Endurance test: Houses close to the Hoe in Plymouth. Photo: Getty
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Will Self: Plymouth is for me ever associated with a certain outwardly bound derring-do

As I sat in the cavernous and entirely empty dining room, delicately abstracting flesh-flakes from my perfectly poached cod, my only desire was that I could stay longer. Much longer.

Plymouth should, I think, be twinned with Hull: both are oddly remote-feeling cities for our right, tight little island. Hull, unlike Plymouth, at least has a motorway connection, but the Devonian capital must have felt like ultima Thule last winter when the mainline rail connection was severed in the storms. The cab driver who took me from the reconnected station to my hotel descanted on the depredations of wartime bombing, and how the brutalist/modernist and now postmodernist rebuilding of Plymouth has never compensated for the dreadful damage caused by wartime bombing. I must say I’m beginning to find this excuse – which can be heard in South­ampton and Coventry et al as well – a little grating; I mean, it’s been nearly 70 years since VE Day, surely time enough to effect civic beautifying.

Mind you, the only extended stay I’ve ever had in Plymouth was in the mid-1970s and mostly spent underwater. A friend of my brother’s, Bob Farrell, was a marine archaeologist who at that time was diving on a wreck in Plymouth harbour. Out of the goodness of his large heart he enrolled me, aged 15, in the fortnight-long British Sub-Aqua Club course at Fort Bovisand. All the other diving trainees were in their twenties or older, but I manned up, and despite it being April, spent many frigid hours squatting on the seabed laboriously completing emergency drills with my appointed buddy. (You have to be able to remove all of your kit and replace it while sharing a single scuba apparatus.) One day we drove to a leisure centre and passed the afternoon sitting on the bottom of a particularly deep swimming pool – but beyond this I can remember very little of the locale.

Still: remoteness, Francis Drake bowling on the Hoe, me diving in the harbour – you get the picture; Plymouth is for me ever associated with a certain outwardly bound derring-do. The cabbie dropped me at the Duke of Cornwall, an imposing late-Victorian edifice with the top-heavy lines of an Atlantic steamer redesigned by a disciple of Augustus Pugin. Despite being under the auspices of a large chain, the hotel didn’t seem to have had much by way of a refurb’ since at least the mid-1980s: unseasonable palms lurked in the tiled vestibule, and the original bell board was still on the wall by the lift, complete with buttons for signalling to the Writing Room and the Manager’s Sitting Room. As I checked in I sensed the deep, looming vacuity of the establishment: an ambience somewhere between the Overlook Hotel and Last Year at Marienbad. And as I sat in the cavernous and entirely empty dining room, delicately abstracting flesh-flakes from my perfectly poached cod, my only desire was that I could stay longer. Much longer.

A desire that was only sharpened when I saw the brass plaque that had been put up on the patch of wall on the other side of the lift; this told me that Ernest Shackleton had stayed at the Duke of Cornwall on 7 August 1914, the night before he sailed in his ship, the Endurance, bound for his final expedition: an attempt to reach the South Pole from the Weddell Sea that ended up with him and his men stranded in pack ice for months. As I’ve had cause to remark before, there’s nothing I like more, when the evenings draw in and the wind gusts hard, than to lie in bed – preferably in an overheated old pile like the Duke of Cornwall – and read about the British officer class getting their bollocks frozen off in Antarctica. That Schadenfreude having been acknowledged, Shackleton is by far the most sympathetic of the frozen-stiff-upper-lips: he never lost a man (and treated his men well), and while he may’ve been driven, it wasn’t by the same imperialist demons as that loathsome narcissist, Captain Robert Falcon Scott.

I went to my bed up the great and yawning staircase, admiring the thick pile of the runner, which was patterned with three ostrich feathers argent, the ducal crest. My room was snug; the electric kettle boiled and I settled down to my hoosh of tea and courtesy Jammie Dodgers (three-pack, naturally). It was difficult to imagine somewhere more powerfully somnolent, and as I undressed I gaily anticipated unconsciousness as heavy and blubbery as an elephant seal descending on my febrile head.

Then, hanging my jacket up, I was arrested by a bizarre sort of ledge that had been implanted in the bottom of the corner cupboard. I suppose it was intended as a shelf for shoes, but the way it had been neatly covered in the same red Axminster as the rest of the room struck me as hilarious – our human interiors are like that, aren’t they, always enacting a transformation of the utile into the decorative, or the cosy. Or at any rate, trying to enact it: the more I looked at the triangular carpeted shelf, the more absurd it seemed. And then the talking began in the room above.

There were several loud and excitable speakers, and it sounded like a language spoken somewhere far to the east of Plymouth; not Hull, but possibly Afghanistan. I wondered why exactly a loya jirga was being held in the Duke of Cornwall Hotel at midnight on a Tuesday evening in late October – but not for long: the silence had been deafening, and I was happy to slip into sleep serenaded in Pashto – or possibly Dari; it seemed entirely in keeping with my remote situation. 

Next week: Real Meals

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, British jihadis fighting with Isis

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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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