Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

The last word

Last word

During the reprieve that is half-term, ASCL members have time to ponder the more esoteric, intrinsic questions of life - such as why is it so difficult to find a good pot of tea these days?

When I was an undergraduate at Oxford 30 years ago, the prison was just that, a forbidding old jail. Now it's a luxury Malmaison hotel at the heart of a glitzy new development, where my wife and I ate the other day during a short break in the town.

Oxford was looking grey and damp, but during the afternoon we nonetheless wandered the ancient streets, not least because we wanted to find somewhere for a cup of tea before taking in a college Evensong (we're at that difficult - our children would say sad - age when tea, cake and choral music appeal).

British cities are full of trendy coffee bars nowadays. Financial Times columnist Sathnam Sanghera (Young Journalist of the Year 2002) described a corner-sited Starbucks as an essential indicator of any right-on modern city.

Oxford is stuffed with joints offering espresso, latte, Americano or cappuccino. But could we find anywhere that would offer us a pot of tea?

It is the pot that is at issue here. Starbucks, Costa, Cafè Nero: I have tried them all, and I love their coffee. Every one of them will deliver a small, aggressive espresso that takes the skin off your throat, an experience almost (but never quite) as searingly delightful as you can get in Italy. But they can't do tea.

They seem to think it acceptable to fill a cup with boiling water - which by definition is immediately no longer boiling - and hand you a tea-bag to dunk in it at your leisure, inviting you to "help yourself to milk from over there". That might do for the strange herbal infusions that are becoming so popular nowadays, but it's not how you make tea.

Twenty years ago a colleague of mine, not normally given to prophecy, accurately foretold the demise of the dining table. Experts now tell us that families no longer sit together at dinner and share their experiences of the day.

Instead they snack or graze and, if they eat together at all, they do so in front of the television. This, we are told, is one of the symptoms of the breakdown of families and of transmitted family values.

Add to that dangerous mix the lack of fathers or other male role models for teenaged boys and, these same experts tell us, the direct result is gang culture and that recent UNICEF report in which the UK came top for teenage misery.

Where the dining table has gone, the teapot has clearly followed. With their dozens of varieties of coffee and panini stuffed with roasted Mediterranean vegetables and mozzarella (and generally labelled panini's, displaying a disregard for both English and Italian grammar), these chains possess a veneer of sophistication. But beneath that shallow overlay there is a gaping void, a lack of real understanding.

Tea cannot be an instant creation, fluffed up with milk, steam and chocolate flakes. It needs four minutes - five for a very delicate tea - for the leaves, or even a tea bag, to absorb the water and release their flavour: four vital minutes of anticipation, of relaxation, of conversation. It seems our rushed culture nowadays finds it hard to accept that pleasurable pause.

In Stafford station buffet I was recently poured a cup of tea from a large and friendly teapot. When I expressed my delight, the young lady serving me said, "I'm glad you like it. I had a customer yesterday who complained. He thought it was old-fashioned."

We face a stark choice. Either we act now, turn the clock back and restore the teapot to our society and culture or we face a future where teapots, dining tables and the other building blocks of civilisation are consigned to the theme park of quaint archaic customs - and where taking the dog for a walk becomes about as relaxing a pastime as strolling through Baghdad dressed as Uncle Sam.

There is a happy ending to my little story. In Oxford's famous indoor market there is an unpretentious cafe called Morton's. It served decent tea in a pot and a lemon cake to die for. New College Evensong was near perfection, Victoria and Palestrina sung immaculately in eight parts. Call me an old git, but I think there is still hope for humanity. 

Dr Bernard Trafford is Head of Wolverhampton Grammar School and chairman-elect of The Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC).

The Last Word always welcomes contributions from members. If you would like to share your humorous observations of school life, please email Sara Gadzik at leader@ascl.org.uk We do offer a modest honorarium.

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