Time for Tea

It seems that the tradition of drinking tea is in decline in Wales. It is a tradition fairly unknown or understood outside of the British Isles. Being a country boy and growing up in a family from a farming tradition, tea was always an important part of daily life and one I maintain. The tea tradition varies a lot from family to family and from region to region, to the extent that talking about tea reveals how diverse the tradition is. Often when I have talked about meals I discover how how much diversity in terminology and mutual incompatibility there is. So it may be of interest to my readers to understand the system I use.

A word of warning is that the diet does seem very bread and cake heavy, such foods were once much more prevalent in our culture. Prevalent in a farming community where people would spend their days out in the cold wind and damp, working the land all day and needed the calories! Furthermore whilst I identify nine meals, I don’t think I have ever actually had all nine in a single day, I am not a Prince or King.

The Eight Daily Meals

First Breakfast (optional) A quick light snack taken very soon upon awakening before doing a task before main (2nd) breakfast. Usually a ‘continental’ style breakfast of breads and fruits. Generally taken alone.

Breakfast (Second Breakfast if first breakfast already taken): Can be a substantial meal or something light, always informal. Accompanied by tea that is strongly brewed or ‘breakfast tea’ blends. However these days strong coffee often replaces tea at this meal

Elevenses: A mid morning snack usually taken around eleven o’clock, often just a cup of tea or coffee for a quick breather from work.

Lunch (or Dinner): If lunch, then a light yet substantial meal to carry you though the afternoon. Maybe a ‘packed lunch’ if away up in the hills or indeed in an office.

If dinner then the main meal of the day, often consisting several courses.

Whether lunch or dinner is taken at midday depends on many factors such as the day of the week, the weather or the season. There is the Sunday Dinner tradition which is taken at midday. Usually the remains of the Sunday joint would be the meat element of meals of most of the week, but this tradition seems to have declined a lot

Afternoon Snack/ Tiffin (optional): A light snack taken early afternoon, often just a quick cup of tea and a biscuit if you are peckish before tea time

Tea: both the following meals are usually just referred to as ‘Tea’, which is taken is inferred from context.

High Tea: From four o’clockish onward. A very formal, yet very jolly meal consisting of bread and conserves followed by cakes accompanied by rounds of tea. Usually only taken when a large group have gathered as a social event in itself. Welsh Cakes are almost always served as their own course. This is the chance for the host to show off their baking flair by offering a range of home made cakes. Guests often bring their own cakes to add to the range, diversity and celebration of relationships. If High Tea is taken then usually low tea is omitted. After a high tea I’m usually quite bloated from so much cake, that I don’t fancy much for dinner.

Low Tea: Often a light meal or snack upon returning home from work, including a cup of tea, usually informal, guests (not of the family or close friends) would get a high tea.

Dinner : The main formal meal of the day. Omitted if Dinner was taken at midday, when low tea would have been a more substantial meal, but not as substantial as dinner.

Supper (optional): The final meal of the day, usually quite light, tea is not taken.

What I have found odd is that this terminology doesn’t seem that widely understood outside of Mid Wales. The phrase ‘I don’t want much for Dinner, we had a large tea’ makes perfect sense to me, but I have found others mystified by it. As is the phrase ‘Will you be back by teatime’? (around four o’clock). Even the questioning of ‘Would you like to come around for tea?’ is quite a different question to ‘Would you like to come around for dinner?’ and the person asked should be clear what to expect, but outside my culture I have found this not to be understood.

The other thing about tea, is it is difficult to assess how much the culture has declined or indeed it’s uniqueness to rural Wales. Tea has always been very much a drink of the home. It has always been difficult to get a really good cup of tea away from peoples homes. In any case, when eating out at a cafe, people always want something posh. Coffee was once regarded as a posh drink, whereas it’s become an everyday drink.  The only evidence I have for this decline is that some supermarkets do not stock loose tea blends anymore. Tea bags have never been able to produce the quality of brew as loose tea made properly in a teapot. Yet, if people are only drinking bagged tea exclusively  in the home, this does seem to suggest that the tea tradition is very much in decline.

Posh Tea

Part of second language learning is re-exploring your first language. Through this re-exploration you come to better understand your first language, in my case English. Furthermore you start to explore how certain words and phrases have a distinctive cultural meaning away from the standard dictionary definition. Sometimes i find it very strange when second language English speakers start to experiment using these cultural expressions, it’s often very funny. I’m sure I am making some very amusing sentences in my Welsh.

A word I commonly use and was a frequent word used within my family when I was growing up was ‘posh’. However i use it slightly differently to the standard definition. My use is widely understood in Wales, but when I travel I have found it isn’t so.

