Sheri Silver Unsplash afternoon tea
Not the author's actual petit-fours. Image credit: Sheri Silver/Unsplash

The world, as we know, is largely down the lav. I may often remind you of this state in print, but I am wont to forget it regularly in life. I urge you to do this as well. We must not gaze too long into the neoliberal sewer of the present. Before it gazes back, we must practise what a youngster might call “self-care”, or what I call “disavowal of the devastating truth”. You may choose your delusion as a craft, novel or physical exercise. I prefer mine served on china.

Afternoon tea is my most direct route to denial. When I sense that our very public problems — wealth inequality, nativism, sexism, climate change, etc — will never be resolved, I make a scone in private. When the world looks especially bleak, I find a tea room. A tea room that serves afternoon tea. Afternoon tea. This is more difficult than those with limited interest in pinwheel sandwiches suppose.

To the best of my imperfect knowledge, there is but one commercial provider of afternoon tea in the nation. One. The Windsor Hotel of Melbourne is now alone in refusing the insolence of Australian marketing departments who agreed to rename the custom “high tea”. High tea is a lie. “High tea” refers to a meal taken while sitting upright at around 6pm. “Low tea” is another term for afternoon tea, which, FFS, is often taken on low seats, such as my Nan’s settee. High tea is the thing workers ate ravenously after selling their labour commodity all day from the dawn of the industrial age and if you don’t believe me, check Jane Pettigrew’s A Social History of Tea or the very particular Mrs Beeton.

I will allow that I have enjoyed occasional petits-four at “high tea” equal in quality to those served at The Windsor. I will not allow that the referent of the term “high tea” is not diminished by its application. The name of a custom may impact its material reality, which is why we went to the bother of voting “Yes”. And, perhaps why the zombies of many hotel marketing departments went to the bother of renaming afternoon tea. This act has transformed a relic of peace into a cause for loud aspiration by parties whose attendees dress in scraps while congratulating the other for their refinement.

No. Let it be needlessly said that I have no quarrel at all with noisy groups of women. I am a great fan of the saucy tattoo, the bare shoulder and of the sister who urinates on Spring Racing Carnival, a custom that has earned no respect. But there is no place at all for a feminine defiance of convention in what has for more than a century been a feminine place and if you care to meaningfully bring your bachelorette exuberance to bear on an afternoon, do it in a male place, Pussy Riot.

There were no hens at all when I visited the Windsor last week. There was a couple commemorating the 60th anniversary of their love so quietly I had to hide behind my cake stand to eavesdrop. There were staff with no trace of mocking detachment but with real commitment to upholding the ambience of an era into which one might escape. There were also cucumber sandwiches.

The Windsor event, of course, is not inexpensive. But, it is an event, and not the sort of thing I would purchase in a normal week of neoliberal-era misery and hardly the sort of thing I could attain at a comparably priced buffet at a flash hotel crammed with empowered hens who would drink their afternoon blend through a penis straw if it were provided.

The refusal of these rooms to renovate or to accommodate the “ooh we’re having high tea like ladies!” crowd is, in all likelihood, conscious. I was grateful to see that the tedious story about tedious Anna, the tedious seventh Duchess of Bedford, was not retold on the hotel’s afternoon tea brochure as fact. If you ever hear that this ruling class twit “invented” “high tea”, and you will often, do not believe it. Yes, of course it is true that noble women, and later, the wives of capitalists, had time and means to idly enjoy cakes and tea. It is also true that tea rooms were established to promote tea, rather arguably the first mass commodity, to the Western working class.

Of course, a lady does try to overlook the tea plantation slavery of Empire, and the globalised imperial present, when cramming cakes in her (correctly attired) person. Sometimes, a lady succeeds. To her and her gentlemen companions, I recommend this antique treat. Five stars.

Peter Fray

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