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Writings of Albert Morris
Article 49 - I raise my steaming cuppa to the wisp of James Boswell's memory


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.

Here is 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 fascinating plant".

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 inebriate.

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.

Five years 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.

Well, 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.

I say 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."

I believe every florid word of it, and I raise my steaming cup to the wisp of his memory.


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