The standard definition is that posh means luxurious, cultured, refined, of the upper class. However my definition is a nuanced version of this definition, with posh as needless, but enjoyable adornment, or affected ostentation.

I was driving a new car last week which had one of those automatic handbrakes, ‘how posh’ I thought. There is no need for an automatic handbrake, when new to using them it is fun to explore how it works, hence posh. Once you have got used to it it is no longer posh [my definition]. However if they remain a feature of ‘luxury cars’, then they become part of posh driving [standard definition].

Perhaps it is better explained with cups. We have a tradition of posh cups which have exquisite patterning and shape to be used with saucers of a Sunday afternoon or when we have guests around for tea. The idea is that these cups are ‘for best’ or to honour special occasions.There is a whole set of rituals involving their use, which is very enjoyable when you enter into the spirit of it. For me it is just wrong to make tea with bags to be put into posh cups. If you are going to the trouble of using the posh cups, you should also make the effort to make the best tea, which involves teapots and loose tea.

I wouldn’t use these cups for everyday as they would lose their special value, they would no longer be posh by my definition, but would remain posh. For me posh is the fun of using a pointless ostentation for the sheer fun of it. for me, the idea of using posh things everyday is just a waste. I regard it as a token of a developing friendship when you can visit someone and not be given the posh cups, but are graced with the everyday, more relaxed cups.

Thinking about it, this posh cultural tradition is dying out, people rarely pop around for tea anymore as friends and family live ever further apart geographically. My parents and grandparents generation were given several posh tea sets when they got married and everyday tea sets by their close friends. They carefully stored these tea sets, away in the attic, but keeping an everyday set and a best/poshest set. As wedding gifts they were highly valued and usually the very best set was stored away, maybe to be got out if the Queen happened to pop around.

A friend of mines mam recently decided to tidy up her attic and got down box after box of tea sets. A tea set being a posh teapot, a posh cake stand, tea plates, cups, saucers and a sugar bowl [though why anyone would befoul tea with sugar is beyond me]. She was minded to get rid of them, however, there are thousands of these tea sets in peoples attics, you can’t even give them away to charity shops for the shops have so many,  they are ‘too good’ [posh] to be thrown away and too posh to use as everyday cups. So she carefully cleaned them, wrapped them up and put them all safely back into boxes and returned them to the attic, ‘you can deal with them when I am gone’ she said. I get this, my fathers attic is also full of various posh tea sets and I remember well how much value was placed on them by my parents and grandparents, they could remember who had bought them each particular tea set even after fifty years. My point is that these posh things have no monetary value, posh is not equivalent to expensive or good quality, as I said, it”s needless adornment for special occasions.

The thing is that people and especially children break tea sets. I have smashed a fair few in my time, this is fine  and they become chipped and worn through use anyway. So when a tea set loses it’s posh value it is thrown away to be replaced by an exciting new tea set from the store of posh tea sets. Some tears are shed for the old tea cups that have faithfully served the family for years. In my family when a tea set was changed it was such an event in the family, to change the vessels of our cups of tea to new colours and new shapes! The trouble is that a posh tea is a rare social even these days, so in the course of life, people get through a lot fewer tea sets.

These traditional Welsh tea ceremonies, with their teisen gri (Welsh cakes), posh tea sets  and unfathomable family tea etiquette are not well known outside my native culture. There have been countless times when I have used the word posh and people haven’t grasped what I was saying. It’s only now, reflecting on my English that I notice such these things.

I haven’t found a standard definition of posh to refer to special occasions. Regular use of posh things, or visiting ‘posh’ places quickly lose their value with over-use and even so, you would miss out on all fun and diversity of everyday things. There are ‘posh people’ who are wealthy enough to use posh things everyday, but they have posher things for their special occasions. There are also those ‘trying to be posh’; who purposely buy and use posh things everyday to create some false mark of class. However these more standard uses are quite removed from my use of posh.

The things have the quality of being posh as a noun, but poshness is relative. When somethign is used on those rare occasions it is posh in use, as a verb. But with overuse, it loses its value as different to the everyday and is no longer posh in use.

It is difficult to understand a language from books. It is through listening to lived experiences of the subtleties and nuances of language that deeper meanings can be appreciated. However, when I looked up the Welsh word for posh in a dictionary, it came out with ‘swanc’ much like the English word ‘swank’.  Swanc just sums up my understanding of posh perfectly. That posh/swanc is a relative term for occasional ostentatious behaviour.


Nice Cup of Tea

A nice cup of tea is actually tea, a selection of cakes and a good old chat, it is something that I often look forward to. The culture within my family is one of inviting people around for such a social gathering. Indeed, as a family we regard it important to always have cake in the house because ‘you never know who might drop by’ (which i thought as a child meant the Queen!). My family love cake, hate ‘bought cake’ made by machines and we have a tradition of being avid home bakers and it can get competitive. We used to have family teas, where the children were encouraged in cake eating competitions! I digress.

