Afternoon tea is often dismissed as something only little girls and frivolous ladies do, on Saturday afternoons and other occasions in which the gentlemen are away doing something more substantial. It has come to be associated with lace, pink, flowers and cupids painted on porcelain, and gossip. Why then, would this blog be called ‘Aristotle at afternoon tea?’
Because tea is an extremely serious affair. The English, who consume impressive amounts of it, would know. Over the course of history tea played a powerful political role in Britain’s conflicts with formidable foes like the revolutionary American colonies and their infamous Boston Tea Party in 1773, or China during the first Opium War of 1839. Fearful of ever being deprived of their valuable cup of tea, at one point the scheming English even launched undercover missions to transport tea plants from China to the Indian colonies in 1848. The most famous of these was conducted by Robert Fortune, an English botanist who disguised himself as a Chinese merchant to transport 20,000 tea plants and seedlings to the Darjeeling province of India. You may thank him every time you sip a cup of strong black tea by that name.
War, espionage, international scandals and undercover trade routes. It takes more than any ordinary insipid drink to stir up such a commotion. From the very beginning, the English attributed a social and political importance to tea far greater than its basic value.
When tea was first imported to Britain in the early 1600s, the product was so expensive that it was a luxury reserved exclusively to the wealthy classes. At the time, one pound of tea cost about as much as nine months of a British laborer’s wages. When in the 19th century tea eventually became available to the entire population, social status still permeated in the way it was drunk: the poor drank it black or with milk and brown sugar, while the rich drank it with cream and lumps of sugar.
Tea moved on to play a considerable role in the emancipation of women and their initiation to England’s political and business spheres in the 19th century. In 1859, the male society in London took to hosting long business lunches followed by interminable pots of tea to debate the prevalent political ideologies of the time and the management of colonial interests and trade routes. This left their wives and daughters hungry and bored for long stretches of time between lunch and dinner. Anna-Maria Russell, the seventh duchess of Bedford, resolved the conundrum by introducing what is known today as 4 o’clock or ‘afternoon’ tea. And so it came to be that every afternoon, over a cup of tea and some cake or buttered bread, women could gather and discuss politics and economics, topics that at the time were deemed inappropriate for ladies in mixed society.
Today, not only has tea become an intrinsic pillar of English nationalism and identity, but it has also come to symbolize two powerful values worldwide: solace and pragmatism. In times of great crisis and distress, or at the frazzled end of yet another day, tea offers that moment of respite in which to reflect, discuss, and regroup … decide on the appropriate steps to be taken, and then calmly, determinedly, act.
During World War II, Marlene Dietrich, a famous German actress and singer who renounced Nazi Germany and used her fame and skills to support Allied war efforts, astutely remarked on the role of tea in crisis decision-making during that time:
The British have an umbilical cord which has never been cut and through which tea flows constantly. It is curious to watch them in times of sudden horror, tragedy or disaster. The pulse stops apparently and nothing can be done, and no move made, until 'a nice cup of tea' is quickly made. There is no question that it brings solace and does steady the mind. What a pity all countries are not so tea-conscious. World-peace conferences would run more smoothly if 'a nice cup of tea', or indeed, a samovar were available at the proper time.
This blog is an adventure I have been wanting to go on for a while. It is a forum to reflect on and discuss great ideas, great events, great minds. I also hope it serves as a springboard to action. For that purpose, I hope it is rightfully named. This is no frilly tea party, this is afternoon tea.
I will end this with a quote from a brilliant novel, written by a great man with whom I would have been honored to have afternoon tea:
"Would you like an adventure now.... or would you like to have your tea first?" Wendy said "tea first" quickly, and Michael pressed her hand in gratitude.... - J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan