I never drank tea until I went to China when I was 18. There, I had no option. Green tea was served by default at all meals, and there was always a flask by your bedside in guesthouses and hotels.
Ubiquitous doesn’t really do full justice to the omnipresence of tea in China. Although the Chinese only drink something more than a quarter of the quantity that we do in Britain, they are by far and away the largest producers of the precious plant, responsible for a third of global production.
Only after my visit did I fully comprehend the staggering contempt implied by the saying, ‘Not for all the tea in China’.
My Chinese education explains why I take my tea with neither milk nor sugar.
I dread to imagine the state of my teeth had I starting drinking tea just a few weeks before, when I was in Egypt. In the Nile Valley, the default is tiny glasses of black tea filled halfway with white sugar and, perhaps, a sprig of mint.
It’s got more in common with a Magnum ice cream than the restorative brew I found in China.
The point is that, since 2001, I have rarely been without tea. Often green, occasionally black if I need the astringent caffeine hit.
Just as often, though, I’ll have what the French would call a tisane, or what the more pretentious English would call a herbal infusion – a redbush, a chamomile, a peppermint, or some other preparation of dried organic matter.
For me, the point is not the caffeine or even the flavour, but the psychological comfort of having something to do with my hands (behave yourself) between essays at the keyboard.
In days past, writers smoked cigarettes, cigars or cigarillos; many still use alcohol. I used to chew gum and eat biscuits. But tea, I find, offers something else.
I’m preaching to the choir, of course. All of my friends, bar one, drink tea in copious quantities. So why bring this up today?
Last weekend, after a day spent working on Foiled, Beth and I went dancing. On the way home, I can’t remember why, Beth was holding forth on the subject of morning tea.
She told me that, whenever she stays over at her parents’ place, her mum creeps up to her room in the morning with a fresh brew. She knocks softly on Beth’s door, lays the tea (milk, no sugar) down on her bedside table, and gently whispers: ‘There’s a tea there if you want it.’
Her mum does this all so lightly that there’s no chance of Beth waking from a deep sleep, but if she’s already drifting to the surface of consciousness, then – lo and behold – the greatest start to a morning imaginable.
This vignette led to a discussion on the role of empathy in relationships.
The Golden Rule exhorts us to treat others as we would wish ourselves to be treated. It’s good enough so far as it goes, but in my opinion the Golden Rule does not go even nearly far enough.
Most of us, let’s be honest, treat ourselves like shit. We have such a low opinion of ourselves, that we would never in our wildest dreams imagine anyone else would ever make us a cup of tea in the morning.
If we were to follow the mere Golden Rule for our behaviour, we would likewise never think of making a morning tea for anyone else. And – lo and behold – this is how many relationships pan out.
Yesterday, the same topic came up with another friend – let’s call her Ariadne for no reason whatsoever – who lives with a couple. Ariadne told me how annoyed she was that the boyfriend would never make a morning cuppa for his girlfriend.
‘He’s up at the same time as me. I’m always in a rush; he never is. And yet he never makes her a cup of tea; I do.’
Sometimes Ariadne brings the girlfriend tea when the boyfriend is in bed kissing her goodbye. ‘You’re just shit-stirring now,’ he says.
And of course she is. But if he swallowed his pride for one second and saw how happy that morning tea made his girlfriend, then he’d see that the cognitive cost of doing something for someone else is, quelle horreur!, outweighed a hundred times over by the closer relationships we earn.
Science has shown this. Give someone a warm drink and they feel more warmly towards you – and not just metaphorically:
We need a new rule. Perhaps we can baptise it the Astatine Rule, after the rarest naturally-occurring element on earth.
The Astatine Rule says that we should treat others as we would ourselves wish to be treated in our wildest fantasies of existence (behave yourself!).
This second part is crucial: unless your life has been an endless waterfall of rainbows and unicorns then there is no point merely repeating the behaviour you’ve learnt thus far.
Imagining a peak existence (or anything) greater than you’ve ever experienced is really hard; that’s why relationships all too often settle down to baseline.
We need inspiration more extraordinarily creative to set our empathic imaginations free and kick start a virtuous cycle of kindness (and cups of tea). Stories help.
The morning after our dance, I woke up before Beth. I crept into the kitchen, past where she was sleeping in the living room, and put the kettle on the hob. I caught the boil just before it whistled, loaded up her mug with black tea and milk, and stirred until it was the colour of caramel chocolate.
Then I tiptoed into the living room and laid the mug down by her bedside. ‘There’s a tea there if you want it,’ I whispered.