What part of 'no' don't people understand?

Lord Norton

imagesA friend of mine recently said to me: ‘ You haven’t blogged about yourself recently’.  He obviously said this in a fit of complete absent-mindedness, since he usually takes the view that everything I write is, in some way, about me. 

I had been thinking I might lighten (or possibly darken) the mood by writing about things that really irritate me.   As we get older, we are supposed to get more Victor Meldrew-ish.  I haven’t noticed this about myself, but then I have been old since about the age of 14.  Certain things have always irritated me.  

As my list is rather a long one, I thought I would just write about one thing in particular that annoys me.  It is prompted by an observation made by Troika21 in his comment on my post on decriminalising drugs.  (I have now replied to all the excellent responses in that post.)   He wrote:

“I’m twenty-two, I have never smoked, never consumed any drugs and [dramatic pause] I’m teetotal. This seems to bother people, if they don’t know about it, and find out, they seem to instruct me to take the beer or wine they offer, “But you can just have a drop” they say, yet, if I told them I took LSD or something, they would make tut-tut-ing sounds.”

I do so empathise.  I’m in exactly the same position (other than the age, that is) and it really gets on my wick when people seem incapable of accepting I don’t drink alcohol.  If someone asks if you smoke and you say ‘no’, the matter is closed.  If someone offers you a drink and you respond ‘No thanks, I don’t drink’, they often seem incapable of accepting that you don’t drink.  I variously get responses like ‘Not even on special occasions?’ (a response which is based on a rather pretentious premise), or ‘You can’t be tempted?’ or – worst of all – ‘Are you sure?’   Of course I’m sure, that’s why I say no, I don’t drink.   What is it about certain people that they are incapable of understanding the word ‘no’?

I should add that I have never really found this a problem in the Lords.  I know we have rather a lot of bars in the Palace of Westminster and there is a perception of a drinking culture, but I have found that I don’t need to repeat myself when declining a drink.  For me, that adds to the attraction of the place.   There really is something about the place that sets it apart.  Including the fact that there are plenty of outlets where I can get a really good cup of tea…

60 comments for “What part of 'no' don't people understand?

  1. Nick
    23/09/2009 at 12:49 pm

    All part of the fact that we are paying for you and the rest to drink on the cheap.


  2. Troika21
    23/09/2009 at 2:07 pm

    I like a nice cup of tea. Twinings, and a biscuit, thats the thing.

    It seems Lord Norton and I have the same problem – it isnt hard, until someone starts badgering you about it.

    I became teetotal because of my Social Phobia, as it always terrified me that I would turn to drinking as a coping mechanism, so I stopped.

    Plus, I like being able to think straight.

  3. lordnorton
    23/09/2009 at 2:30 pm

    Nick: I don’t disagree. Mind you, we still contribute to the nation’s coffers because of the profit from banqueting. I wouldn’t object to paying the same price for a cup of tea inside the Palace as I do for a cup of tea outside. Members can afford to pay market prices. Whether the staff can is another matter. If we put up prices, I think we also need to think about staff salaries. The position is even worse for interns who are unpaid or exist on fixed expenses.

    Troika21: I have always been teetotal. I have never felt any need to drink, take drugs or smoke. (In case anyone suggests caffeine is a drug, I normally drink decaffeinated tea.) I suppose I am fortunate in that I have never felt any peer pressure, but then again even if I had it would probably not have made the slightest difference: I tend to go my own sweet way regardless of what is happening around me. A nice cup of tea and a good working environment and I’m content. And, like you, I like to be able to think straight.

  4. Nick
    23/09/2009 at 3:02 pm

    Nick: I don’t disagree. Mind you, we still contribute to the nation’s coffers because of the profit from banqueting.

    So are you trying to claim there is a net profit?

    No, we are still paying for the trough.

    You’re still an expensive club (I can’t bring myself to say gentleme’s club because you still have allowed corrupt members to remain members)

    Nothing to do with democracy


  5. Croft
    23/09/2009 at 4:11 pm

    I suppose most people either smoke or they don’t where drinkers have a much wider gradation of consumption. For occasional consumers it’s almost de rigueur to decline a Beaujolais nouveau but allow oneself to be persuaded by a something vintage 😉 If we resist ‘drugs’ like caffeine next it will be chocolate and then the pillars of civilisation will really start crumbling at our feet!

    As to tea I’ll happily drink it in almost any form: breakfast, Earl Grey, green or white depending on the hour. (If I’m honest at the end of a long day the pile of used tea leaves looks like one of those generic photos of a European food mountain)

  6. Bedd Gelert
    23/09/2009 at 4:48 pm

    Lord Norton, You may be reading too much into this..

