Reviewed: The Food Programme on Radio 4

Turn on, tuna in.

The Food Programme
Radio 4

An episode of The Food Programme (21 April, 3.30pm) considered the eating habits of lorry drivers. “Truckers are fussy,” claimed an interviewee at dawn on a stretch of the A3 referred to as “suicide alley” because of the lack of good places to stop and eat. “They want vegetarian, they want low-calorie, they want carrots.”

At a one-time kebab stand, now selling tomatoes from its own poly tunnel, someone ordered a tuna roll with “lots of cucumber” while another kept fruit in a pristine fridge in his cabin, destroying the cliché that truckers go around in dented white bread lorries feasting on Yorkies.

But while the show tried to be about what drivers eat, it kept pausing and ruminating on the lack of safe truck stops specifically in the UK and the dangers of a night spent pulled up in a lay-by – new draconian timesheets force drivers to sleep wherever they can park.

One man spoke about waking to find a hole cut in the side of his lorry and thieves quietly removing 50 cases of milkshakes. Newer vehicles now have microwaves, fridges and hobs, which mean drivers are expected to cook for themselves and rarely leave their cabs. The word “lonely” was uttered just once, but it was all the while heavily implied.

Surely a series about what lorry drivers listen to on the radio is a must? And particularly about the infamous CB channel 19 – the truckers’ channel. Recently Ofcom announced that AM on CB radio will be made legal by the end of this year, allowing foreign drivers to join the conversations: radio gold. CB is a life-saver, especially if, like me, you are eager to talk and like your personal information shouted.

Ah, I can just hear it now. “Alors, you ordered quoi?” “Tuna with lots of cucumber.” “Quoi?” “Tuna. With cucumber. On the A3. Delicious.”

Tuna. Photograph: Getty Images

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What makes us human?

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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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