Perhaps this desire for a nice cup of tea is what decides UK general elections. If it is assumed that UK general elections under the FPTP electoral system are decided by floating voters. So, what are floating voters? Incidentally, I met a genuine floating voter at the last election, which was fascinating. she had decided on UKIP this time, because although she regarded Nigel Farage as a bit of a fool, but she liked him and understood him.

I am a decided voter, I am someone who has spent time thinking about and forming my own political philosophy. So, there then seems to be a political party that most closely reflects my own philosophy, which I then generally support.

Floating voters are possibly defined as being those that vote for different parties at each election. There are lots of different types of floating voter, though perhaps there are two major groupings: Firstly there are the decided centre-right people. Because their political position is in-between the two major groupings, party politics invests a lot of effort in appealing to these people, who are trying to ascertain which party is most likely to bring about a centre-right government. Hence such people’s vote will change at subsequent elections. The second grouping are those who haven’t developed there own ideological positions, perhaps such people value pragmatism much more strongly than ideology or simply that they are more interested in things other than politics. I would argue that perhaps such people  seek a strong, trustworthy, coherent leader who has a narrative for the problems in the UK economy and clear solutions to those problems, essentially straight talking yet polite with it. It just happens that these qualities are also very appealing as a potential tea guest. This all leads to the argument that appeal as a tea guest, is influential over who ‘wins’ UK elections.

Actually, reflecting back to the 1992 election this kind of makes sense. Personally, I would love to have tea and a pleasant, polite conversation with Neil Kinnock, the then Labour leader, however, I am a fellow Welshman. Commentators at the time made the point that Kinnock lacked appeal to many in England by being ‘too Welsh’. Upon reflection, I can see that John Major (the then Conservative leader) may have been more appealing as a tea guest to a wider proportion of the electorate and hence won the 1992 election for the Tories for this very reason?

Before Blair became branded as Bliar and a warmonger, he may well have been regarded as a suitable tea guest, or at least more so than William Hague, Iain Duncan-Smith and Michael Howeird (not really A1+ grade tea guest types in my book). In 2010, even the spineless wonder, Nick Clegg, would have been very appealing guest for a nice cup of tea with back then. Perhaps Gordon Brown was seen as a bit gruff and you would perhaps fear his stinging criticism of your coffee sponge. Actually David Cameron for all his faults, does still come across as someone you could have a pleasant cuppa with. Personally, the leader I would most have liked tea with at the last election was Nicola Sturgeon, I think that this appeal resonated throughout the British electorate too.

The  criteria, I stated above: strong, trustworthy, coherent, ability to answer questions and decency, often don’t associate well with our perceptions of political leaders. whilst I don’t think Cameron gives the impression of these qualities, neither did Ed Miliband and Cameron won on the better tea companion front.

So, the Labour party are currently deciding which of four candidates, they think the floating voter would most like to have around for tea and perhaps a few drop-scones. It seems to be boiling down to a choice between Corbyn or one of the other three. Labour are suffering from what i call the ‘ghost of Blair’ effect. Blair pulled off a political stunt in Labour’s landslide victory in 1997, by repositioning ‘New’ Labour as an innovative centre-right party, thus widely appealing to the floating voters and could count on the support of those of the left and the centre desperate to end 18 years of Tory government.

The ‘ghost of Blair’ problem is that you can’t pull this same trick twice, because the centre and left seek a genuine re-balancing of the UK economy, and are reluctant/uninspired to support the compromise of ‘not being as bad as the Tories’ to win electoral success. Miliband lost credibility as he tried to appeal to both the ‘left and centre’ determined voters and the floating voters, so came across as incoherent (he would probably break the saucer, spill his tea, get crumbs everywhere, and he didn’t even offer to help clear up the mess or answer a simple question, I certainly didn’t make a fresh pot for him).

The ‘other three’ (Cooper, Burnham & Kendall) are not appealing as I believe most people want more in a tea guest than someone whose appeal is based on being not as bad as the monster that lurks in the woods, it’s just not an inspiring offer, even if it is the best solution for Britain in the short term. Which leaves, Jeremy Corbyn, who may not be everyone’s cup of tea, though perhaps he appeals to potential voters, so I feel he can win and be the next British Prime Minister. He appeals to the determined centre and left voter anyway, he can make a coherent case for re-balancing the economy which should appeal to  enough of the centre right people. He can also appeal to the floating voters; he isn’t the slickest public speaker, or the snazziest dresser, he may not even be a great leader, but I would certainly be very happy to have him around for tea and I’m sure many other people would too. I may even consider voting Labour for the first time!