Sunday, 20 April 2014

Afternoon tea

We have been invited to afternoon tea this afternoon - across the road. Apparently one of the other people who has been invited is a friend of the Senior Cat - someone he has not seen for a number of years. (Yes, the city I live in is a small place - people tend to know each other.)
But, "afternoon tea"? I was given an interesting piece of advice with respect to writing recently. Quoting the advice of someone else she told me, "One of the things he says is to take out all the bits when they have a make/drink tea."
I can see why I was being told that. Does it move the story forward?
But then - you knew there had to be a "but" didn't you? - there are places where having tea (or at least food) works. In Elizabeth Goudge's book, "The little white horse", there is the wonderful description of the afternoon tea Marmaduke creates for Maria to give her guests. It is really not much more than a long list of things that might have appeared at an afternoon tea in Victorian times but somehow it is memorable. There is in fact a considerable emphasis on food throughout the book. Maria's breakfast with the parson is also described as are meals in Moonacre Manor.
And there are meals described in other books. Anne Barrett uses them in "Songberd's Grove." There is a description of the unequally divided omelette - which suggests good natured tension between the two men who eat it.
In "The Lark in the Morn" by Elfrida Vipont we learn that Kit, like many children, eats her jam roly poly by saving for last the piece with the most jam. Later there is a description of her having afternoon tea with her great-aunts - down to the careful warming of the pot and the use of Lapsang Souchong tea. It is a description of another different era. Would a child read it now? Some girls do. It's a curiosity and it does set the atmosphere and creates an even greater contrast between the two aunts who live downstairs and the aunt who has isolated herself upstairs. We never learn what sort of tea the upstairs aunt drinks but somehow we know it will be more robust than the Lapsang Souchong.
In "Pauline" by Margaret Storey, Pauline's stay at home aunt makes "bread buns" - eaten with butter and blackcurrant jam. It's another little glimpse into domesticity which somehow makes for greater tension.
So, although I understand the need in general not to describe the making and drinking of tea (and I know I am guilty of doing it) I also think there is a place for it if it somehow moves the story along or tells us something we need to know about the characters or helps us understand what they are going through. I am not (I hope) going to be guilty of describing those "wafer thin" slices of bread and butter, the cucumber sandwiches and the sponge cake but I do  
want to be able to say that someone like Maria or Kit or Pauline has afternoon tea "because....".   I want to be able to say that the first time Nicholas has breakfast with the cousins he is now going to live with that he is too anxious to help himself to more than one Weet-a-bix and that Michael's mother is so upset she forgets to put the yeast in the bread she is making.
I don't know if it is right or wrong. It feels right to me. But I know someone will disagree and, if it ever reaches the point of someone editing it then I might have to be prepared to throw it out.
But afternoon tea is still a proper occasion sometimes. Today it will be something more than a tea bag dunked up and down in boiling water or a teaspoon of "instant" coffee stirred around until the granules dissolve. Tea or coffee will be drunk with something more than a biscuit from a packet.
There is some hope for us yet - and that might be worth writing about.


jeanfromcornwall said...

Food and drink are just basic essentials. But the little ceremonies and rituals we set around them are part of what makes us human, aren't they?

Kate Lace said...

I think shared meals/snacks are a great way of showing shared interaction in a book. Also the food shared and the way it is eaten often tells you a great deal about people's status and the way they feel about their guests. I like to see food and drink in books.Hope your afternoon tea was wonderful

catdownunder said...

I think you are right Jean - and think of something like the ritual of the Japanese tea ceremony!
Hello Kate - yes afternoon tea was lovely. It was warm enough to sit outside and I had something I normally don't have - cream! It came on something I normally never eat - a scone. :)

Helen Devries said...

And Parson Woodforde's Diary would be considerably slimmer....

catdownunder said...

oh yes Helen - definitely! :)