In praise of (non-political) tea parties

By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Magazine

  • Published
Tea partiers
Image caption,
Tea partiers - of both varieties

America's Tea Party candidates could make big gains in Tuesday's mid-term elections, but in the UK tea parties retain a more innocent aura - less Gettysburg-inspired rhetoric, more Battenburg-inspired cake... please.

You have to feel sorry for all those young children whose ears will doubtless prick up on overhearing the endless analysis about this year's US mid-term elections, only for bafflement and boredom to ensue.

The Tea Party - a movement of conservative activists - is on the rise in the US.

But to politically innocent three-year-olds the world over, who enjoy hosting social gatherings attended by inert cuddly toys under just this banner, quite why tea parties are leading to gatherings at which impassioned speakers address banner-wielding crowds of angry people, must be perplexing in the least.

Where are the tuna paste sandwiches and Victoria sponge cakes?

While many column inches have been devoted to the fortunes of the American political movement, perhaps this is a suitable moment to stop and appreciate the finer aspects of what your average Brit would understand by the term "tea party".

Susannah Blake thinks so. The author of Afternoon Tea Parties, and its precursor, simply titled Afternoon Tea, Ms Blake believes the custom of hosting a tea party, whether for children or grown-ups, should be celebrated.

"It's a very easy way of entertaining. It's mid-afternoon, so it's child-friendly and it can be as expensive, or as cheap, as you want it to be, while not being a dinner party," says Ms Blake.

"Everybody loves that it's terribly decadent because it's a non-essential meal."

While the conventions around afternoon tea parties may be more relaxed than a more formal, evening bash, there are nevertheless some basic rules, says Ms Blake, who describes herself as a "passionate traveller, explorer and diner".

It can never be just a pot of tea and a "dip into a cake tin". Afternoon tea is as much about savoury offerings - typically sandwiches - as it is about delivering a sugar hit at 4pm.

Upper crust

While the idea of breaking mid-afternoon for a sedate, superfluous meal, might seem at odds with the demands of this time-pressed, efficiency-conscious era, it made perfect sense in the 1830s when the tradition began.

Anna, Duchess of Bedford, is the woman commonly credited with inventing afternoon tea - establishing it as an occasion for upper-class women to trade gossip while filling up between a light lunch and a late dinner, says Andrea Tanner, archivist at London store Fortnum & Mason, which has long hosted afternoon teas.

Those with an eye for historical dates may wonder why the invention of tea parties post-dated the Boston Tea Party - from which America's current right-wing movement draws its inspiration - by about 50 years. The anomaly might be explained by historian Alfred Young, who said the term "Boston Tea Party" did not appear in print until 1834 - before that it was known simply as the "destruction of the tea".

"In the Victorian era, having an economically useless wife was a sign of some prestige," says Ms Tanner, noting how the occasion took hold and a tradition was born.

By the early 20th Century the event had begun to trickle down through the social strata. Afternoon tea became a feature of expensive hotels and smart department stores, and tea houses such as ABC Tea Shops and Lyons Corner Houses.

Revolutionary talk

While it may be hard to detect parallels between tea party as 21st Century political force and tea party as 20th Century talking shop, Ms Tanner, who helped research a new book, Tea at Fortnum & Mason, notes that discussion at the latter was not always frivolous.

Image caption,
Chimps' tea parties - where the fun really begins

"Women didn't have anywhere but their homes to congregate and you do find in certain societies that afternoon tea became a venue for often radical discussion. It sounds innocuous but I bet that women who joined Emmeline Pankhurst's Suffragette Movement, or the Fabians, would have been recruited at afternoon tea parties.

"Occasionally you would have lectures or talks, missionaries would report back on what they had been up to while abroad."

Yet for all their decorum and manner, and claims that afternoon tea is enjoying a resurgence of interest, there is an underlying sense of the absurd about the tea party which perhaps hints at the childish enjoyment to be had from scoffing sandwiches, cakes and scones.

The Mad Hatter's Tea Party, in Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures, sees the protagonist storming off, complaining: "It's the stupidest tea-party I ever was at in all my life!"

And who could think of the tradition without summoning thoughts of a chimps' tea party - which used to be one of the highlights of the calendar for visitors to London Zoo?

And whether it's tea parties of the political or gastronomic persuasion that interests you - both sides will probably appreciate, according to Susannah Blake, how important afternoon tea is in helping instil good behaviour and manners in the next generation of voters.

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