Orwell’s Cup of Tea
The famous writer’s advice on the perfect brew still holds true, whilst the age-old Israel-Palestine conflict grips people with hatred — has the world changed much at all in 75 years?
For someone who embodied typical Englishness so much, it is unsurprising that George Orwell wrote an essay detailing how to make a cup of tea. Yes, you read that right: the legendary writer who gave the world Nineteen Eighty-Four, Animal Farm, and profound insights on English identity, totalitarianism and freedom of speech also published an essay on the perfect cuppa in a national newspaper.
Apparently, debates over the proper way to make a brew is not the invention of Twitter threads and keyboard warriors (and myself, having once inexplicably spent half an hour making a Snapchat story on the subject). It turns out that the intellectual greats of yesteryear also weighed in on this controversial subject.
First published in The Evening Standard in January 1946, ‘A Nice Cup of Tea’ details Orwell’s non-negotiable beliefs on how to make tea properly. A few of his points resonated with me. First of all, he suggested that ‘anyone who has used that comforting phrase “a nice cup of tea” invariably means Indian tea’, that is, black tea as opposed to ‘China tea’ or herbal tea. Do not get me wrong, herbal tea is great, and a cupboard in my kitchen currently houses no fewer than five boxes of Pukka tea of different flavours. However, whenever I shout ‘anyone for a cuppa?’ the only bag on my mind is the Yorkshire kind.
Secondly, Orwell was repulsed by the suggestion that sugar belongs in tea. Declaring that tea should be bitter like beer, and that sweetening tea produces the same flavour as sweetening hot water, Orwell argued that it is as reasonable to add salt or pepper . Ever since my granddad suggested I try a month without sugar in my brew, I cannot stand even a half-teaspoon of the stuff polluting my cup. Orwell was onto something, and I would recommend the reader try and go even three weeks without sugar in their tea. It will blow your mind.
Orwell also asserted his belief that milk must go after the tea. Whilst acknowledging the controversial nature of the subject, he concluded that his ‘unanswerable’ opinion allows the drinker to better gauge the amount of milk being added, rather than pouring too much milk before the tea and rendering themselves helpless to save the drink. Having had this argument with a housemate, and having spent some time playing for the other team in this regard, I must agree. Life is too short for milky tea and wasted teabags.
Finally, and perhaps most startlingly, Orwell recommended doing away with strainers, diffusers, and even teabags. His view held that such things ‘imprison the tea’, and that imprisoned tea leaves are destined to lead a poorly-infused life. This thought had never crossed my mind previously. However, I have spent far too much money on a new coffee hand-grinder and a bottle of whisky (the latter of which I am currently “reviewing”), I cannot spend any more of my paltry pay packet on beverages. Thus I had to improvise.
Bear with me when I describe this next bit. I reached for a bag of Yorkshire Tea, took a deep breath, and tore the teabag open. Pouring the loose leaf grounds into my cup, I felt like an Apollo 15 astronaut putting Galileo’s theory to the test. I felt the shame and judgement of an entire nation as I trampled all over conventionality and respectability and prepared to drop my hammer and feather. But I liked Homage to Catalonia, and I trusted the process. You do not make omelettes 70 years after your death without breaking age-old eggs. I added fresh boiling water into my cylindrical breakfast cup, stirred, added milk, stirred, then let the tea settle. I then sipped.
Best cup of tea in living memory. Made with London tap water, that is saying something.
Why am I boring the reader with this?
On the one hand, I found it interesting that such a revered writer did not only produce foundation-shaking polemics. Alongside totalitarianism, thought-policing and poverty, Orwell also discussed toads, shooting an elephant, and whether books are really that expensive compared to other indulgences such as cigarettes.
Moreover, and thinking about it now I do not quite know why, it struck me that, 75 years later, tea still tastes better when unrestrained by a teabag. In fact, much of what Orwell wrote on a nice cup of tea could be found unwittingly replicated by tea enthusiasts on social media and in kitchens today. In essence, many things still work now as they did then, and we share much of the same world as Orwell and his contemporaries.
Considering that three quarters of a century have passed, we might be forgiven for assuming a whig interpretation of history and of the world we live in. Whig history presents the past as a journey from dark times towards enlightenment on which the vehicle of human progress steadily navigates. On the face, it is persuasive. Ideas about individual freedoms and democracy are further developed and refined. Moore’s Law explains why consoles can handle larger games every year and why your Playstation 2 is now obsolete. Our conception of the world we live in is revolutionised by the advent of technologies such as television, the internet, and air travel, which “shrink” the globe by placing literally any community within either physical or communicable distance.
