Tuesday, June 13, 2006

all about lovely kjell

We used to be dunkers. Then at work we acquired a team-size teapot and a tea-cosy, and recently we've gone even more antique and started to buy loose tea, because someone decided it tastes better.

Loose tea has now become a niche product bought only by people who think too much about their groceries. Logically you'd think that most loose tea would be organic but that isn't the way it works out. The markets don't really overlap. Loose tea is drunk by people in their sixties and seventies who were too old by the 1990s to get fervent about organic food. Organic food is bought by people in their 30s-40s who don't think of making tea in the antique way. So that's why it's easy to get organic tea-bags but difficult to get organic loose tea.

(You can also sell loose tea to the stocking-filler market. This kind of tea comes in shiny packages with copperplate lettering and is often some inappropriate flavour, such as almond or vanilla. When the gift has been handed over it just gathers dust, no-one gets round to using it.)

The main problem for us has been discovering a good technique for rinsing out the teapot - a technique that rushes the old tea-leaves cleanly out of the pot without plastering them all over the sink or blocking the drains. And now I've got it down to a fine art, I reflected, standing this morning at the basin in the outside toilet. Outside was clear and fresh after rain, I was energised and a wave of joy went through me, I wanted to jump at the walls and it must have been like this always when I was younger but now I really noticed the days when I got that feeling.

There were a lot of things to reflect on, philologically. "Loose tea" was a banged-together term that had never existed until tea-bags became dominant. Up until then, this product that I'm talking about was simply known as "tea", and it's still called "tea" on the package itself, but in conversation this would be sure to mislead since 98% of all the tea that's drunk (in the West) is tea-bag tea. On the other hand, it wasn't possible to call the product "tea-leaves" even though that was a familiar expression and even though that's exactly what it is, because "tea-leaves" connotes dregs, precisely the thing I was now rinsing out of the pot. It was a name for the final stage of the product life-cycle, therefore by a kind of instinctive good taste it must be suppressed from our imagination of the blossoming thing we possess by purchase.

"Loose tea", by firm contrast with the unwished-for suggestion of spouts clogged with dregs, placed a subtle emphasis on the dryness of the little black grains, the way you heaped a spoonful and if you were careless scattered it over the kitchen surfaces with a tiny patter. That wealth in sacks, how was it kept dry, sacks pitching and tossing in a small boat, smuggled in to Romney and Purbeck...

(There's another expression that you sometimes run across: "leaf tea". The term is only seen in the vicinity of automatic drinks machines, and what it promises is that the tea that comes out of the machine is somehow the result of using real leaves, not instant tea granules; it could therefore, conceivably, be palatable.)

We loved tea in Britain. At first all tea was purchased from China and was not known from anywhere else. The East India company (under direction from Westminster) gradually monopolized the trade, but the Chinese weren't interested in any western products - except silver - and it became a problem. That was when the possibilities of Bengal-grown opium began to show themselves. The Chinese market was seeded and demand sky-rocketed. Trading opium was officially illegal so the opium went into China by the back door, in exchange for silver. Then the silver was traded legally for tea, silk, etc. This triangular trade was a cornerstone in the nineteenth century and we fought two wars with China to keep it going. But gradually it became less important; Robert Fortune managed to bring Camellia sinensis seedlings out of China, and it turned out that India was a good place to grow it. So by the time the opium trade was formally renounced (1906) 90% of British tea came from India and it was no great loss to us. China in turn was growing poppies and could supply its own market. By then there were 13.5 million opium addicts in China, and the Qing dynasty was in the last stage of collapse; revolution followed in 1911.

I've been pondering for a while now about a series of imaginary articles called "ten sentences that changed my life", so I've got into this habit of listening to the incessant verbal debris that goes through my head when it's let off its leash...

I've got it down to a fine art...

That was one of the things that Lovely Kjell used to say. We shared a house for two- three years - this was a long time ago. He was short, he had dark curly hair, and he was an engineer. I'm not going to tell everything about Lovely Kjell, not now anyway, but only about the things that in a stupefied way I happened to absorb from him. I realized that standing at the sink and talking to myself I had even used his tone of voice. Pleased with my new method for sieving off the tea-leaves - pleased, but with just an edge of disdain at noticing such a trivial accomplishment - I became Kjell to a certain extent and I also became myself as I was at that time.

I had invested all my passion in a record collection from university, but I didn’t have a good hi-fi like Kjell did. Kjell liked the kit more than the music, I thought. It was when CDs came out. Kjell informed me that CDs couldn’t compete with a really first-class system, but he made the switch anyway. His most common term of praise was dinky. He used to show me technical tools that he had managed to get a boss to purchase, tiny cameras and calibrators that could not do anything comprehensible outside their work context, but he still brought them back to the house and they still appealed strongly to Kjell because of their dinkiness.

I hadn’t learnt to drive yet. On Saturday mornings we went to town in his car. We went to MacDonalds and we each had two quarter-pounders with cheese. MacDonalds in those days was clean, modern, exciting and cool to be in, it was even an adventure. Then we went to Marks and Spencers and bought enough ready meals for the whole week. We were back home by 1030 because we had it down to a fine art.

Kjell got into opera. He liked Puccini but he especially liked Wagner. When the Ring cycle came out on CD it was his prize possession, it was actually dinky! He would race up to Covent Garden to see the operas; sometimes he went to the ENO but they couldn’t compare, really. I was mildly interested but I was still too wrapped up in obscure rock music so I guess he went past me. He also liked Formula One and I remember the contemptuous way he spoke of Alain Prost and what fun he made of Murray Walker. Ferrari was the team he followed but at the time they were going through a string of bad seasons so every race was an agonizing event.

We sometimes went for a pint and a game of pool but we mostly stayed in because we were writing up our theses. At first we used to take a break and go outside to smoke but later on Kjell gave it up. We drank instant coffee - mostly Gold Blend but we were attracted to the other Nescafe lids as well, so we kept on trying them: Blend 37, for example, had a green lid and suggested the smoky refinement of bistros, while the rare Alta Rica hinted at far-off swaying palms.

This was 22 years ago. Kjell was dreaming of digital cameras and USB keys and neat little flip-phones but none of those things existed at the time. Laptops didn't exist, no, not even PCs...Kjell finished his thesis before I did, and later he helped a lot with the practicalities of mine. It was quite a business. I typed my own thesis, but Kjell had to pay for a typist. Then you had to make photocopies; this was done in secret late one evening at Kjell's place of work. Even so, I still had to pay for the binding (in a "serviceable colour", the directions insisted - navy, burgundy or bottle-green) and for gold lettering down the spine. It cost £100 for the statutory four copies. Even though we were wage-earners, it seemed a lot. But in fact, our rent was low, it was a beautiful place when we were smoking outside on the patio, we had more disposable income than I've ever had since; we didn't have student loans to repay because it was grants and parents who paid for university. Hence the sick blooming of our collections of records and CDs, the hi-fis, the ever-more-expensive and implausible books, the coloured coffee-lids, the ready meals. Thatcher was treating us to Covent Garden. We simply didn't know what to do.

I've remembered something else. When in those evenings of separate study we passed each other on the stairs, Kjell used to emit a rapid beep-beep in an expressionless electronic voice. (I think this noise had to do with Star Wars, a film I'd never seen, and it signified electronic docking and recognition - yes, it's just like the sound when you plug something into the USB port.) I found it disconcerting, not feeling able to reply in kind; nor could I manage any human greeting because of Kjell's robotic expression. So I said nothing, but I tried to qualify my silence with a brief smile or lift of the eyebrows, an uncommitted attempt to acknowledge such minimal friendliness as I thought he might intend and to show appreciation for a joke that was possibly supposed to get funnier the more times it was repeated, though this probably came across as false since I had never found it funny.

When we wanted a change from pretending to write our theses we played a cut-throat variety of two-hand canasta. I provided the rules of the game (with certain silent additions) but it was Kjell who supplied its moral character as he played with unrelenting aggression. The waste-heap nearly always rose dazzlingly high and bristly with wild cards; the game shrank to a test of psychological mettle and I had to admit he usually won.

One night Kjell came back from work after a drink and hit another car on a narrow country lane. His own car was written off; he was also over the limit and was banned from driving for a year. He drank gin and tonic at home (he got the taste for this while working in Spain and he called it gin-tónica). I was seeing someone by then. We bought our own places with big mortgages and then we drifted apart but not before I’d taped the whole Ring cycle.

My family lived nearby but Kjell didn’t often go back home even for Christmas. I don’t think I treated him particularly well, or anyone else in those years. But he had his revenge on me in the end and soon after he moved I think he got married and afterwards I don’t know. I suppose he remembers something I was always saying but perhaps I wouldn’t recognize it.

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