Do you know what I blame? I blame tea. Slops. That's what Cobbett called it, and he was right. It's absurd; on the foothills of some beastly Himalaya, a bush grows. Its leaves are stuffed with alkaloids. Ferment them, dry them, grind them up and saturate them with boiling water and behold: something horrible which has to be adulterated with the fatty liquefactions from a hypertrophied bovine sweat-gland and soothed with boiled-down sap before it can be tolerated, and even then it tastes like ... hold on a moment.
There. Right. I've made a cup. Here we go: lower the beak into the steam and ... actually, that's rude. You should bring the cup to the lips, but I do it the other way - head down and suck - in memory of my grandfather. He could suck better than anyone on the planet, including the Chinese, a society which has made sucking into a competitive art form. Have you ever been to a Chinese banquet? Ha. They could put Dyno-Rod out of business. Try it next time you get a blockage. Pull a Chinese person in off the street, point at the obstructed pipework and tell him there's noodles down there. I guarantee he'll smack you in the face and prosecute you for racism, and serve you right for being too mean to call out Dyno-Rod like everyone else.
But the Old Man ... the sucking noises started with the head fully erect, triggered by the steam, building and building until the beak would start to descend as though drawn by the force of suction. At the last moment there would be a sudden burst of warp-suck, and, for the sake of etiquette, the cup would be lifted about an eighth of an inch towards the pursed, faintly thrumming lips, then tilted so that the scalding liquid would be drawn in with an indescribable cacophony of turbulence and raw thermal shock, a bit like Concorde on full afterburner.
It wasn't efficient - the entire process delivered only about five millilitres of tea into his maw - but it was spectacular; and one day, I hope to be able to emulate it.
But there. I'm wasting my time when I should be tasting my tea, which is - hang on - yes: disgusting. Whatever you do - microperforations, pyramid bags, little fag-tags, loose leaves, whatever - it remains disgusting. Acrid, rancid, syrupy and tarry by turns, it is so unpleasant I haven't any idea why I have to have a dozen cups a day. What I do know is that tea - slops! slops! Cobbett was right! - is responsible for a lot of discomfort in my life: a night at one of the world's worst hotels, in Canterbury; being stuck in a coach built for hypothermic dwarves, my knees jammed under my chin, the temperature in the high nineties, while a mad-eyed driver blasted us with high-volume Mancunian pop music; worst of all, recently, finding semi-congealed sputum in my Burger King Whoppa. (Shows what they think of us, calling it a "Whoppa", wouldn't you say?)
The link is very simple. If we had never discovered tea, we wouldn't have the kettle on all the time. No kettle, no lid jiggling up and down, nothing for James Watt to look at and think "Aha! Steam power!", so no steam engines, no trains, no railways. And no railways, no Railtrack plc. Which would mean that instead of flat-eyed "executives" talking management bollocks, we might have railway lines for trains to run on, instead of "amended timetables" meaning the last train to London left yesterday, or, instead, everyone shunted into coaches to fry and be deafened. And it would mean that we might have stations which, recognising that they had a monopoly (if you want to travel by train you have to use their bloody premises, the swines) reciprocated by offering somewhere to sit while you wait for them to put the railway lines back, instead of turning their stations into shopping malls to increase shareholder return by maximising beverage-and-sundries throughput. And that, in turn, would mean that, the other day, I would have been able to sit down somewhere to eat my Whoppa instead of having to stand by a pillar-ledge on which some earlier traveller had registered his reasonable criticism of the management by hawking a great slimy gobbett of ... well, you don't want to know, except that it had trickled down on to my Whoppa as I stood there, and just as I was about to raise it to my lips I saw, glistening, a ...
No. it's too disgusting. And only one thing can take the foul taste away: a nice hot cup of tea. Slops! Slops!