    In England it seems de rigeur to refuse first offers of any food or drink [not sure why..]

    And in Ireland it seems necessary to refuse any hospitality enough times to necessitate a Mrs Flynn style ‘Go ON go ON go GO ON !!’ and be forced to have some tea and cake, which at least is not alcoholic.

    I guess the difficulty as well is that many people ‘do not drink’ during the daytime but are willing to do so later in the evening.

    But I take your point that people are very uncomfortable with someone who doesn’t drink at all, and they should be more considerate.

    However, look on the bright side, at least you aren’t also a vegetarian…

    23/09/2009 at 5:04 pm

    I also don’t drink, and the only drugs I’ve ever taken have been prescription, and for a limited time as long as I was deemed to require them.

    I think you will find, though, that the “Drinking cultures” is largely base don our need as people to escape the reality we find ourselves in. your quiet right, Troika21, that when you don;t drink you think straight, but many do not want to think straight because they feel that the world they live in, and the emotions caused by their actions, which aren’t always wise, often contradicts the way they are “Suppose” to live. They follow the modern narrative of what makes them happy, and Alcohol, Drugs, and other distractions help take the edge off the abject loneliness and poverty of spirit they face in leading such a shallow life.

    Of course the real solution is to take responsibility and live in a more morally developed way, but they can’t as that violates the modern narrative, as I said, and they are told they can’t. Drugs and Alcohol help them cope with the frustrations and convince themselves they are having fun and enjoying life when in fact they live in a sort of ongoing misery.

    I don’t mean all people who ever sip on a glass of wine are thus, but the overuse we see today is largely symptomatic.

    Of course many just do it as its part of the ambient culture and its “Expected” of them and so they “Fit in” by doing what they are “suppose” to do.

    I think you will find that, despite all the endless talk of “Tolerance” and “Diversity”, people are really not that diverse, must fit into Molds, and live by the expectations of society. We seem as a culture tolerant of groups that we’re suppose to be Tolerant of, such as the Gay Community, but not others, such as Teetotalers or those who want to lead simple lives within their means.

    Its just outside of the expectations.

    Ah well, I’m just prattling on now.

    23/09/2009 at 5:21 pm

    Oh and Gelert, I am an unfortunate soul, for in addition to not drinking alcohol or doing drugs, I also happen to be a Vegetarian! Imagine how often I’ve had to endure the usual questions like “But what about Chicken?” or ” A little bit won’t hurt” or “How can you not eat meat?”

    Then the offers pour in with no consideration that I just do not consume meat.

  9. 23/09/2009 at 5:36 pm

    My experience is the same as yours, Lord Norton. It isn’t just, as Bedd Gelert says, politeness at first refusing something, and hosts insisting. I’m not sure that someone who isn’t teetotal could understand the reaction that some people give, the smirks from the waiter when you refuse free wine at a banquet, etc., the general perception that you must have a screw loose. I don’t have a problem if someone drinks or not; what I don’t like is the way that alcohol is considered an essential part of life for so many people.

    I do like to compare my situation to that of vegetarians, who are now catered for very well. Events go out of their way to cater for dietary requirements, but offerings for those who don’t drink alcohol are often rather poor (which is even worse when you realise that it may tempt people to drink and drive).

    One of my concerns when it comes to the debate on legalisation of drugs is that it will make them far more mainstream, and anyone who doesn’t wish to take them will find themselves pushed further into the cold.

    I do like a nice cup of tea (and am looking forward to tea at the Lords!) and yes I drink tea and coffee with caffeine. I know that when I suggest that drugs being illegal is fine, people retort how would I like it if tea were made illegal. Well it’s true I would be angry if they made it illegal now, but the fact is if tea had never been legal during my lifetime, I would never have started drinking it, and so wouldn’t miss it. So while I do have some sympathy for smokers or drinkers, and concede that tobacco and alcohol couldn’t be made illegal overnight, I don’t believe there’s any such argument when contemplating legalisation of other drugs.

  10. franksummers3ba
    23/09/2009 at 6:01 pm

    I do empathise with teetotalers who have to negotiate and I remember public service announcements in the USA characterizing this behavior as equal to drug pushing. All fair and true.

    HOWEVER,Croft and Bedd Gelert are quite on point. Suppose two relative strangers want to have a drink. This is the minefield between them and a relaxed participation in the rites of Bacchus:
    1. Different subcultures and cultures expect differing levels of refusal before accepting a gift.
    2. Some people want to drink over business and some people want to exclude those who accept a drink over working hours business.

    3. Some people drink formaly and others see it as creating an axiomatic informality.

    4.Some people are caught offering you a very expensive drink because they have run out of the cheap stuff and are desperately hoping you will pass. Others are eager to show off their esteemed treasure and will be hurt if you refuse.

    5. Some people are alcoholics and others are afraid to be thought alcoholics.

    You at least have the Queen. I do not mean that her place can be imitated but she is a kind of referee of the game. In fact an important role of royalty through history has been to set out some norms of behavior for the use of stimulants and depressants in their realms — I am not joking about that.

  11. 23/09/2009 at 6:29 pm

    I agree with Bedd Gelert’s assessment that some level of social nicety is involved, especially the polite fiction that one must be ‘persuaded’ to have a drink and that some people choose to wait until some specified hour before drinking. Though I’d add that social anxiety plays a part as well: Those who say ‘I don’t drink’ may think they are simply stating a fact, but some people take it as unspoken criticism (‘unlike YOU’) or start to wonder if they’ve made some horrible faux pas (‘Wait, is he an alcoholic? Or on medication? Or is it something about his religion? I should know this….’). It’s the same sort of social anxiety that most people use alcohol consumption to mask.

    Then again, I think tea deserves much more recognition for its variety — the difference between teas is as interesting (and sometimes more so) as the difference between beers or wines or spirits!

  12. Adrian Kidney
    23/09/2009 at 7:04 pm

    As an employed staffperson in Parliament, I would point out that without the subsidies that are present in Parliament’s canteens, on my meagre wages, I would not be able to afford to eat.

  13. 23/09/2009 at 9:51 pm

    As a non-teetotaller and non-non-smoker, I can honestly say that not not doing stuff has not stunted my joi de vivre nor my ability not to think in zig-zag lines.

    However, my prescribed drugs are something else.

  14. 23/09/2009 at 11:02 pm

    Well, of course, you are quite right. But quite frankly, Lord N, you seem to have misplaced the general direction of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. I would defend, wholeheartedly, the rights of persons within or without the Palace to teetotalism or variants thereof, so long as they could be thrust forthwith into a dungeon for denying disagreement with them to other souls. Meanwhile, in the hypermarginal Lab-Con constiuency within which I reside, the debate continues amongst the formally Labour-voting cigarette smoking beer swiggers on the pavement outside the pub whether they would prefer the Harriet Harman urinal to the Gordon Brown dartboard or vice versa. All good stuff for Pliaid Cymru!

  15. Bedd Gelert
    24/09/2009 at 12:12 pm

    Jonathan, I should perhaps have also pointed out that if one is not offered a cup of tea within 5 minutes [5 seconds ?] of arriving at someone’s house, even if uninvited or just ‘popping by’ then one can feel very upset indeed… And the offer should be accepted immediately as ‘when in Rome..’

    Perhaps Lord Norton could test this out by popping in to Welsh homes on an ad hoc basis ?

  16. Miss Wheldale
    24/09/2009 at 12:55 pm

    I became teetotal for good over a year ago and since then have had the same experiance. Some people seem to view it as though I am making a judgement upon them and start to justify their own drinking or praising me for what I do. I’m not judging you, I’m just not drinking!
    What I find sad is that people seem to think I can’t enjoy myself because I’m not drinking and that it is necessary to drink to relax on social occasions. I don’t want it and I don’t need it. Being sober doesn’t stop me from having a laugh or from dancing when we go out. For me social occasions are better sober because I can remember everything clearly.
    The attitude frustrates me so much that I’ve become a bit of an activist and always make a point of telling people that I don’t drink if they bring it up. I want to promote the idea that it is socially acceptable to not drink, I did look to see if there was a teetotal society but they all seem to have died out in the Victorian era. There seem to be a few teetotallers on this thread, maybe we can band together and start a new one!
    I also agree with Jonathan’s comment, the non alcoholic drinks on offer are often poor, its generally coke or orange juice. You can only drink so many sugary drinks in a night and I find myself sticking to water.

    • 24/09/2009 at 8:56 pm

      @Miss Wheldale: I’d had thoughts about a similar organisation for non-drinkers myself, with the provisos that it should not exist to preach to drinkers the evils of alcohol; and that it should be a secular organisation. Feel free to contact me via the link on my website if you want to discuss the idea further (that goes for anyone else too).

      In the meantime, the closest thing I ever found was on the Meetup.com website, where there is a group in London for people to enjoy an alcohol-free night out. I’ve never joined so I can’t vouch for it, though.

  17. Kyle Mulholland
    24/09/2009 at 5:25 pm

    I’ve always wondered why people decide not to drink at all. I suppose it’s an aversion to drugs but then, how far must that be taken? What about the stimulants in tea and the depressants in medicine?

    • 24/09/2009 at 9:03 pm

      @Kyle Mulholland: this perhaps goes back to my vegetarian analogy.

