The Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Art

Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert Galleries, London, SW1 & W1: Bridget Riley - Works 1960 – 1966, 23 May – 13 July

Bridget Riley’s meticulously crafted monochrome canvasses were something of a sensation in the 1960s. This exhibition - held in both of Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert’s London spaces - will be the first ever solely dedicated to Riley’s black and white paintings. On their notoriously “optical” and “trompe l’oeil” qualities, Riley wrote in 1965: “The basis of my paintings is this: that in each of them a particular situation is stated…I have never made any use of scientific theory or scientific data, though I am well aware that the contemporary psyche can manifest startling parallels on the frontier between the arts and the sciences.” Whether you call her work painterly or mathematical, it’s undeniably as engrossing as it was 40 years ago.

Literature

Asia House, London, W1: Festival of Asian Literature, until 31 May

Asia House, the UK’s “leading pan-Asian organisation”, is currently hosting a two week festival that celebrates the writing of the Asian continent. Founded in 2006, the festival can proudly call itself “the only festival in the UK that is dedicated to writing about Asia and Asians, from the Persian Gulf to the Pacific.” This year sees another engaging program of events, debates and discussions that will touch on themes such as Women, Power and Politics, The Arab Spring and Asia, The Geo-Politics of Oil, Women and Water in Pakistan, Persianate Poetry and more. There will also be family friendly events like cooking classes and yoga.

Exhibitions

London Transport Museum, London, WC2: Mind the Map: Inspiring art, design and cartography, until 28 October

Opening today, this intriguing new exhibition at the London Transport Museum probes the “inspiration, history and creativity behind London transport maps”. Promising to be the largest of its kind, and drawing extensively from the museum's impressive archive, expect to see gorgeous cartographic works that map not only a city, but evolving perceptions of design, functionality, journeys and identity. The display with include “geographical, diagrammatic and decorative” transport maps, as well as – of course – an exploration of the impact of the iconic London Tube map on “cartography, art and the public imagination”.

Festivals

Weavers Field and Brick Lane, London, EC2: Boishakhi Mela, 19 and 20 May

This explosive celebration - now in its 14th year - rings in the Bengali New Year with a two-day bash that sees the self-titled “Banglatown” district of Bethnal Green transform into the consummate outdoor festival, with a line-up of acclaimed international performers, parades, music, dance, rickshaw rides and culinary delights. Having worked closely with the Tower Hamlets Council, Boishakhi Mela aims to showcase the best in Bangladeshi talent, arts, heritage and culture. While the primary fanfare will be taking place in Weavers Field, the nearby Brick Lane will also soak up the atmosphere, with most restaurants opening up for alfresco dining and live music.

Various UK Venues: Museums at Night, 18 – 20 May

Museums at Night is Culture24's annual after-hours celebration when the UK’s museums, galleries, and historic properties promise “to come alive when darkness falls”. With hundreds of evening events across the country, this will be an almost inescapable three days of glorious late-night madness and cultural curiosities. Amongst the many highlights: Experimental culinary craftsmen Bompas and Parr stage a jelly installation onboard the SS Great Britain in Bristol, Terry O’Neil discusses his photography at the Ragged School Museum in London, torch-lit tours through the Museum Discovery Centre in Leeds, sleepovers and midnight feasts in Dover Castle, the Sunderland Winter Gardens and the British Museum, and a late night-soiree a the Somerset House. What bliss!

Bridget Riley in 1963. (Photo: Romano Cagnoni)
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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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