The Leader-Post – Feb 28, 1948
Rail Station Tea
The Brew is Bitter
It is good news for everybody except for Lord Inman that, in his new job on the railway executive, one of his first tasks will be to visit British railway station refreshment rooms and to test from personal experience the kind of stuff they are selling to the public.
How long this martyrdom is likely to last we are not told. Will he keep on, I wonder, till he collapses as he tries to swallow his 157th cup of dishwater tea somewhere in the Fen country? Will he even reach three figures in the number of his experiments with the post-war version of the railway station sandwich?
To people who used to talk about inevitability of progress—they have ceased to do so now—I always pointed to the railway station refreshment room as an institution that had stood still ever since it was set up as a trap for the unwary.
The type has been unspeakably bad, and the tea such as would lead convicts to revolt.
Transport seems to have a bad influence on food and drink. Concerning steamers, for example, Thackeray asked a hundred years ago: “Why do they always put mud into the coffee on board steamers? Why does the tea generally taste of boiled boots?”
And even after the pioneers of popular catering showed that an excellent cup of tea or coffee could be supplied to their customers quite cheaply yet at a handsome profit the railway companies refused to follow suit and insisted that, if people chose to travel, they must be prepared to put up with the traditional wish-wash.
When the taste for tea was spreading from the richer to the poorer classes William Cobbett prophesied that it would, in time, be the ruin not only of the English physique but of the English character.
Even Cobbett, however, did not foresee the kind of tea that would be served in a multitude of railway sations—tea that would have reduced any other people than the English to a race of Mrs. Gummidges.
I hope Lord Inman will change all this before he has ruined his temper and digestion. Let him begin by hanging up in every railway refreshment bar the saying of Sidney Smith: “Thank God for tea! What would the world do without tea? How did it exist? I am glad I was not born before tea!”
And let him give instructions to the barmaids to see to it that every cup of tea they serve will be so like the tea that the customer who drinks it will say to himself or herself: “I’m glad I was not born before tea!”
It may be argued, on the other hand, that the English railway station tea, like the English climate has played a useful part in strengthening the English character by teaching the Englishman endurance and training him, as we say, to sick it.
If there were nothing to stick, the moral muscles of the nation might grow flabby, and railway station tea, like a ravenous income tax, provides a good education in sticking.
As for railway station sandwiches, they were such a music-hall joke in my boyhood that I have never had the courage to eat one. I will let Lord Inman eat one first and wait till I hear what he has made of it. To be sure of discovering the worst, however, he must tour the railway bars disguised as an ordinary citizen.
And I trust that at the end of the tour he may not, like the Chinaman in the musical comedy, find himself saying: “They told me to disguise myself, and now I am disgusted.”
More incredible essays by Robert Lynd:
On Chewing One’s Food:
Eating Too Little:
The Value of Newspapers: