By William Lyon Phelps
"Thank God," said Sydney Smith, "thank God for tea!What would the world do without tea?-how did it exist? I am glad I was not born before tea." Well, I get along very well without tea, though I rejoice to see that more and more in "big business" houses in American cities there is a fifteen-minute pause for afternoon tea.
One of the chief differences between the life of Englishmen and of Americans is tea. Millions of Englishmen take tea three times a day. Tea is brought to their bedside early in the morning, and thirstily swallowed while in a horizontal attitude.The first thing an Englishman thinks of, if he wakes at dawn, is tea. When Arnold Bennett was travelling in America he took a limited train from New York to Chicago. Early in the morning he rang for the porter and when that individual appeared he commanded nonchalantly a cup of tea. He might as well have asked for a pot of hashish. The porter mechanically remarked that the "diner" would be put on at such-and-such an hour. This unintelligible contribution to the conversation was ignored by the famous novelist, who repeated his demand for tea.He was amazed to find there was no tea."And you call this a first-class train!" Then at breakfast-a substantial meal in British homes, though having somewhat the air of a cafeteria-tea is drunk copiously. To the average American tea for breakfast is flat and unprofitable. We are accustomed to the most inspiring beverage in the world, actual coffee. The coffee in England is so detestable that when an American tastes it for the first time he thinks it is a mistake.And he is right.It is. Many Americans give it up and reluctantly order tea. In my judgment, for breakfast the worst coffee is better than the best tea.
There are many Americans who have tea served at luncheon.For some reason this seems to the Englishman sacrilegious.The late Professor Mahaffy, who is now (I suppose) drinking nectar, was absolutely horrified to find that in my house he was offered a cup of tea at lunch. "Tea for lunch!" he screamed, and talked about it for the rest of the meal.
I was invited by a charming American lady to meet an English author at her house for lunch eon. Tea was served and she said deprecatingly to the British author, "I don't suppose you have tea at this time in England.""Oh, yes," said he, "the servants often have it below stairs." To my delight, the hostess said, "Now, Mr., aren't you really ashamed of offering me an insult like that? Isn't that remark of yours exactly the kind of thing you are going to be ashamed of when you think it over, all by yourself?"
At precisely 4:13 p.m. every day the average Englishman has a thirst for the astringent taste of tea. He does not care for hot water or hot lemonade coloured with tea.He likes his tea so strong that to me it has a hairy flavour. Many years ago the famous Scot William Archer invited me to his rooms in the Hotel Belmont, New York, for afternoon tea at 4:15. He had several cups and at five o'clock excused himself, as he had to go out to an American home for tea. I suggested that he had already had it. "Oh, that makes no difference."
There are several good reasons (besides bad coffee) for tea in England. Breakfast is often at nine (the middle of the morning to me), so that early tea is desirable. Dinner is often at eightthirty, so that afternoon tea is by no means superfluous.Furthermore, of the three hundredand sixty-five days of the year in England, very, very few are warm; and afternoon tea is not only cheerful and sociable but in most British interiors really necessary to start the blood circulating.
There are few more agreeable moments in life than tea in an English country house in winter. It is dark at four o'clock. The family and guests come in from the cold air. The curtains are drawn, the open wood fire is blazing, the people sit down around the table and with a delightful meal-for the most attractive food in England is served at afternoon tea-drink of the cheering beverage.
William Cowper, in the eighteenth century, gave an excellent description:
Now stir the fire and close the shutters fast, Let fall the curtains, wheel the sofa round, And while the bubbling and loud-hissing urn Throws up a steamy column, and the cups That cheer but not inebriate wait on each, So let us welcome peaceful evening in.
Not long before this poem was written the traveller Jonas Hanway had the bad luck to publish an essay on tea, "considered as pernicious to health, obstructing industry, and impoverishing the nation," which naturally drew the artillery fire of the great Dr. Johnson. Sir John Hawk- his, in his life of Johnson, comments on this controversy. He says: "That it is pernicious to health is disputed by physicians"-where have I heard something like that recently? But Hawkins continues: "Bishop Burnet, for many years, drank sixteen large cups of it every morning, and never complained that it did him the least injury."
As for Johnson, "he was a lover of tea to an excess hardly credible; whenever it appeared, he was almost raving, and by his impatience to be served, his incessant calls for those ingredients which make that liquor palatable, and the haste with which he swallowed it down, he seldom failed to make that a fatigue to every one else, which was intended as a general refreshment."
In nearly every English novel I find the expression, "I am dying for my tea!" On a voyage to Alaska, where tea was served on deck every afternoon, at precisely the same moment an elderly British lady appeared from below with precisely the same exclamation: "Oh, is there tea going?" And on her face was a holy look.
Alfred Noyes told me that during the war, when he was writing up important incidents for the benefit of the public, he was assigned to interview the sailors immediately after the tremendous naval battle of Jutland.He found a bluejacket who had been sent aloft and kept there during the fearful engagement, when shells weighing half a ton came hurtling through the air and when ships blew up around him. Thinking he would get a marvellous "story" out of this sailor, Mr. Noyes asked him to describe his sensations during those frightful hours. All the man said was, "Well, of course, I had to miss my tea!"