Brits are at their most creative when describing bad tea

Arthur Dent, yearning for a true cuppa...

Arthur Dent, yearning for a true cuppa…

This is something that I just realized.

All who have read Douglas Adams are familiar with this gem:

After a fairly shaky start to the day, Arthur’s mind was beginning to reassemble itself from the shell-shocked fragments the previous day had left him with.

He had found a Nutri-Matic machine which had provided him with a plastic cup filled with a liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea.

The way it functioned was very interesting. When the Drink button was pressed it made an instant but highly detailed examination of the subject’s taste buds, a spectroscopic analysis of the subject’s metabolism and then sent tiny experimental signals down the neural pathways to the taste centers of the subject’s brain to see what was likely to go down well. However, no one knew quite why it did this because it invariably delivered a cupful of liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea….

That one never fails to delight.

But recently, rereading Patrick O’Brian’s The Fortune of War, I was struck by the height of creativity to which he rose in describing Stephen Maturin’s suffering upon the occasion of his being served tea by Americans:

tea 1tea 2

… which, while drier, I found almost as delightful as Adams’ characterization.

Apparently, there is something in the experience of drinking bad tea that kicks the brains of British writers into a higher gear….


7 thoughts on “Brits are at their most creative when describing bad tea

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    On that previous occasion, in an earlier book in the series, when Stephen had been marooned with no source of fluids but “the warm rainwater that remained in the guano-filled hollows,” his particular friend Jack Aubrey asked how on Earth he had survived — what did he drink?

    Boiled s__t, ” said Stephen, shocking Capt. Aubrey, who “looked quickly at the tablecloth” in embarrassment…

        1. Bryan Caskey

          Yes! Jack wants to lay back and sort of “snipe” at the opposing ship from long distance, but with Nelson being invoked, he can’t really argue.

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            Someplace, either in this book or another, his viewpoint is explained: He thinks that approach was all well and good in the early stages of the wars with France, but that the French had become better fighters since Nelson’s day. Remember, this is 1812, and Nelson had died (gloriously, of course) in 1805…

            1. Bryan Caskey

              Yeah, I think I already read that. One thing I remember from John Paul Jones by Evan Thomas, is that the British after-action analysis of losing to the Americans in the battle of the Bonhomme Richard vs. HMS Serapis was that the crew of the Richard was largely American, and in the view of the British Navy, this made them essentially British, or at least the next best thing. They were certainly better sea-going men than the French.

              Basically, the British sort of viewed losing to the Americans like losing to themselves. (Or at least the Admiralty spun it that way.)

              1. Brad Warthen Post author

                Well, yes, they had been largely trained by the Royal Navy. Also, they were all volunteers, not just what the press gangs could scrape up. And when you’re only outfitting eight frigates, you can pick and choose your crew….

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