Opening sentence to Henry James’ (1881) The Portrait of a Lady.

‘Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.’

Now, I’ve rattled on about declining standards in tea-making for so long that I thought I had already blogged about it. People I’ve harangued certainly thought so. However, and there are plenty of howevers, this is a theme that warrants returning to. After all, if it’s important enough for George Orwell to write A nice cup of tea between addressing communism, aspidistras and paeans to his perfect pub the Moon on the Water, this subject suits Idle Blogs well. So, sit down, don’t make a cup of tea quite yet, and read on. The rules:

1 The only person who can make a decent cup of tea is you. so, NEVER get anyone else to make it. This can be tricky, as tea is the first thing most people offer you on arrival in their homes – that’s if you’ve been invited in and they’re not calling the police. Mind you, while awaiting the officers arrival is perfect cuppa time. Anyway, on invited arrival, deny you want tea, before waiting ten minutes, then politely suggest you’ll make one yourself. If your hosts insist on making it, ensure you stand near the sink, to pour it away

2 How to pour away tea someone’s made you has its own subtle criteria. Ensure the sink has no cloth in it, or you’ll be explaining to your host why their recently wringed dishcloth is now spreading milky, undrinkable tea over their work surface. The best way to dispose of it is at the same pace you would drink it. Despite your own sense of self importance, not to mention that of the tea, after ten mins they’ll have forgotten all about it, so it can disappear unseen. However, this has not yet addressed the issue of making a good cup of tea.

3. At this point it’s good to stress that the best avoidance other people’s tea is through meeting them in the pub. I would suggest the Moon on the Water, had it not been appropriated by a chain, with the sort of identikit chalk boards that would leave Orwell sleepless. Anyway, in pubs no one thinks they can do better than beer brewers, apart from the lonely home brewers, so it’s a level playing field. However, this is not always possible-

4. So, as ever, yup, even with tea making , timing is everything. Unlike with coffee, this has been adressed by calling a specific moment in the day Teatime. It’s so idiot proof that insipid tea making is inexcusable.  Coffee has no such marker, and presumably this is why it’s drunk with such obsessional abandon, as though really screaming for some containment. It needs boundaries like our well-mannered tea. However, despite there being an actual teatime…

5. the best time to drink tea is probably first thing in the morning. When I say ‘first thing’, I mean it as being the first thing you do upon waking, not at 00:01.  If you get good at it, sleeping can be poor based simply on how good your restorative cup of tea will be upon waking. Of course, (see point one) generous people occasionally like to make you tea, even at 7am, so it’s tricky. It is advisable to either have a bedroom with a sink in it, or print off these rules and ‘accidentally’ leave them out. At this point I feel that tangents may be resulting in anyone looking for real advice on making tea might be drifting away to Jamie Oliver, or Orwell, so

6. Equipment – Fresh water, tea bag or leaves – let’s not be purist about this, there are other battles, such as the china. It HAS to be bone china. I’m risking snobbery here but if coffee drinkers can publicly ask for a latte-mild-chocco-hot-bot without pronouncing the hyphens, then this bone china rule has to hold. Although-

7. china cups are not necessarily needed. Not only do they fail to hold enough tea, but the exact angle of your superfluous little finger informs those in the know exactly which college you attended at Oxbridge. Or not.

8. A thin bone china mug is perfect, so why use anything else, unless you’re offering tea to builders – no offence, but, I doubt they hand out their best china to people handling wet cement for a living either.

9. The next crucial thing is to leave the tea bag in. Presumably there’s some EU directive demanding high street coffee shops only wave a tea bag above the water, with contact lasting no longer than 8 seconds. They then slosh in enough milk to douse a bonfire. So, tip 8 is really – LET IT BREW. You want it strong enough to require teeth bleaching to remove the stains.

10. Add only a SMALL AMOUNT OF MILK. A SMALL AMOUNT OF MILK cannot be stressed enough. Sugar is optional, but only if you’re trying to prove a point, and keep your teaspoon out of work. Best is half a level teaspoon of brown sugar, which offsets the bitterness to the tea enough to maintain it.

11. Of course this brings up the subject of the teapot. The teapot is increasingly used in TV dramas as an indicator that it’s set in the past. Either that, or as a prefabricated home for mice on CBeebies. However, it remains a staple for anyone serious about their teatime, but for some reason seems out of place and overambitious for the morning cuppa. The best contents of an afternoon teapot is 3 parts Assam, 1 part Earl grey, not mice wearing their Sunday best while sliding down the spout.

12. To truly appreciate tea, it’s best to limit intake. Unless they have two cups on the go, some people limit their consumption to the short time it takes for a kettle to boil. Each to their own, but it’s better to spend time anticipating a cup of tea, as opposed to never letting one go. Ideally – drink twice a day. When you need it to wake up, and to counter the mid afternoon slump at teatime. Drinking tea twice a day means that while you’re not drinking a cup, you’re anticipating it, which for anyone who saw the Star Wars prequels, will know is a better state to be in.

Oh, and to stress the fresh water. It’s been rubbished in the past as being pedantic, mainly by me, but now I’m sold. It makes a far superior cup of tea.

The Life Assistance Agency is the debut novel, and available now from Foyles and Amazon here –  and http://tinyurl.com/hara77d