I'm writing this on the day a new exhibition opens at the Bodleian. It celebrates the works of five literary luminaries — and personal heroes of mine — but I see little immediate prospect of being able to get to it. My only comfort is a cup of tea. Note the cup: not just 'a tea', slopping about uncontained.
'A coffee' is, as celebrated in the Editor's recent blog post on Oxford's caffeine culture, the ubiquitous, current norm. In all its possible variety, a coffee is the acceptable pivot for a wide variety of social encounters and interactions and, dare I say it, less twee than tea. That supposedly goes not just in Oxford but here in Cambridge, too, despite Rupert Brooke's best efforts to immortalise the comforts of tea in The Old Vicarage, Grantchester (1912) . With the famous honey of that poem's last line no longer easily found anywhere for tea — ousted by outsize muffins the size of small mammals — the all-day beverage of choice might also seem to be coffee, even at The Orchard in Grantchester, Brooke's inspiration.
But Cambridge might not be as concerned with coffee as that after all. Nowadays for something that purports to be more authentically Cantabrigian a famous Fitzbillie's Chelsea bun goes down well. Alongside, only tea will do. And while it's always tempting to contrive arbitrary differences between Oxford and Cambridge, just as much as it's my self-imposed remit to note the similarities, in the tea-coffee divide I think I really have one. Heffers has even closed its coffee outlet to concentrate on books not baristas.
It doesn’t stop there. We're all waiting for May week, of course — famously not due until June — and its sparkling libations. But this month sobriety is, if not the order of the day, at least the daytime default whilst exams are endured. Cafes are all noticeably full of file-clutching finalists topping up on revision — washed down with tea. I've checked.
The Copper Kettle, stalwart of King's Parade, boils over with pale faces, treating themselves to generic all day breakfasts of the like I used to enjoy, before or after key undergraduate moments, at St Giles' Cafe. Rosamond Lehmann, author of Dusty Answer (1927), a fine coming of age novel based in Cambridge, deposited one of her lovelorn heroines within The Copper Kettle's steamy interior to commune with a teacup and recalled, as a Girton undergraduate in the 1920s, Tripos candidates being brought early morning tea by first years, prior to boarding the bus down to the Guildhall to sit their papers. Nowadays, they're much more likely to grab an Ooshi — a cup of Taiwanese Bubble Tea, topped with flavoured jelly spheres — en route. Time brings change, but seemingly it still brings tea, too.
Rupert Brooke has, in fact, a lot to answer for when it comes to the subject of teatime. His talismanic line about tea has for a century obscured an earlier couplet which has, understandably, been less quoted:
For Cambridge people rarely smile, Being urban, squat and packet with guile.
As settler, I must disagree. In life, as in fiction, tea offers possibilities. Viewing the Fitzwilliam's extensive collection of teapots and tea paraphernalia confirms it. And besides, there's little a good cup of tea, especially in exam season, can't cure. Coffee comes later.