites. (See how I used the “u” there. That’s just for you.) I never thought I would welcome a review that began with the author throwing the book across the room and trashing the cover, but then, there is only one The Devotea. Thank you for your candor and kind words.

    And by the way, I’m not really a lovely person. It’s just an act I put on…for the fans, you know.

    Honestly, it was a wonderful review. I look forward to someday reviewing your tea book.

  4. One more time, you managed to surprise me by starting at one point and getting to another one.

    I feel sorry for the book that lost its cover.
    Even if it has a tea bag on it, it is still a book and should not be destroyed.

    Let’s all gather around the gallant sacrifice made by this book (well mostly by its cover).

    • Do not worry too much. It is only a slipcover on a hard cover book. There was no tearing or mutilating involved. (Although I can’t be altogether sure what he did to the slipcover once removed.)

      I should mention that my husband also thought the book looked best without the cover. He preferred the simple green. I told him it was fine as long as he left the interior intact.

  5. Was it the amendments themselves or the fact that attention was called to them that got your goat so poignantly, Robert? Just curious…

    ‘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.’ – I keep coming back to this and I still can’t read it without snorting with laughter in a most undigifnied manner. Good work.

    It is a bit sad that whenever people wish to signify tea (art prints, tea accessories etc) they seem to have to do it with a teabag… Boo to that I say. But apart from the cover (by which of course one should never judge a book anyway) this book sounds wonderful and I would love to get hold of a copy at some point. I shall recommend it to my local library! After all, if they listened to me when I requested more of Laura Child’s teashop mysteries, surely they couldn’t balk at a request for a tome of actual quality content…?

  6. Nicely written review, of course!

    This is a book I want to get my hands on. I looked it up on Amazon.com (link) and saw that only 2 people have reviewed it there.

    Anyone who reads it, should take moment to leave a review on Amazon. It’s a good show of support for Katrina, and reviews over there help sell books, and for all the hard work she’s done on it we should all help get the word out.

  7. Another great post! I’m sort of like Lahikmajoe in that my experiences with English are tinged with a background of dealing with European and French spellings and need for clarity. I was raised on American English, but I find it easier in some cases (or even at this point in my life, more ‘correct’) to spell it the British way (which, in point of fact, harkens back to the time when French and English blended, so you could say we’re all writing French as well).

    I just hope that the spelling differences were footnotes and not actual changes to the original wording of the manuscripts. Making it accessible to a mass audience is important, but when you’re talking about texts that are centuries old, to change them means to take away someone’s voice.

    Examples I run into often are Civil-War era letters between soldiers and family. Many of them couldn’t spell very well, some could, and others were well-educated and clung to British conventions. But the way they chose to “speak” on the page is part of who they were. To correct a Rebel soldier’s bad spelling would be to make him appear more educated than he was, and so forth. A bugaboo in my opinion.

    That point aside, I’ve been hearing and reading wonderful things about the Tea Reader, and though I won’t have time to get a copy until after the holidays, it sounds like it’s worth checking out. If it managed to cross the Devotea’s desk, there must be something in it worth reading!

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