Life in the big smoke

The turbulent history of tea and Britishness

A million cups of tea are drunk every minute.

A couple of years ago I was reading about the history of tea and stumbled across a book which makes it seem like this humble drink was the key to making the British Empire so powerful.

In her book For All the Tea in China: Espionage, Empire and the Secret Formula for the World’s Favourite Drink writer Sarah Rose explains.

For nearly two hundred years the East India Company sold opium to China and bought tea with the proceeds. The opium for tea exchange was not merely profitable to England, it was indispensable. Nearly one in every ten pounds sterling collected by the government came from the import and sale of tea – about a pound per person per year.

Tea taxes funded railways, roads and Civil Service salaries, among the many other necessities of an emergent industrial nation. Opium was equally significant to the British economy for it financed the management of India – the shining jewel in Queen Victoria’s imperial crown.

And then the Chinese tried to ban opium, which didn’t end well for them.

The Chinese tried to ban opium … Victoria sent Britain’s navy to war to keep the lucrative opium for tea marriage alive.

As part of the peace treaty England won concessions from the Chinese no one had previously thought possible in a century of diplomatic entreaty: the island of Hong Kong, plus the cession of five new treaty or trading ports on the mainland.

Eventually the Brits got tired of rowing with the Chinese and started growing their own tea instead, in India. And they have enjoyed their tea ever since.


Image by Morgan Sessions.

A little post about culture shock and what it’s actually like to move to a new country

About two years ago I found myself sitting on the floor in the flat, crying because a pipe was leaking underneath a sink. There had been builders in the house for several days, sorting things out in our new home, the home Gerry and I would settle in for a few years.

There was a trickle of water running along the floor and I couldn’t keep the tears away. I felt helpless and I realised that this was it. This was my home. This country was now my home. There would be no more moving for a while, no more wide-eyed fascination. The third stage of culture shock was setting in, but I didn’t realise that back then.

Let us rewind a bit further. It’s 2009, I’ve just arrived in London. I breathe in the air at Heathrow and it fills me with a bubbly joy, the sweet, polluted air of London. I rush past the yellow signs to collect my suitcase and I move into my first flat in the city. I spend a year happily riding buses for hours, walking everywhere, even enjoying the tube – because I am finally in London.

For two years my biggest fear is that something will happen and that I will have to move home. I hold on to every little thing that keeps me in London with an iron grip. I count my months in the city. I am totally and utterly in love with the place. I worry that I’ll get ill or that I won’t be able to support myself. I work hard because that means I’ll be able to stay.

Then I meet Gerry, then my life slowly winds itself around this town, then I get married, we move into the flat, the flat becomes a home, Finland feels very far away. And suddenly I find myself longing for home. Not the real country I left behind, but small things like the forest, the clean air, the cold winters and the long summer nights. I miss my family because I realise this isn’t a temporary thing anymore. I have rooted myself in this country. And that’s when the problems start.

It’s said that there are four stages of culture shock.

1. The honeymoon phase

  • Everything about your new home is lovely, amazing, fascinating. It’s the best place ever. You get offended if someone says anything negative about your new home. You have lots of energy, you want to see everything, do everything, talk to everyone. You wake up happy every day because you’ve moved to such a wonderful place. You’re totally in love

2. The negotiation phase

  • Homesickness starts to creep in. Suddenly you notice things about your new home, things you don’t really like. You pick up on cultural differences and they annoy you. You realise that perhaps this isn’t such a great place after all. It’s just another place, with problems and annoying people just like anywhere else. You start missing home and people who really get you.

3. The adjustment phase

  • This is when depression hits you. What’s the point, you think. The love is gone. You feel a bit lost, wondering why you moved in the first place. The magic is gone. You’re floating between two cultures. Going back home isn’t an option, staying feels difficult. You’re numb. Nothing makes you happy.

4. Acceptance

  • You’ve come out on the other side. You know this country now, you know this culture and you’re starting to figure out where you fit in. You will always be different, have a different cultural background, but you have found some kind of middle ground. And suddenly you’re ready to fall in love with the country again, this time accepting its flaws, problems and realness.

I struggled with the adjustment phase. A lot of things in the UK started to annoy me. Why were the politicians so useless? Why did I have to move to country where the majority of people in power have gone to the same private schools? Why do you hardly see any female, black or asian faces in Westminster? Why does the post never arrive? Where is my place in this society? Will I ever be able to settle in the UK? Why does everyone around me only seem to care about money?

For a while my life turned into a dull grey. I wasn’t sure where I was going, I didn’t even know if I wanted to be going anywhere. This new country, my home, had lost its sparkle. I wasn’t in love anymore, but I couldn’t ever see myself leaving.

