Coals to Newcastle

The Scottish media are delighted by the idea that tea is now grown, albeit in limited quantities, in the Highlands; and that it has ‘generated interest’ from China.

The tea plant is pretty hardy: as the representative of the Wee Tea Co. is keen to point out, some of the best tea-growing areas in the world are high in the mountains – Darjeeling, for instance, where the plant thrives at up to 1500m in the Himalayas. Scotland, therefore, should present no problem once the plants have hardened off.

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The news would have surprised Dr. Johnson, the great poet, critic, essayist and tea-drinker, who made a tour of the Highlands in 1773 with his friend, intellectual punchbag and fawning amanuensis James Boswell, and noted its economic shortcomings with his usual acerbic wit.

Mr. Arthur Lee mentioned some Scotch who had taken possession of a barren part of America, and wondered why they would choose it. Johnson: “Why, Sir, all barrenness is comparative. The Scotch would not know it to be barren.”  Boswell: “Come, come, he is flattering the English. you have now been in Scotland, Sir, and say if you did not see meat and drink enough there.”  Johnson: “Why yes, Sir; meat and drink enough to give the inhabitants sufficient strength to run away from home.” Boswell, Life of Johnson

In truth, the Scottish tea revolution is in its early stages. All interviews I have seen, such as the one above, are with one or two men standing in a field of 2000 plants, their whole empire. In consequence, it is one of the most expensive teas you can buy.

I have seen Dr. Johnson’s teapot, held as an exhibit in the museum of his birthplace in Lichfield, and it could probably contain half of their annual output in a single brew – Dr. Johnson himself could down twenty-five cups at a sitting. No doubt Boswell would have had him snorting with derision at the idea of a plantation of Scottish tea. But then he might also have had something to say for the parallel Cornish tea explosion – it seems they too are doing very well in China – evidently the media litmus test of a successful tea enterprise.

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Tea and the Progress of the Soul

Because I do not believe in the immortality, or indeed the existence, of the soul, I find myself forced to conclude that tea cannot be good for it. But paradoxically, I also know this to be false.

I used to live in Italy, and still miss the rapidity of café culture – the quick shot of coffee standing at the bar, or cappuccino and a sticky bun for breakfast, again standing at the bar. But as my Irish friend said about the banger (quoted on Monday’s blog), you could not get a decent cuppa there for love nor money.

I read now with considerable satisfaction that there are psycho-physiological underpinnings to the love of tea (and of other hot drinks, admittedly). For instance, evidence suggests that simply holding a cup in your hand makes you more sympathetic, better disposed to all and sundry (partly for the warmth – we seem to map emotional warmth to physical warmth). Drinking plenty of tea can also make you well if you are unwell, and happy if you are not.

In part this explains the historical reliance of the British on the cup of tea. The very lack of rapidity is half the story. Tea may be vivifying, but drinking it is fundamentally a contemplative experience. We have used it for generations to help us navigate in emotional crises, to generate solidarity, to provide consolation.

Here, for instance, is the final scene of Brief Encounter (1945) – a mawkish but well-loved film by David Lean where Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, both married, embark on, and then desist from, a clandestine love affair. It ends, as I seem to remember it began, in the tea room of a railway station. It purports to be about farewells and the brevity of love and life, but it really all about the tea, in fortifying vats of which they perpetually swim.