Tuesday, May 30, 2017

On Afternoon Tea: In The Hindu Business Line

Last year (it's already become last year!), I was in York in England on holiday and bought myself afternoon tea, that extremely English tradition. There was too much clotted cream and too many sweet things but it was among the most English things I did. 

An essay I wrote about it for The Hindu Business Line's BLInk is here. See a slightly unedited version below. 

Published May 26, 2017.


We seldom now live in times that grant us an hour which may, without a morsel of guilt, be spent in leisure and luxury sipping on tea. Delicately bending down to balance a slice of cake, thin and as light as air, between manicured fingers and nibbling at its edges while being scandalized by what Mrs X from the Club said to Mrs Y the other day. It smacks not least of anachronism but also of a feminine architype that though alive and well in several parts of the world in many mutated forms, still heckles the sensibilities of us modern feminists as stereotypes that should best be hurriedly tucked under the carpet before the liberals walk in. We live in various stages of denial, don’t we all?

And then to begin. There was tea for one and one for tea, late last year, one semi-cold autumn afternoon, in the very English town of York that was built by the Romans. How that came about was like this: The clipped accents of traditional England that arose, stern and almost disapprovingly, from the elderly participants of one of those package bus tours across countryside historic sites contrasted gaily with the new-to-college squads that still had school shopping to do at GAP and Boots and elsewhere. One could sit in a toasty café in The Shambles, the cobbled street flanked on both sides by overhanging timber-framed buildings, some surviving from the 14th C., and out of the way of hasty shopping tourists, to make informal notes on human behavior in that moment. And so one does, in a weathering leather traveler’s notebook. A well-chosen notebook is as important as the adventure itself, one has learnt to remember.

York is, as a friend called it, charming but twee, the American in him sounding as British as it gets. I have arrived from the Pennines that mid-morning, and in three hours or thereabouts, seen all there was to see and do in York. Just an afternoon and I have finished walking the town. I fret, for I have two and a half days more to spend here. I would rather be back in London, be this flaneuse there. Something about that city, like every damned cliché, worms itself into your heart and vamooses away with a pound of it, to hoard in its harem and never give back. But I am in someplace twee now, the only place I can practically be in. And so I walk, once this way and once the other way, backtracking, going in circles, passing by the same shops and open markets. I peep into objects of touristy desire and read titles off jackets of thick books I will never be able to carry back home. I stop to admire things and cakes on display, and pass by old people and people several generations young. I long for the easy warmth that the indoors would bring, for a glorious summer is reluctantly giving way to autumn just then; you can nearly see them passing the baton one to the other where the Micklegate Bar meets rush hour traffic. Yet I am happier, any day, in the outside, on foot, filing away sights, smells and sounds like a glutton. It is never enough.

Half of day two and some half dozen rounds around town later, it is just half past three and like they say on that island, everything stops for tea. I cannot recollect now what my lunch was, I haven’t included it in my notes. Maybe it was something commonplace like a salad, or a sandwich but it has filled me up, if I still remember this tale right. But it is the last day of my fortnight’s worth of holiday and what better way to tie the ends of this England experience with than in the indulgence of afternoon tea, I tell myself.

My loyalties lie unwaveringly with coffee. It feels necessary to say this, to reiterate this. My coffee country in the hills, much ironically carrying an epithet – Scotland of India - that links it to the land I am now walking, has my whole heart. No Darjeeling could ever match the indescribable fragrance of those white jewel-like flowers that erupt to birth mournfully red cherries. They will at some point then become the coffee that runs in my blood. On a postcard I buy for 50p, Verlaine’s words: “The long sobs of the violins of autumn wound my heart a languorous monotone.”

Anything warm now though, tea will do just fine, thank you very much. Betty’s Café Tea Rooms is brimming with people, in all the four and quarter times I have passed before its full glass windows. I decide to be tardy tourist a little more in private instead and on a whim, walk past a larger than life teddy bear and a teddy bear shop – sickeningly sweet fluffy things on every inch – and climb the narrow flight of stairs to what in my mind has decided to remain a yellow tinged room. Lunch was a wee bit ago but I order the afternoon tea bravely at Stonegate Teddy Bear Tea Room. At 13.95 quid, that is how the locals name their money, it is among the more expensive snacks I’ve allowanced for myself. The pound is low and fear of the outsider is high, in those weeks just after Brexit.

In about the 1840s, Anne, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, began to ask staff to schedule tea and snacks at about 4pm in her boudoir because she would feel hungry between breakfast and dinner. Those were the austere days of two square meals a day. Soon invitations for “tea and a walking the fields” began to be sent to her other well-heeled friends. Tea soon moved to the drawing rooms, and when weather permitted, to the lawns and gardens of country homes. Pausing for tea became a fashionable social event and by the 1880s, upper class women turned up to these in the season’s must have long gowns, gloves and hats. While men did partake in the leisurely tradition, it remained a feminine activity. The picture of domesticity, of delicate-ness and the fragile, of the fashionable and the flimsy, qualities that were inevitable in the Victorian woman of a certain stature, hallmarks the afternoon tea.

My tea room overlooks the Shambles street, and I make notes on how the tradition brings to my mind a very British lady, prim and proper in her chiffon and pearls, stringing along her perfectly clipped sentences to companions as she gossips about the neighbor ladies. Years of reading Victorian and English literature growing up pours into what I know will one day likely be my Proustian madeleine moment. The foreign land of the past. And there I am in my scruffy traveler clothes – a cheap pair of jeans, a tee, a sweater that is now loose at the sleeves, my trustee old jacket that has been with me from the Himalayas to the north east of my country and here and elsewhere. And old shoes from another lifetime ago that I will discard, shedding the last of old skin, outside a metro station in London. There isn’t anything ultra-feminine or quaint about me, though I almost wish there was.

The culture of tea rooms, by the next century, had become more commonplace. Lyons Tea Rooms optimized the English sentiment and identity of the time – gallantry, sophistication and wholly civilized or what some half of the world would see it as – imperialistic, snobbish and operating of slavery. Nippies, waitresses in iconic uniforms, so named for the way they nipped about serving at great speeds, became national icons. Empowered, independent, yet, compulsorily pretty women who had to be unmarried to don the uniform. By the 1920s, use of their imagery and other attractive females to sell products was established in the advertising world. Alongside was the stereotype of the tea lady, whose sole job was to sell beverages and snacks in offices, as the popular gossip who leaked important trade secrets. Narratives of the female go round and round in circles, no mystique there.

The tea I order has by now arrived in a pale white pot and three tiers of open sandwiches, dainty little cakes, slice of Victorian sponge, strawberries, pot of jam, macaroons and more clotted cream than I ever want to see again. The waitress is Italian, from a village tinier than York, and here for better wages, to practice English, I overhear her telling a couple at the next table. They turn to admire my tea, as do I, before I endeavor to finish it. So much cream! I couldn’t possibly. Clumps of it get leftover. The rest of it is too sweet for me, but finish it, I do.

I read later that afternoon teas are holiday or anniversary indulgences these days, another relic that is nudged now and then to fluff the air of tradition and nostalgia around. I read too that young women are baking cupcakes and donning pearls and chiffons more, in rebellion against ‘modern’ womanhood, taking back domesticity and embracing the gossip.

Me? I walk some more, to burn off tea, wondering what everyone is doing back home, as I step on to those old cobbled streets.

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