Dr Sally Bayley.
Tea shops encourage the telling of intimate things. A tea shop rendezvous automatically creates intimacy and sympathy; over tea and teacakes you are ushered into a feminine world of secrets and confidences. Tea is as much about looking concerned and interested as it is about quenching thirst or having a sit down. Children’s author, Shirley Hughes understood this when she wrote the classic children’s story, Sally’s Secret, in which small girls practise passing the sugar and milk over tea. Tea outside, in the case of Hughes’s charming story, tea at the bottom of the garden, is the beginning of a vital relationship of trust and intimacy between Sally and her next door friend, Rose. Sally and Rose know they like each other because they can make tea together, nicely.
When you go out for tea you have to be nice; certainly this is what your mother would have told you. Only nice people go out for tea. Remembering her Edinburgh childhood, the Scottish writer, Muriel Spark, draws upon the patois of Edinburgh’s Morningside ladies delivering solemn auguries on the weather and marriages in Mcvittie’s tea room on Princes Street where she was taken by her mother after an energetic shop. ‘Niverthelace’, said the respectable Morningside ladies gathering in close across the table, ‘despite what he might say, we know better.’ The Morningside ladies are the equivalent of Macbeth’s witches hovering over their cauldron, chanting and churning and stirring up fate; making a recipe for the future. What they don’t know isn’t worth knowing. Spark’s reminiscence reminds us that tea shops are places for telling those who think they know something, that you know something better. Vital bits of information can be stirred in with the sugar, stories can be told and information gathered.
Mcvittie’s, like the English Lyons Tea Rooms that opened in the eighteenth century, were places where women could gather in public and form company and conversation: tie social knots. In the eighteenth century women had to be chaperoned, but by the twentieth they were going it alone in the microcosmic world of the tea room. The novelist of social manners, Barbara Pym, brilliantly captures the tea room lady sitting alone at her isolated table listening into the intimacies of others: a fly feeding from crumbs. Tea, she tells herself, is cheaper and better for her than alcohol; and in the tearoom she can spot other species of existence, their habits and their markings, their manners and modes of behaviour.
Going out for tea is as much a matter of social anthropology as it is refreshment. Miss Marple visits tea rooms for both and often gains a clue or two. People tell one another things over tea, especially women. She relies upon this fact. Over tea she can learn a great deal of history. Tucked away in the corner by the window, she watches the population of St. Mary Mead pass by. Tea rooms are also viewing stations, cosy observation towers.
At nine o’clock and five o’clock the corner of my local tearoom is filled with the familiar form of a gentleman reader. He always has a book in hand and he always looks up when I pass by. We notice one another. I wonder how much his choice of chair has to do with wanting to be noticed. He reminds me that coffeehouses, the sort frequented by James Boswell (Child’s coffeehouse in the City, the exclusive club for gentleman readers and Parliamentary speakers), no longer exist. Where do men go when they want to read and look at passing ladies? Where can the lonely or distrait find comfort and intimacy outside their front room? Perhaps this gentleman goes to a tea room not to be alone, but to strike up conversation. Perhaps he has something to tell. I should go in one day and pull up a chair at the adjacent table. I should put on my interested look.