Dylan Thomas reads TS Eliot NS parody

“As we get older, we do not get any younger”

After the competition page was hijacked from The Week-End Review, “absorbed” by the New Statesman in 1933, parodies have a formed a regular feature of the magazine’s back pages. In 1946, Faber and Faber published an anthology of the best entries, edited by NS literary editor GW Stonier, with illustrations by Nicolas Bentley. In his introduction, Stonier wrote:

It will never do, in this atomic age, to be a wit. Let the witty journalist beware, he is in danger of insulting his readers; the witty politician is a self-confessed enemy of the people; the witty parson – but he vanished long, long ago. To be dull – hugely, incontestably dull – has become a hall-mark of sincerity, and woe to him who tries to improve the occasion. Insect! Anti-democratic! But there are crannies where the nimble-witted lurk, signalling distractedly and indulging a frivolity they daren’t display. Given an excuse, finding the signal returned, they will even publish a little.

A competition page, with its aura of party games, provides such an excuse. The demands are light: an epigram, an anecdote, a letter, a limerick, a parody, verse or prose for an occasion. Light but not necessarily easy, as the would-be competitior discovers…

Perhaps the most notable addition to the anthology is “Chard Whitlow”, written by the poet, translator and dramatist Henry Reed. The poem is sur-titled Mr Eliot’s Sunday Evening Postscript, and will be republished in full next year as part of the New Statesman’s centenary proceedings. However, to tide you over until then, here, reading with all the stolid grace of Mr Eliot himself, is Dylan Thomas, who will celebrate an anniversary of his own next year – having laid in a cemetary in Laugharne, Carmarthenshire, since 1953.

Dylan Thomas, doing what he loved best. Photo: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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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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