Andrew Martin: A nice cup of tea beats bottled water every time

The unnecessary accessory we began to eschew is trickling back into favour. Our writer tries to understand the appeal of fashionable plastic

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I am occasionally engaged to speak in public, and the preliminary formalities are handled by a functionary whose role is to do a lot of unnecessary things. He telephones to ask whether I will be needing a power point, and (if food is to be served before or after) whether I have "any special dietary requirements". One day I'm jolly well going to answer both in the affirmative: "Being a novelist, I will naturally be illustrating my talk with a series of graphs – and, as for the dinner, I will get my GP to forward you the list of my allergies." Immediately before the talk, the unnecessary man will stand up and say, "A few housekeeping notes", before pointing out the exits, which, since they are usually the same as the entrances by which we came in, we already know. He then wastes further effort (and money) by marshalling before me some bottles of water.

Again, I am tempted to call his bluff. I ought to spend the first five minutes of my speaking time tipping the contents of these bottles down my throat. But, in practice, I never touch them. It just so happens that I have never been gagging with thirst while being introduced as a speaker. Don't get me wrong, when I am thirsty, I have a drink: ideally, lemonade or apple juice, because I prefer something with a taste. Above all, I drink tea – at least half a dozen cups a day, preferably malty Assam (that's English Breakfast to you).

I find the bottled water fad – which has, in fact, been going for about a quarter of a century – to be a distressing instance of mass hypnotism, so when the remarks of an Australian scientist were reported last week, they represented to me a series of nails being hit firmly on the head. Dr Spero Tsindos of La Trobe University, Victoria, resoundingly pronounced that bottled water has become "a fashion accessory and a token of instant gratification". He pointed out that it was not necessary to drink copious amounts of water, and "We should be telling people that beverages like tea and coffee contribute to a person's fluid needs and, despite their caffeine content, do not lead to dehydration."

Unfortunately, the British public is not so sensible. Sales of bottled water ascended continually from the end of the vacuous, narcissistic decade that gave birth to the fad (the 1980s) to 2006, when they began to fall. But in 2010 they returned to their 2006 level, and I am informed by market researchers Kantar Worldpanel of a 5 per cent rise in sales for the 12 months to June 2012. The dip was probably accounted for by a backlash against bottled water – at the glibness of the whole phenomenon, whose only tangible result is a mountain of landfill. Restaurants that refused to serve tap water or that penalised the bottle-dodger by charging for it were condemned and often shamed out of the practice. (Although I was charged for water last year in a Chinese restaurant in Lowestoft. Or so it appeared. In fact, the proprietor explained, I was being charged for the ice in the water, even though I had not asked for ice.) But notwithstanding the fact that it addresses the non-problem of imminent dehydration; in spite of the fact that it doesn't "flush toxins out of the body", does not improve the skin, is much more expensive and environmentally harmful than tap water but doesn't taste any better (most people can't tell the difference), it seems bottled water is here to stay.

Well, in an orally fixated culture, you've got to have something to stick in your gob, and I suspect that the appeal of a small bottle of water is that it is not a Mars Bar, not a cigarette, not a glass of wine. "Look," the water carrier proclaims, "I am not drinking alcohol!" (at least, not right now). The water bottle is a priggish symbol of purity and piety, and in so far as this is radiated externally, it is a reproof to the person daring to drink wine in the holy presence of the water-drinker. In so far as it is not radiated, then the water-drinker is claiming brownie points for being conscious of their own wellbeing... as if anybody cares what they're doing to their body. It's true, by the way, that drinking bottled water is unlikely to cause you any harm, although you can overdo it and people have died from excessive consumption. (You drown, basically, and so if you notice your life beginning to flash before you after that 12th bottle of Perrier... stop!)

The other reason I can't stand bottled water is that it seems alien and unpatriotic; having to some extent displaced the British national drink of tea. The bottom line, according to Bill Gorman, executive chairman of the UK Tea Council, is that "British people drink eight units of fluid a day. Between the Second World War and the late 1980s, four of these units were cups of tea, but since then only three have been tea. We've lost a cup."

Now, let's quickly eliminate one suspect in the case of the filched cup. Mr Gorman speaks of "the coffee boys" with the amused tolerance of a married older brother for his roguish younger sibling: "In the 1970s and 1980s," he chuckles, "the coffee boys' adverts were much sexier than ours." But he is secure in the knowledge that "on any given day, the British drink 165 million cups of tea, compared with 70 million cups of coffee". It's just that you notice the coffee drinking more, since it's done in high street coffee shops.

No, it's "the water and fruit juice boys" who've done the damage, the former especially. That said, tea is "in a good place", the tea-drinking habit being solidly established, and perhaps benefiting from the nostalgia that a recession promotes. "Just try getting a place for afternoon tea at Claridge's," says Mr Gorman. "You'll be waiting six weeks."

Why should we be celebrating tea? Here's why. Being 99 per cent water, it has all the hydrating virtues of bottled water but with a bonus, namely the tea itself, which provides a moderate dose of energising and mentally stimulating caffeine (the best thing you can do before an exam, I believe, is drink a cup of tea). It is also rich in flavonoid antioxidants, which aid cardiovascular fitness. Experiments on rats and mice suggest that tea may inhibit certain cancers, and tea leaves applied externally can act as an antiseptic, as monkeys in the jungle know very well.

Unlike bottled water, tea has earned its place in affections with a solid record of good deeds. Above all, it requires the boiling of water, and it is said that tea consumption enabled the concentrations of population necessary for urban living in the 18th century, when city water supplies were not clean.

We may have exploited the labours of Assam to grow our tea in the days of empire, but the tea habit – and therefore the water-boiling habit – that we imposed on India saved millions of lives.

Tea in India comes milky and sweet, which is how it ought to be served after some traumatic incident (fittingly enough, since there's usually a traumatic incident around every corner in India). As a child, I was involved in a serious car crash in York, and I could not speak from shock until a woman – a complete stranger, and angelic in my memory – came up with cup of sweet, milky tea. I doubt that a bottle of water would have done the trick. Tea is associated with an enjoyable ritual, but imagine the sheer crassness of a host who inquired, "More bottled water, vicar?".

Tea is our national common denominator, and it would be helpful in these uncertain times if it could be allied to our other such symbol, namely a certain Elizabeth. But I fear that Her Majesty is invariably accompanied on her travels by bottles of Malvern mineral water.

Andrew Martin's latest novel is 'The Baghdad Railway Club' (Faber)

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