Saturday, 12 November 2011

Afternoon Tea

'Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.'

This is the first sentence of Henry James' great novel The Portrait of a Lady.  James rather misses the opportunity of his opening, for there is little else subsequently in the novel to interest the cricketer and even the centrality of tea rather fades after the first few pages.  But this first sentence alone should ensure this great work's proper place high in the Test averages.  It is a sentiment with which Fantasy Bob wholly agrees.  In fact he thinks old Jamesy underplays it a bit - the truth is that in all circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to afternoon tea.

Anna dressed for tea
Tea is of course essential to cricket.  It is therefore with some approval that FB reads that the taking of afternoon tea is back in vogue.  According to historians, afternoon tea was invented by Anna, Duchess of Bedford some time around 1840.  She was one of Queen Victoria's ladies-in-waiting and got a bit peckish waiting for dinner which in her elite circles was not served until 8pm, ie after the Duke and the boys got back from the football.  So she got in the habit of taking tea and petite-sized cakes in her boudoir during the late afternoon hours and eventually began asking her chumettes to join her.  And what jolly times they had.  Many followed Anna's lead, and bit by bit the occasion formalised,  fine hotels began to offer tea rooms, while tea shops opened for the general public.

No nutritional value
This history came as an interesting revelation to FB who had thought that cricket had been invented to give a purpose to afternoon tea.  His childhood experience of being taken to Aberdeenshire CC and made to watch the cricket for a couple of hours until it was time for tea in the splendid tea room then operating at Mannofield rather confirmed this thought - that there was tea and then something had to be created to lead up to it.  But no, the chicken of cricket has come before the egg of tea.  History does not reveal what happened in the middle of a cricket match before afternoon tea was invented.  Presumably players stood aimlessly round wondering when someone was going to invent something.  Rustic idyll or not, it must have been hell.

As FB was growing up the ceremony of afternoon tea was more frequently observed than it has recently been.  It was an occasion to go out for afternoon tea to a hotel. This was where FB had his first encounter with the doily. After several attempts he came to the conclusion that doilies were not for eating.  He would stick to the scones and empire biscuits - a choice that has done him well to this day.

Afternoon tea at the Savoy
Afternoon tea is now marketed as a bit of a pamper, a taste of luxury.   It is designed to appeal to the feminine side of a cricketer's nature.  It is a chance to enter the great hotels of the land and leave with something approximating the bus fare home still in your pocket.  It is no longer the ceremony that Henry James would recognise but a bit of a performance.  FB has not indulged in the latest resurgence of the ritual, but many years ago he and Mrs FB happened to be in the idyllic English village of London for the weekend and partook of tea at the Savoy (or the World Famous Savoy as it has become). And very fine it was too.  It was the end of June, and the temperature was high.  So much so that FB took his jacket off.  RED ALARM!!  A squadron of waiters, stewards, concierges, under-managers, day-managers, over-managers, under-over-day-managers descended on his table at usainbolt speed and requested, instructed, demanded, pleaded that 'sir' put the jacket back on.  And so the integrity of the British state was saved.   That was over 25 years ago, FB is unsure whether the same standards now apply - he suspects they have lapsed and unjacketed tea has led to spot fixing, short selling and T20.  A world that Henry James would struggle to recognise.

Here is a song by the ever wonderful Kinks which celebrates afternoon tea.

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