Nonetheless, it is still the same world on a fundamental level. Gravity still prevents emus from flying, and cholera remains potentially fatal. Greed still motivates many actions, and hatred is rife. In fact, if ill motivation towards fellow human beings is considered a health concern, then the world has never been free from the wrath of a pandemic. Our present-day society might feel different, better, more civilised, than before, what with all its mod-cons and supposedly heightened understanding of the human condition, but if you remove some of those cosmetic features — let us be honest, much of ‘modern society’ is akin to air conditioning in a car, or a woke stencil on a phone case — we inhabit the same world as our ancestors, with its ills and its hatreds. Our supposedly heightened understanding of the human condition only makes contemporary problematic behaviour even less excusable, and exploitation more possible.
On Wednesday 12th March it was announced that genocidal war criminal and ex-Serbian leader Radovan Karadzic would be moved to a UK prison. Karadzic played a leading role in the Srebrenica genocide, where around 8000 Muslim Bosniak men and boys were rounded up and massacred by Serbian forces. Responding to the announcement that Karadzic would complete his life sentence in a British prison, UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab declared his ‘pride in the fact that, from UK support to secure his arrest, to the prison cell he now faces, Britain has supported the 30-year pursuit of justice for these heinous crimes.’ According to Raab, ‘we have got a moral duty and… a sense of national purpose in trying to hold to account the perpetrators of the very worst crimes’.
It is perhaps ironic then that whilst supporting the conviction of a war criminal, the UK has also been a key arms trader and ally to Israel and Saudi Arabia, the only countries left in the Middle East still willing to tolerate British foreign policy. Raab massaged his government’s moral ego; meanwhile in Gaza, the rubble smoldered where a residential tower block once stood, and cholera and famine gripped the Yemeni people as Saudi Arabian (I suppose British) bombs rained down upon them.
The latest developments in the Israel-Palestine conflict involve actions on both sides that I am not informed enough to take a particular stance on. The age-old crisis is massively complicated and is jaded by the particular prejudices and biases of commentators on both sides. Israel’s actions smack somewhat of settler colonialism, however some analogies drawn by people are ignoring the fact that the UN was responsible for the partition of Palestine and the creation of the modern-day state of Israel after a request by the UK. The latest events are not isolated from the persistent and far-reaching history of tensions and violence in the region. It’s not as simple as an invading force and an indigenous population — both Jews and Arabs have called the region home for millennia.
Having said that, the recent attempted eviction of six families in Sheikh Jarrah by Israeli settlers is concerning, and could be read as indicative of a wider process of displacement. Furthermore, it bothers me that the British government demands that Hamas ceases attacking Israeli cities, but does not with the same emphasis call for Israel to follow suit — James Cleverly, British Minister of State for Middle East and North Africa, asked Israel to do what it can to minimise civilian casualties in its defensive actions. Nonetheless, I do not think that this issue can be explained in a binary way that is easily captured in something like an Instagram post, as is so often attempted.
However, what is clear is Israeli bombings of residential buildings in Gaza, according to multiple reports and at least one video, and missile strikes by Hamas militants, in response to an unanswered ultimatum about police presence in Jerusalem. 13 Palestinian children have been killed, along with at least one Israeli child. Regardless of whether measures and countermeasures were justified, did those Palestinian children fire any rockets? Was that Israeli child responsible for occupying Palestinian land? These children along with scores of adult citizens were innocent victims of aggression perpetrated and encouraged by their own governments. That much is indisputable.
Meanwhile in Yemen a conflict rages at the hands of the Saudi Arabia-led coalition, and a number of human rights abuses have been perpetrated by both the Saudi coalition and the Houthi rebels. The UN has discussed the possibility that Saudi Arabia has committed war crimes, whilst Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have both declared that the coalition has violated humanitarian law by bombing factories and refugee camps.
Concerningly, the coalition has been supported by UK logistics and intelligence, and Saudi Arabia continues to be supplied with British weapons and bombs. However, the domestic outrage this initially sparked has since been overshadowed by the jubilant return of the pint and the haircut and the government’s valiant defence of football’s values against the shady scheming of greedy men. Smoke and mirrors.
It only takes a moment to stop and look to your left and your right, and on the Left and the Right, in order to realise that the world we currently inhabit is far from civilised. Whig history is a fallacy. Our present society is one where ordinary citizens sing and dance atop a hill or within a public square as they watch bombs drop on other humans and set houses ablaze. It is one where groups of people can be motivated by a radio broadcast to go door-to-door with machetes, hunting down their neighbours. It is one where individuals can become so attached to a belief system that they are willing to sacrifice themselves and their dignity in order to kill others as some sort of step on the path towards achieving desired change.
What is written here contextualises an earlier piece I wrote on the Holocaust a little more, and serves to explain its continuing relevance. Persistent violence dehumanises the “enemy”, and makes something usually so abhorrent as the death of children and innocents not only acceptable but a cause for celebration and communal participation. Turning atrocities into run-of-the-mill proceedings threatens the sanctity of human life, and opens the floodgates to a tsunami of hatred and violence. Worryingly, there is perhaps not much distance between the 1940s and the 2020s. Tea tastes the same. Humanity hates the same.