      Medicine is a different matter entirely, unless one is abusing a substance rather than using it to cure an illness.

      And as for tea, I doubt many tea drinkers are drinking it for any sort of mind-altering stimulation in the way that users of illegal drugs and many alcohol drinkers do. It’s the natural sensations of the taste, smell and warmth of the tea that bring us pleasure, but at the same time, we don’t need to drink a couple of pints of it in order to face a social occasion!

      • Kyle Mulholland
        25/09/2009 at 2:35 pm

        Well, thanks Jonathan. I do however detect a certain sense of superiority amongst non-drinkers like yourself. The medicine I was talking about was actually painkillers, those which ‘dull’ pain rather than actually solving any problems that one might have. Whereas other medications have a use, these ones are very much like alcohol, in that they simply provide a distraction by way of drugs.

      • 25/09/2009 at 7:52 pm

        @Kyle Mulholland (too many nested replies!): I try very had not to criticise drinkers because, as long as they are not harming others, as far as I’m concerned it’s up to each individual whether they drink or not. However, what may tempt me to point out the disadvantages of drinking is when I face the sort of attitude I do from many drinkers – I’d call it superiority on their part too – when they discover I don’t drink. I wish they’d afford me the same courtesy I do them.

  18. lordnorton
    25/09/2009 at 4:40 pm

    I didn’t anticipate that the post would attract such excellent responses, be it in terms of quantity or quality. I know from the Hansard Society survey that we tend to have a young readership. I know from past responses to posts that we have a sophisticated readership. I now discover that we have a tea-drinking readership as well. How splendid.

    Nick: Yes, as I have mentioned in an earlier post, my understanding is that in the Lords we make a net profit as a result of income from banqueting. The Lords is neither a club nor expensive. It is run extremely efficiently.

    Croft: I am not sure that I would make the differentiation that you do between smoking/non-smoking and drinking/non-drinking. There are gradations of smoking (rare smoker, social smoker, 40-a-day habit) just as there are in drinking. If you take the occasional glass of champagne, you are a drinker; if you only have the odd cigarette or cigar, you are a smoker. I take your point about caffeine and chocolate, but I think Jonathan makes a very valid point in that they are legal: if they had always been illegal, we may not have started using them. I also take your point about the variety of teas on offer. One could add rooibos(Redbush) tea, which is naturally decaffeinated and high in antioxidants.

    Bedd Gelert: If it is the tradition in England to first refuse food or drink when offered, then I have been ignoring social protocol for a long time. I cannot remember an occasion when I have been offered a cup of tea and responded with anything other than ‘yes, please’; ‘would you care for another?’ ‘Oh, yes please’.

    Zarove: I agree very much with what you write. I think drinking alcohol is an escape mechanism for many and that there is what amounts to a pervasive drinking culture. On the point about being a vegetarian, I think part of the problem, as with supposed non-drinkers (people who say they don’t drink but then accept a glass of wine), is that some people claim to be vegetarian but nonetheless eat fish and/or chicken.

    Jonathan: It can be frustrating at times to encounter the type of reaction you mention. I take your point as well – picked up by Miss Wheldale – about the non-alcoholic drinks normally on offer at receptions. Though nowadays there is usually no problem in respect of quantity, the problem is the quality. There is only so much fruit juice one can drink in an evening, and I am not a great fan of still water.

    franksummers3ba: It does indeed appear to be a minefield. Your comments remind me of my experience living in the States and the problems of actually being able to find a good cup of tea. Part of the problem is that teapots are not exactly well known in the States and Americans, like many people in continental Europe, do not know the basic rules of tea-making. I found it amusing on occasion when invited to dinner in a top restaurant and, upon asking for tea, was offered a cup of hot water followed by a waiter coming over with a very ornate wooden box, opening it and offering an array of tea bags in sachets. And why is it that tea bags in the USA often are produced by this-or-that firm of London than none of us in the UK has every heard of?

    tobedwithatrollope: The fact that some people think that by declining a drink you may be signalling that you are a recovering alcoholic, or don’t drink for some other reason than you consciously choose not to, adds to the irritation. You are quite right about the variety of teas. There is also, of course, a variety in tea-drinking – some people drink tea occasionally and some people drink it very regularly.

    Adrian Kidney: I think many people overlook the fact that about 7,000 to 10,000 people work in the Palace of Westminster, most of them on not very high salaries and some (catering, maintenance, cleaning, research, and some secetarial staff) on very low salaries. The subsidised meals helps make it possible for them to get by working in the heart of London. If subsidies were removed, we would need to look at staff salaries. Mind you, I think there is a case to look at them regardless.

    ladytizzy: Just think how you may maintain your joi de vivre with a nice cup of English Breakfast tea in the morning. It can set you up for the day. If, like me, you drink it throughout the day, it can really get you going (in more senses than one).

    stephenpaterson: Perhaps you should persuade them to sit down and have a nice cup of tea instead. You will find it transforms the nature of the discourse, among other things.

