Illustration by Jackson Rees
Show Hide image

Will Self: Slurping bubble tea is like performing a sex act on an android

Will Self’s Real Meals. 

You’ll find it a little weird to begin with,” said the man in the bubble tea kiosk, “but you’ll soon get used to it.” This turned out to be a grotesque understatement, coupled with a patent untruth, the instant my first slurp of bubble tea shot up the special wide-bore straw and filled my mouth with globules. The kiosk man had already told me these were made out of tapioca flour, which was just as well, because without this pappy foreknowledge I would have spat them straight out. Drinking bubble tea didn’t feel “a little weird”. It felt as I’d imagine performing cunnilingus on an android equipped with latex genitals might feel like: the tiny clitorises slipped between my lips and oozed between the gaps in my teeth while my tongue swam in sweetly mucosal gloop.

I’ve been seeing these bubble tea joints opening up around London over the past couple of years – then I spotted one in Manchester. I daresay Little Muckling-in-the-Marsh will have an outlet before long and Nigel Farage will stop by when he’s campaigning in next year’s election and make a rousing speech saying that bubble tea entrepreneurs have nothing to fear from a Ukip government. If only they did.

Actually, bubble tea and Farage have several things in common. They’re both strange mutations of quintessentially English institutions; respectively, a nice cup of tea and a saloon bar bore. Yes, yes, I know that bubble tea originates in Taiwan, that “bubble” is derived from boba, which means “large” in Chinese, but the fact of the matter is that my gloop of non-dairy creamer, Assam tea and sugar did taste like a particularly sickly cup of tea, although admittedly one full of latex clitorises. As for Farage, do you really need me to elaborate?

The bubble tea kiosk also offered a range of other beverages made with things such as coconut water and açaí berries; indeed, the whole phenomenon seems part and parcel of a general thirst for macerated and churned-up beverages – slushies, slurpies and slurries (all right, I made the last one up) – that has afflicted our nation. The bubble tea shops are usually brightly coloured, their windows tangled with coils of plastic tubing through which garish fluids pulse; the overall impression is of an alternative future imagined circa 1985, which makes sense because bubble tea did indeed originate during that decade of inspired innovation, Duran Duran and pie-crust collar blouses. Really, then, bubble tea isn’t a steaming drink but a steam punk one.

I walked towards the station taking gentle pulls on the wide-bore straw but it didn’t matter how gentle they were: up came the beastly boba tapioca balls. I didn’t know what to do with the things – suck, chew or swallow them straight down – and it was this indecisiveness that upset me most of all. The last thing you want from a cup of tea is to pause for thought. Or, rather, let me qualify that: the last thing you want from a cup of tea is to have cause to think about it. A cup of tea should be replete with itself alone, it should be a single and undifferentiated quale of “cup-of-tea-ness” entirely divorced from any of its component parts. When I have a cup of tea, I don’t want to think about tea bags, or milk, or sugar. I just want to sip the thing judiciously and ponder why it is that perfectly decent English people can imagine for one second that it would be a good idea to elect a man who looks like a large, shiny ball of tapioca flour (or possibly a large, shiny clitoris) to parliament.

This brings me, logically enough, to the vexed issue of the tea bag being left in. You know what I’m talking about: back in the day, if you bought a cup of tea to take away, the bag was put in first, the boiling water was poured on to it, the bag was removed after a while and milk and sugar was then added to taste (“’Ow many sugars, love?”). Some time in that innovative decade, or possibly during the still more creative one that followed, this sacred order of things was irrevocably altered. Writing The Zürau Aphorisms, Kafka foreshadowed this development, as he did other great disasters for humankind: “Leopards break into the temple and drink to the dregs what is in the sacrificial pitchers . . . Finally it can be calculated in advance and it becomes part of the ceremony.”

The new tea-making ceremony involves the bag going in first, followed by the milk; next the hot water is added; then the server offers you the choice that’s no real choice at all: “Shall I leave the bag in, love?” At this point, his world torn to shreds before his very eyes, the tea drinker splutters: “B-but you put the m-milk in first. Don’t you appreciate that tea is an infusion and it’s necessary for the water to be just off the boil when it meets the leaves? If you put the milk in first, it lowers the temperature so the tea can never brew properly. It doesn’t matter if you leave the bag in after that. It won’t make any appreciable difference!” Whereupon the server, being of the Cockney persuasion, says, “You ’aving a bubble, mate?” 

Next week: Madness of Crowds

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 06 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Running out of Time

Show Hide image

The Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon