BOSWELL James (1740-95), Scottish
man-of-letters and biographer and friend of Dr Samuel Johnson
(lexicographer and lion of English literature), successful lawyer,
man-about-town, bon-viveur, intermittent rake, self-revealing diarist,
clubbable and fond of a good, glass-clinking party.
I am adding
to my knowledge of that admittedly flawed but irrepressible character by
reading Boswell’s Edinburgh Journals 1767-1786, published by Mercat Press
and edited by Hugh M Milne, which gives a robust and riveting insight into
the virtues and vices of Edinburgh society in the hard-drinking,
intellectually-intoxicating Enlightenment times.
Bozzie giving a supper for five friends, "We had a compete riot which
lasted until near twelve at night. We had 11 Scotch pints of claret (equal
to 33 imperial pints), two bottles of old hock and two of port and drams
of brandy and gin ..."
They grew noisy and drunk, as Boswell did on other
occasions, but he was no alcoholic: he was, rather, "a hardened and
shameless tea-drinker" - the self-description of Dr Johnson who amused the
evening, solaced the midnight and welcomed the morning with "that
Well, Polly put the kettle on and Teas up Mother
Brown; I have something in common with those literary lovers of the leaf.
I cannot put my day’s routine into gear unless I am lubricated with
selected infusions of my favourite brands - Tibetan Tips, Earl Haig Black
Gunpowder, Beijing Breakfast and Bombay Breath - and over the drinking
decades, from nursery tea, suggestive of un- filtered pond water, through
khaki-coloured, Army brews, sharp as bayonet thrusts, to editorial tea, as
brown and pungent as the Ganges, I have probably drunk enough of the stuff
to float the Royal Navy.
I had thought that traditional tea was part of the
life-blood, if not the DNA, of Britain. Al-though the author and
playwright, JB Priestley, wrote, "our trouble is that we drink too much
tea. I see in this the slow revenge of the Orient, which has diverted the
Yellow River down our throats", the British have heedlessly sustained
themselves, in peace and war with the brew that cheers but does not
During the First and Second World Wars, the British
Army sometimes postponed battlefield operations until tea-break was over.
In such stirring times, the enemy just had to lump it. These refreshing
interludes gave rise to the lines, "what- ever happens, we have got the
British brew-up and they have not".
For those who believed that
Britain was an island surrounded by tea, it is hard to swallow a report
that the traditional cup, with milk, a couple of sugars, and stirred not
shaken, is no longer a potent symbol of British taste. According to a
report published by the research group, Datamonitor, we are deserting
traditional brands and buying herbal alternatives.
ago, Britons bought 279 million pounds of traditional tea bags a year, but
that has dropped to 251 million pounds, allowing Turkey to overtake
Britain as the world’s most enthusiastic tea drinkers. Herbal teas are
largely responsible for the decrease in traditional tea sales, with
purchases of fruit infusions up 50 per cent over the past five years.
that certainly takes the biscuit. I am a follower of the traditional
infusion belief that tea should have a whiff of stern rectitude combined
with a de-mulcence that goes with a hot, buttered muffin and just a hint
of Oriental rapture suggested by tinkling temple bells and Burmese maidens
dancing in the shadow of the Shwe Dagon pagoda. All else, in my
essentially-biased view, is a decadent deviation from the true path of
taste, best experienced when tea is poured through a strainer.
nothing about the metaphysical principles or moral practices of those
herbal heretics but, after a visit to a gigantic cathedral of commerce, I
saw the seductive offerings to the infidels - grapefruit crush, cranberry,
raspberry and elderflower and apple and ginger teabags. If these do not
result in a teacup storm bet-ween traditionalists and deviationists, they
should, at least, cause a stir.
Meanwhile, back to James Boswell
- on drinking tea. "It comforts and enlivens without the risks attendant
on spirituous liquors. Gentle herb, let the florid grape yield to thee.
Thy soft influence is a more safe inspirer of social joy."
every florid word of it, and I raise my steaming cup to the wisp of his