    Kyle Mulholland: One can put the question the other way round, which is why do people choose to drink?

    Bedd Gelert: Doesn’t your second comment rather contradict your first? Or is tea treated differently to all other offers of food and drink? I’ll happily accept a cup of tea, whether it’s in Rome of Wales.

    Miss Wheldale: You are quite right that one can enjoy oneself – indeed, have a fantastic time – without recourse to alcohol. Tea can be enormously satisfying. So can the fact that the next morning you remember precisely what happened the night before. The Temperance Movement was strong in the Victorian era, but we don’t find it much in evidence today. Even the Methodist Church has relaxed its position on alcohol. Perhaps there is scope for something akin to a Tea Drinkers’ Society, both to defend the interests of tea drinkers and to disseminate the fact that there is a remarkable range of teas available. Of course, we won’t have much impact on those whose brains have been addled by too much alcohol…

    • franksummers3ba
      29/09/2009 at 3:24 am

      Lord Norton,
      Please do not tell us that Earl Grey would not have used a tea bag. Tea culture is on the rise. British tea culture is growing I think although outstripped by Chinese and Indian tea culture. All of course going through the American lense and alchemy to some degree. I am a coffee fan who has lived on coffee plantations and rejoiced to find Espresso in China. However, both in China and the Commonwealth I have enjoyed the beauty of tea as well. My ex-wife was a tea fan and lover of the best of English material culture which certainly includes tea. I hope you visit Louisiana sometimes and if you do try Windsor Court Hotel in New Orleans, Fireside Antiques in Baton Rouge and the lobby of the Bentley Hotel in Alexandria for good British tea. I venture to say they will meet your median standards at least and that they also will cost enough for you to remember them for a while.

  19. Nick
    25/09/2009 at 5:01 pm

    Nick: Yes, as I have mentioned in an earlier post, my understanding is that in the Lords we make a net profit as a result of income from banqueting. The Lords is neither a club nor expensive. It is run extremely efficiently.

    Do you have some references?


    The subsidy costs £5.5m a year, according to David Cameron, and it is time to get rid of it.


    So unless there is massive profiteering going on, you’re still running at a loss.

    So if you can’t find a reference, will you ask the question as to this 5.5 million subsidy.

    Does it or doesn’t it include the banqueting profits?


  20. lordnorton
    25/09/2009 at 5:36 pm

    Nick: The Annual Report for the House of Lords for 2008/09 shows income, which must come mostly from banqueting and souvenirs, as £7.3 million.

  21. lordnorton
    25/09/2009 at 5:44 pm

    Nick: You also confuse Parliament and the House of Lords. (The bulk of the catering is provided in the Commons.) You also ignore the point about the staff. Removing subsidised food affects the staff rather than the members.

  22. Adrian kidney
    26/09/2009 at 7:54 pm

    Definitely! You have no idea how difficult it is to get by on my salary! Lords and MPs are small fry compared to the huge numbers of staff here who would be affected by a stopping of the subsidy.

    In addition if we’re going to be consistent, subsidies for all state employees ought to be ended – including places such as the NHS, BBC, Royal Mail…I could go on.

    • 26/09/2009 at 10:15 pm

      How many of those other public sector canteens serve alcohol, though? I work in one such place, and there is no alcohol sold on site. I’ve still yet to buy a meal there, though, as I find I can save even more money by bringing my own food!

  23. Bedd Gelert
    26/09/2009 at 8:47 pm

    Lord Norton, I take your point about contradiction, but maybe I was wrong that the ‘custom and practice’ about offering and accepting tea and biscuits differs between England and Wales.

    It is just that growing up in Wales, many Welsh farms appear to have a kettle always ‘on the go’ and cups of tea appear with alacrity and regularity for all visitors.

    I should also point out having read your post again that I am more determined than ever to become a Lord – good quality tea at a reasonable price ?? If I were a younger man one could have made a business case for buying a peerage for a million and spent a lifetime trying to ‘drink it back’..


  24. ZAROVE
    27/09/2009 at 2:53 am

    WELL, to the defense of some, myself not being part of either camp, some Drink on occasion and consider themselves otherwise non-drinkers, and simply do not tell you of those occasions. For instance, suppose you meet a Roman Catholic who tells you he does not drink, yet you know he attends Mass weekly, and partakes of Communion. The Catholic Church refuses to use any but real wine, so you know he does drink, and he would likely readily confess that, however, as it is part of a Sacred Tradition, the sacrament which, along with Baptism defines Christian worship for most of us, then obviously his partaking it has a significance other than “I’ll have a drink”.

    The same can be said of Jews who are Vegetarians yet eat lamb at Passover, for it is required for a Seder.

    but even beyond that, some make “Special exceptions” for certain social occasions, such as weddings, funerals, promotions, and suchlike, where an occasional, and marginal, glass of wine is acceptable tot hem in the context of the event, but they won’t otherwise drink just to feel a sort of buzz, so no can of Beer on the weekend.

    Vegitarians who eat fish are, of course, Piscivores, not true Herbivores, but also not Carnivores. Perhaps we need a new term to describe those who won’t eat meat but will consume fish? As to those who eat Chicken, or other poultry, they can’t be called Vegetarians at all, just selective meat eaters.

    • 27/09/2009 at 12:00 pm

      There are no “laws” as to what one must do to be a non-drinker or a vegetarian. It’s up to people to decide if they drink/eat meat on a particular occasion or not. We seem to have an obsession with labels in our society, whereas I prefer just to see people as individuals, and as long as they are not adversely affecting other people’s lives let them get on with it.

      The fact remains that if you choose not to drink at an event (whether you never do, or just on that occasion) you are likely to receive an incredulous response (except, perhaps, if you say you have to drive). I don’t care if people are “teetotal” (I term I generally try to avoid); I just want people to have the choice, and to dispense with this idea that alcohol is an essential ingredient for everyone on many occasions.

  25. Kyle Mulholland
    27/09/2009 at 3:19 pm

    Indeed, Lord Norton! I enjoy tea as much as anybody, in fact I may have had too much tea today! I’m feeling rather over-active!

  26. baronessmurphy
    27/09/2009 at 3:35 pm

    Thirty comments on this vitally important topic of beverages and the right to say no. I can’t help coming in here. I love a glass of good sauvignon blanc at 6.00pm, which I don’t get when the house is sitting; who knows what I’d be tempted to vote for after a drink? But I do understand the feeling that in some places there is pressure to drink. On those frequent times when I am slimming AGAIN, I find people just don’t want me to say no, as if they’ll have triumphed if I give in. As Lord Norton says there’s no pressure to have an alcoholic drink in the House and there’s far more tea and coffee drunk in the Bishops’ Bar than alcohol. Come to think of it I’ve never seen a Bishop in the Bishops’ Bar either.

    I must have my coffee (a huge double strength fresh ground americano with a dash of milk) for breakfast, a second for elevenses, a proper short espresso at lunch and then in the afternoon I move on to tea, when it must be Twinings Broken Orange Pekoe, which I bring back from Italy in tea bag form because in the UK one can only get the leaf variety, good but messy.

    I do have a political tea anecdote. When I was an NHS manager at Guy’s hospital we invited the then Secretary of State John Moore (Remember him? Very good looking, very nice chap and much brighter than everyone thought at the time) to see our new financial system. The morning of the visit, about 10am (he was due at 12noon) his private office rang up and said ‘If you are offering beverages, the Secretary of State prefers camomile tea’. This was 1980s; the notion that we might be able to get camomile tea in Borough High Street was ludicrous. My assistant dashed off in a cab to Fortnum and Masons and returned clutching the precious loose leaves in a little tin. Moore turned up and we offered him ordinary tea, NHS coffee, that’s instant,or the rare camomile. He chose camomile. As he sipped the stuff he turned to me and said ‘It’s remarkable how every NHS hospital I visit has camomile tea these days. I wonder why?’ I just smiled.

    • 29/09/2009 at 2:23 am

      Hang on a mo, I though St Peter’s was your preferred sip? A few years in and now it’s Sauvignon Blanc?

      I’m really pleased to see you speak up for broken Orange Pekoe – my fave, too, though tea snobs have given me that ‘Oh, really?’ look as soon as I say ‘broken’. Fortnum & Mason’s Royal Blend is pretty darn good, too.

  27. lordnorton
    28/09/2009 at 11:11 am

    Baroness Murphy: I think I may be partly responsible for the fact that there’s more tea drunk in the Bishop’s Bar than alcohol! I can claim to have seen a Bishop in the Bishop’s Bar. The Bishop of Southwell, who has just retired, was an occasional visitor. I think one or two others may have put in a fleeting visit.

    Kyle Mulholland: If you go for decaffeinated tea, you may find you can approach the day in a more equitable manner. Mind you, coffee is far worse for caffeine than tea. (I don’t drink coffee, but that’s principally because I can’t stand the taste.)

    Bedd Gelert: I am all for a kettle being always on the go. I think the prices are lower in the Commons than the Lords, so perhaps you should think about standing for election. Mind you, you may find you you suffer my experience: the perks associated with each position usually disappear shortly before you take up the post.

    • 29/09/2009 at 8:58 pm

      ‘(I don’t drink coffee, but that’s principally because I can’t stand the taste.)’

      Have you ever had good coffee? The only decent coffee I’ve ever tasted has been in Canada or France. Even the US doesn’t have decent coffee as far as I’m concerned, England certainly doesn’t.

      As for tea, there is some reasonable tea available in Canada. If you’re ever here I recommend King Cole, although it’s possible to get the excellent Yorkshire Tea, it comes at a premium: approx $10 for 40 bags, if I remember correctly.

      • lordnorton
        01/10/2009 at 10:46 am

        Liam: Any coffee tends to taste dreadful to me. (Sorry.) Yorkshire Tea, as you may expect, is somewhat less expensive here, though I must confess than I am not a great fan of it.

  28. lordnorton
    28/09/2009 at 11:22 am

    Incidentally, I can’t help thinking, would it not have made more sense for John Moore to carry the requisite tea with him?

    • Croft
      28/09/2009 at 11:44 am

      Is that an attempt at satire Lord Norton?!

      • lordnorton
        01/10/2009 at 10:44 am

        Croft: Not really. It builds on my own experience. I have been known to carry tea bags with me!

  29. ZAROVE
    28/09/2009 at 6:12 pm

    Jonathan, there may not be laws about what people should or shouldn’t eat or how much to drink, but words do have to mean something, and being a Vegetarian means you do not eat meat. Whereas most can accept some exceptions, such as the Jewish Seder, and still find it adequate to call someone a Vegetarian, its just not proper English to call someone who eats a Chicken sandwich once a week a Vegetarian, any more than someone can rightly be called Apolitical if he campaigns for a certain political party even if just at the local level..

  30. Lemondy
    29/09/2009 at 12:39 am

    I just bumped into this fascinating blog. Great work.

    I stopped drinking mid-way through university after becoming rather disgusted with the drinking culture and how pervasive it had become throughout the country. It particularly disheartened me when so many politicians relish the opporunity to be captured on camera with a pint.

    Very glad to see there are politicians of stronger moral standing around.

    • lordnorton
      01/10/2009 at 10:48 am

      Lemondy: Welcome to the blog. It’s very encouraging to find so many respondents who have moved away from a drinking culture. You make a good point about politicians relishing the opportunity to be pictured holding a pint. I wonder if we will reach the day when comes to be seen in the same light as politician captured smoking a cigarette?

  31. 29/09/2009 at 8:48 pm

    What an excellent thread. Baroness Murphy is correct that the subject of tea is important.

    I too am a tea drinker and teetotaller. I once was a drinker though, and am guilty of joining in the harassment of a friend who was not so inclined. In my opinion, the reasons for our behaviour were:

    1. Mammalian distrust of anyone different to ourselves, I’m guessing this is some sort of evolutionary trait that once helped us weed-out interlopers from other tribes, the weak and the unwell;

    2. Projection of our values onto others, i.e. he can’t be having any fun without having a drink!;

    3. The feeling that — because our friend didn’t drink — he somehow thought himself better than us.

    The reason teetotallers seem strident is that the words ‘I don’t drink‘ make a drinker feel guilty; it’s like you’re pointing out a flaw in them. So when I turn down a drink, I usually do it with a smile while saying:

    ‘No thank you. I’m one of those boring teetotallers.’

    Luckily for me there’s a long and uninteresting story behind why I stopped drinking, if anyone persists in asking they get to hear it. Works every time.

    So, tactics for success: first, be humble and use self-deprecating humour; if that fails, bore them to death! 🙂

    Finally, it’s not just teetotallers who’re seen as strident and targets for harassment, it’s anyone who goes against the grain of society.

    • lordnorton
      01/10/2009 at 10:55 am

      Liam: Thanks for an excellent response. I think you are absolutely right with your first two points. The points clearly apply (as you mention in your postscript) in any context where someone is ‘different’. I am not so sure about point three. I had not thought about it in those terms. I can see there may be a sense of insecurity involved, but I am not sure it is as pervasive as the attitudes embodied in your first two points. I may, though, think about emulating you in how you respond to offers of drink. I think I can manage self-deprecating humour; hmmm, as for humility… Oh yes, I can manage the boring to death bit.

  32. ZAROVE
    30/09/2009 at 3:09 am

    Liam I quiet concur.