In this confusion I managed to write a book. I poured my frustration and confusion into Det finns inga britter. I started researching what it meant to be British. I read up on the history of this country, learning there is a long tradition of immigration. I got even angrier realising how some of these immigrants had been treated throughout the centuries. I read about the reality black and asian immigrants were faced with in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, being refused housing and medical care. But even though there were many things that made me angry, I also earned that British culture has been shaped by immigration, going all the way back to Roman times. This country is an amalgamation of different cultures and people, but sometimes the Brits find it easy to forget this.

As I read another Britain started appearing before me. A real country, with real problems. It wasn’t the same country I had moved to back in 2009, but I didn’t mind so much anymore because the ground I was standing on felt solid again. I was starting to see this country like some its citizens was seeing it.

There is a fifth stage of culture shock, the independence stage.

You are yourself again! You embrace the new culture and see everything in a new, yet realistic light. You feel comfortable, confident, able to make decisions based on your own preferences. You no longer feel alone and isolated. You appreciate both the differences and similarities of your new culture. You start to feel at home.

And that’s where I’ve come out. I live here now. In some ways the UK is the country where I’ve become a grown up, I know more about how to run a business here than in Finland, in theory I know how to buy a house here. This is where I pay my taxes. And when I go home there are things I forget, like weighing my vegetables when I go grocery shopping. Small things, but things that root me in one place. Even my annoyance and frustration with this country connects me to it. After all it’s pretty British to complain.

I didn’t think culture shock would affect me. But moving to a new country is a big thing, no matter how well you think you understand that culture. If you find these sort of feelings affecting you, remind yourself that everyone goes through it and that you will come out on the other side, hopefully a little bit wiser.

Image by Luis Llerena.

Why the English invented football? To stop their men from touching themselves

Hello World Cup 2014, everyone is talking about you. As I was researching my book “Det finns inga britter“, I stumbled across an interesting theory about why football became such a popular sport in England and then in the rest of the British empire.

David Winner writes in his book Those Feet: A Sensual History of English Football that playing football was encouraged as a way to stop British men from, er, there’s no easy way of saying this… from masturbating.

Winner writes.

Revd Edward Thring, was headmaster of Uppingham School and one of the giants of Victorian education, equalled in importance only by Thomas Arnold of Rugby. In the mid-nineteenth century Thring was a key figure in shaping Victorian ideas about manliness. He was also a pioneer of two of its key motors: organised sport and sexual repression.

His younger brother J. C. Thring helped found one of the significant vehicles for this new manliness: the game of football. Edward was a muscular Christian who turned “weaklings into men”. He also preached a holistic, egalitarian educational doctrine which he called true life … He was obsessed with stamping out the heinous sin of masturbation, which (he was certain) led to early and dishonoured graves.

Apparently Uppingham school wasn’t a very nice place to be a young man, at least not by today’s standards.

Any boy at Uppingham who was found to have committed “self-abuse” was instantly expelled. To maintain an atmosphere of “purity”. Thring encouraged boys to spy on each other. And used sport as a tool in the war against vice.

“Self-pollution” was not only intrinsically vile; it also posed a danger to race and Empire because it was the crucial first step on the road to all other kinds of effeminate and dangerous sensuality. If only boys and young men could be taught not to masturbate, they would grow up chaste and pure and all other sexual evils would disappear.

The Victorians had a strange obsession with masturbation. Interestingly the campaign against so called self-pollution was started by a man who wanted to get more costumers for his brothels, Winner writes.

The idea had first surfaced in a quack French pamphlet in 1710 called Onania. The author believed to have been a brothel-owner trying to drum up business by using scare tactics against a rival form of entertainment. He claimed that masturbation wasted essential bodily fluids and “destroys conjugal affection, perverts natural inclination, and tends to extinguish the hope of posterity”.

The pamphlet was widely translated and for nearly 200 years underpinned a quietly burgeoning medical and quasi-medical literature on the subject. Only in Britain did a full-scale moral panic erupt. Doctors were partly to blame.

It was widely believed that masturbation had the following “side effects” – pale complexion, emaciated form, slouching gait, clammy palms, glassy or laden eyes, averted gaze, or worse insanity and death!

So what does all of this have to do with football? Well it was used to turn these British weaklings into real men.

Thring and other schoolmasters started a radical new ideology – athleticism – a motor for the muscular new imperialism, for militarism and conformism. Suppression of sexuality, individuality – an even thought itself – were essential elements of this process, and were encoded in the games themselves.

What I find interesting is that this fear of masturbation seem to have stemmed from a deeper, almost subconscious fear that the British empire was failing because British men were no longer “real men.” It’s all pretty Freudian.

One key fear at the time was that British power was faltering. Ironic because the late nineteenth century appears now as the zenith of British power, wealth and social stability, but that’s not how it felt at the time. The Victorians were gripped by a sense of dread, seeing not stability, but decay; they felt their world crumbling. Some of this anxiety reflected geostrategic changes … from the 1870s America and Germany started catching up – industrially, economically and as imperial rivals, but the British problems went deeper still.

In almost every cultural register of the time there is a sense of Britain under attack or threat … there were massive problems with the British economy in the 1870s, and it’s linked to anxiety about the Empire. There were new anxieties about sexuality too, shifting boundaries between men and women and emergence of the “new woman” phenomenon: women living alone, wearing bloomers, riding around on bicycles and reading “suspect” novels. It was an awful lot for the British to come to terms with psychologically says gender historian John Tosh. And since it’s men who are supposed to defend the Empire and run the show, it was clearly all to their discredit. In some sense it was seen as their weakness.

Winner also writes about the English way of playing football and perhaps offers up a theory of why the English aren’t normally World Cup winners.

The game is and has always been “a man’s game”. English footballers are expected to display Lionheart qualities: strength, power, energy, fortitude, loyalty, courage. As for delicacy, cleverness, sleight-of-foot, imagination and cushion-slicing … well that’s the sort of thing we prefer to leave to foreigners.

The idea is rooted in what the Victorian’s called “manliness” and it lies at the heart of all that’s best and worst in English football. It accounts for the energy and power which make the English league exciting. It helps explain why English football rarely produces creative artists (and usually treats badly the ones who do emerge). And it provides an insight into the root cause of England’s forty years of hurt in the World Cup.

Those Feet: A Sensual History of English Football is a fascinating book, it’s filled with interesting stories about sexual repression and sport in Victorian Britain. I don’t want to show you all of my research as it feels a bit wrong to share so much of the author’s own work. But if you find this kind of stuff interesting I recommend you check out the book.

16 random facts about the UK

1. Swansea is the wettest city in the UK

2. In 2003 Aireborough in West Yorkshire was named the most “average” place in England and Wales.
Aireborough was selected as the most average ward from over 8,000 in England and Wales using data from the 2001 census. It was ranked as the most average, with reference to six criteria: age, home ownership, car ownership, religion, ethnicity and marital status. (Via the BBC)

3. The average British person drinks three cups of tea a day, believes in God, is more than £3,000 in debt, has sex eight times a month, is caught on CCTV camera 300 times a day and drives a Ford Fiesta. Says the Daily Mail in 2007.

4. Richmond is the most copied British place name in the world. (Daily Mail)

5. Ripley in Derbyshire was named the most English place in Britain in 2006 and has the largest proportion of residents with an English ethnic background of any place in England. (more Daily Mail, they would focus on these things I guess)

6. The average British person will drink 2.5 kg tea per year. (says wikipedia)

7. The average British woman will spend over £4000 on handbags in her lifetime. (Daily Mail again)

8. Most British people would like to live in York, with Bath, Brighton and Hove and Edinburgh sharing second place.

9. The average Brit spends four years with a hangover, says the Huffington Post.

10. The average Brit shags 2.8m people during his or her lifetime, indirectly, according to the “Sex Degrees of Separation” calculator from Lloyds Pharmacy, via The Register.

11. The average Brit takes 121 holidays in a lifetime and spends about £168,553 on taking breaks. (Says the Mirror).

12. The average Brit spends about £40 000 on buying drinks for other people. That means as a nation the UK population will spend £30 billion-a-year on round buying, according to the survey of 2,000 people (Via The Daily Mail)

13. According to Tesco the average Brit eats about 7000 calories on Christmas Day.

14. The average British man will spend a month of his life searching for socks. When he’s found them he’ll be off down the pub for around 10,585 hours. He’ll watch 11 years of TV, learn to cook just four meals in his lifetime, sleep with eleven partners and say sorry 1.9million times, via The Sun.

15. The Guardian reports on what insurance policies says about British averages.

Seven out of 10 people take no exercise during the week, but do find time to go to the pub at least once.
The insurer also said that the possessions in the home of today’s Mr and Mrs Average (including furnishing, clothes and carpets) are worth on average £28,000.

16. And finally, according to the BBC in 2008, Manningtree in Essex has the most pubs for its size, with five pubs and 900 people – that’s 180 people per pub.