Tea and Life, Tea History

History, here we come…

As regular readers – yes, I’m talking to you – will know, myself and Lady Devotea share a love of history. We have a wide range of historical interests; and our interests lie pretty well with the last 6000 years or so.

Before that. as humanity was yet to invent the wheel, fire, the aloe vera-soaked facial tissue and the concept of not living a short life before being eaten by a wild animal, things were a bit dull. Although not for the imminent sabre-toothed tiger snackee.

Our interests range wildly, and we have some bits we are both passionately interested in, and some bits that one of us is keen on and the other finds interesting but maybe not as riveting. Generally, though we are both historical omnivores.

Where our interests coincide in a big way is London.

London is one of the worlds most important cities. It has built and re-built itself innumerable times. Like many of the great cities of the world, it has survived wars and pestilence and plague and Hall and Oates concerts; each time reconfiguring and adjusting to the damage. New stuff fills in the holes left and life continues.

There are many aspects of history that interest me about London, and of course, the big one is its connection to my specialist subject, Tea. I will be trying to work us much tea into our combined agenda as possible; although a dearth of it amongst stone age cultures, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Viking, Druids etc. might make you think there won’t be much.

In  31 days from the day I write this, we shall be there. And there is so much to do. We have a huge agenda. And there are some tea-related bits that I am burning to do.

I want to walk the tea district, from Deptford to the Docks. I want to visit the sites of famous coffee-houses. I want to go to Tyburn, where the Hawkshead gang were hung. I want to visit Twinnings.

Now, it’s wrong to suggest that we are only interested in tea. Not at all.

But tea is so woven into London. One can scarcely move between the Roman wall sections and the Tower of London, or walk from The Monument to the Fire of London to Arnold Circus to look at the way elegant townhouses rose from the ashes of London’s worst slum without passing by site after site of historical tea interest.

But here’s a question: when is history?

There’s no doubt the coronation of Henry VIII is history. The Cutty Sark sailed into history. The abdication of the King in December 1936, that’s history.

But what about yesterday? Last week? Where does it start?

The picture I have included has two books in it.

The one of the left is Jonathon Routh’s “Good Cuppa Guide – Where to have tea in London” . It was written in 1966, by an author who also wrote “The Good Loo Guide – Where to go in London”. To this day, I don’t think anyone else has covered both aspects for the serial tea drinker so comprehensively.

The late Mr Routh released this book the year after I was born. Next to it, is a book of similar usefulness, Zena Alkayat’s “Tea and Cake London”, published just last year.

In other words, these books illustrate the history of tea in one place, over my lifetime.

I love the first one. I read of far away places, in both space and time. I love the fact he leaves whole districts out as he took a wrong turn driving there. I love the way is is prepared to make what are now seen as politically incorrect jokes. Overall, I love the silliness that pervades.

But between the jokes, there is a fascination with the assumptions. I always come back to assumptions when reading a historical item. When I’m writing fiction set in the future, I love setting my own assumptions. Assumptions make a story.

There are a couple of assumptions that are fascinating in Routh’s book. He mentions tea trolleys in an off-hand way; as though you can expect to find them everywhere. He hardly ever encounters a tea bag.

He also assumed the class divide is a normal part of life:

“It’s really very fine in its way. I’d love one day to witness customers’ reactions to a gang of Irish road-menders coming in for a meal” – from his item on Good Fare, Kensington.

Good Fare, Kensington, seem to no longer exist. Routh did not put actual addresses in his book, so one cannot be 100% sure, but the usual sources don’t come up with it.

I became a little obsessed with this book a while back, and wondered how many of the places mentioned therein still exist.

Most of the hotels listed still do; and Afternoon Tea at The Dorchester and Browns Hotel are certainly on our agenda.

But to me, it’s the little local places that are fascinating, and the question is this: “Are there any establishments that have survived?”

Perhaps.

Let’s face it, this is the history of tea and cake. Not shipping or growing or smuggling or cupping – this is tea and cake. And tea without cake is like, well, tea without cake. It’s an appalling thought.

There is one place we are really excited about visiting. It’s Mason Bertaux in Soho, and it’s in both books.

As an aside, we have 64 potential locations for morning or afternoon tea mapped out in London. Some new, some very old. All exciting.

But to me, this one is going to be very special.

If we look at Alkayar’s book, it opens the chapter on Maison Bertaux with “Ramshackle, bohemian and filled with personality…” . What a great start! It goes on to explain that it opened in 1871, and the last line “Maison Bertaux is not just a cafe – it’s an experience.”

Wow, this sounds like a truly excellent place to be. The piece also involves this three word jackpot: ‘glistening French cakes”.

Now sadly, Maison Bertaux is one area where Routh really lets the reader down.

The reason is that, with a  Soho location, Routh took the opportunity to play on the reputation of that locality as a den of vice. His review runs along the lines that this respectable-seeming tea shop must be a front for something salacious. Other than mentioning “rather good tea for 1s3d” the piece is just meant to be funny. It has virtually no information.

However,  Alkayat’s book offers a solution. It seems that Maison Bertaux is run by two sisters, and it mentions that one of them, Michelle, has worked there since the 1960s.

So, with a bit of luck, Michelle may well be a good source of information on the history of tea and cake.

Henry Ford is often quoted with these words he said in 1916:

History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history that we make today.

Well, up yours, Henry. History is not bunk.

It is flint and axe, sword and book, paper and penicillin, hero and villain, victory and defeat. It’s is Genghis Khan and the Aga Khan, William Shakespeare and Robbie Shakespeare*, Winston Churchill and John Winston Lennon; Marie Curie and Marie Antoinette. It’s the moment that Neil Armstrong got the words he planned to say wrong; the moment the Sydney Harbour Bridge was opened by Francis de Groot (much to the surprise of the guy who was supposed to cut the ribbon), the moment some French guy decided snails looked edible; the moment Cleopatra fell on her asp. From moderately important changes like the US constitution to momentous occasions like Queen’s Night at The Opera album.

And furthermore, Henry -you oafish dolt – it’s profiterole and orange pekoe; sponge and souchong; Bai Mu Dan and “another scone, please”.

Ahh, history, it’s so close now I can taste it.

 

 

*Brilliant session bass player for people like Joe Cocker. Don’t tell me you didn’t know that.

 

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2 thoughts on “History, here we come…

  1. “He mentions tea trolleys in an off-hand way; as though you can expect to find them everywhere. He hardly ever encounters a tea bag.”

    He was probably living in an era gone by now.
    This is history.

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