This is a lovely little full teacup of a book; light and refreshing yet full of body, a fresh new blend of narrative and anecdote. Paul Chrystal's new book "Tea: A Very British Beverage" offers a satisfying look at the history and cultural impact of tea, ranging from the legends of its discovery, to its origins in China, to its arrival in England. We might consider tea to have long been our national drink, a national treasure, but Chrystal makes it clear that the reception of our favourite drink was by no means a smooth process. He explores the many concerns that were expressed, from doctors to leaders of the Temperance movement, that tea was, in fact, more dangerous to drink than alcohol, and the terrifying effects it could have upon genteel insides.
Chrystal also puts tea into a political context, examining the spread of the trade and development of the East India and other companies importing the substance to England. He follows it through the four corners of the British Isles and beyond, witnessing the famous Boston tea party, an often misunderstood incident, and clarifying that the American protesters were arguing against taxation without representation. I enjoyed the way that his writing is elegant and precise, delineating this historical moment, then moving on to the delicious detail that for months afterwards, the fish caught in the harbour tasted of tea! It was also very interesting to see tea in the context of the women's movement; as a focal point, a fortifier and rallying point, with many leading Suffragettes and their proponents meeting at tea shops before and after protesting.
This slim but full book also explores the social history of tea, and as a gendered concept; from the slow infiltration of the seventeenth century coffee houses to the arrival of tea rooms, which finally allowed women a social space where they could entertain and dine in public without chaperone. I found it fascinating that such places could be considered degenerate; that department stores, those other bastions of Edwardian ladies' freedom, initially had their requests to open refreshment rooms refused, in case they facilitated improper liaisons. Chrystal gives an interesting account of the rise of the tea house, from Lyons Corner Houses and the ABC tearooms, to smaller, specific famous establishments like Betty's in York. I had no idea that some of them were so large, ranging over four or five floors, or that some were staffed entirely by women, or they some of the "Nippies" had to work until almost midnight!
For a tea lover, this book is a real treat. Engaging and easy to read, it provides a wealth of detail and interesting facts while remaining entertaining. The images are also lovely, covering topics such as tea plantations to early twentieth century brands. If you enjoy a cup of tea, and have wondered about its history, this is the book to dip into; I can also see it making a lovely gift under the Christmas tree this year. Savour Chrystal's pleasurable trip through the story of our national beverage.