  33. franksummers3ba
    30/09/2009 at 10:54 pm

    Tea and alcohol also remind me of the cava ceremonies I attended as a child. The drink was served with great ceremony and yet with simplicity. I drank it in Tonga and Samoa. I hope that makes this a valid comment. Please remember the tsuanmi victims.http://franksummers3ba.wordpress.com/2009/09/30/american-samoan-tsunami-and-polynesian-memories/

  34. 04/10/2009 at 1:47 pm

    I’d say there’s a very good reason that tea has emerged in a thread about alcohol. Tea is a drink that, in this country, absolutely drips with cultural meaning. One only has to look at the responses to the 7/7 attacks to see just how imbued the notion of “having a cup of tea and getting on with it” is in our collective self-image.

    But nothing – not even tea – has the deep, loaded, complex set of cultural meanings that alcohol does. What kind of alcohol you drink, where you drink it, who you drink it with, how you drink it, when you drink it – all these things are cultural signifiers that are loaded, nay, saturated with meaning. While there may be more tea drunk in the Bishop’s Bar, I can guarantee without looking at it that there won’t be a bottle of Blue WKD behind the bar.

    In opting out of the drink, you are also opting out of a deep and rich set of cultural exchanges. This is, of course, your right to do. But people’s reactions to non-drinkers are more than just a reaction to the fact of alcohol or otherwise in your drinks, or even to the perception that you may be judging them, but to a much deeper, subconscious understanding that you’re not simply opting out of the drink but out of the ceremony. You are becoming, in some way, absent from the proceedings; excluding yourself from the shared experience. You’re not doing it deliberately and they’re not noticing it in those words, but that’s a big part of it.

    It’s very similar with tea, as I said, which in this country is not rarely *about* the tea or the caffeine, and much more about the shared experience, the ceremonies and rituals (which vary from place to place and class to class, like alcohol). Having a cup of tea can be as much about having something warm in one’s hands during a conversation as anything to do with the drink.

    All that, though, is rather more an explanation for the behaviour than an excuse for it. To quote the great Charlie Stross: “If someone says they don’t drink, accept it and move on. There’s always a good reason and it’s never any of your business.”

    From the other side though, it is worth remembering that you’re the one opting out of the cultural norm, not us drunkards, and that our choice to self-medicate in our various forms is not only culturally acceptable but also entirely enjoyable and in most cases worthwhile. To quote another great man: “I don’t need to drink to have a good time. Just to put up with sanctimonious teetotallers.”

    • lordnorton
      04/10/2009 at 4:14 pm

      McDuff: I agree that there is a lot of ritual involved with tea drinking as well – with a lot written on the etiquette of tea drinking and (much more importantly) the rules for making a good cup of tea; even such august luminaries as George Orwell wrote about it. I do, though, tend to the view that tea is a classless drink. I have no worries about not being part of a drinking norm. I am used to being in rather a lot of minorities (I am, after all, male, Conservative, left-handed and a member of the Lords). Since I am not a convert to teetotalism, I am not someone who feels the need to attack the evils of drink; just as never having smoked, I am not a rabid anti-smoker. It is the converts who tend to be the most passionate!

      • 04/10/2009 at 4:52 pm

        Ah, tea itself may be a drink that transcends the classes, but the rituals surrounding it most certainly do not. I doubt you start the process of making a cup of tea by announcing “would you like a cuppa?” or “fancy a brew?” Do you drink it out of matching china or a selection of mugs with amusing slogans on them? Do you brew in a teapot or drop the PG Tips into the mug directly? Milk before or after?

        There is very little in English culture that isn’t imbued with class signifiers, and it would be astounding if tea was immune from this as well.

    • 04/10/2009 at 4:55 pm

      When I have visitors to my home, I am happy to offer them coffee or hot chocolate instead of tea, and even fruit juice, water, milk or anything else I happen to have available. I don’t see the need to ask if they don’t drink tea, or caffeine, or it’s just the wrong time of day. I would consider myself a bad host if I just gave them one choice, take it or leave it, although of course they are welcome to refuse a drink altogether if they so choose. The conversation will be the same whatever they have in their hands.

      Many of McDuff’s comments would once have been said of smoking: cigars after dinner, office workers all smoking cigarettes because it was the done thing. What a different world we now live in! I think it’s important continually to challenge what are perceived as social norms, as that’s the way to build a more tolerant and inclusive society.

      • 04/10/2009 at 7:33 pm

        Jonathan! Take a minute or two out from applauding our “tolerant and inclusive society” and have a look at the world.

        Memo to self: buy a hipflask

  35. 05/10/2009 at 9:38 am

    ladytizzy: While I wanted to avoid comparing whether people choose to drink or not to what are undoubtedly more serious issues, what I meant was that if we didn’t continually challenge and update our ways of thinking, women wouldn’t work, disabled people would be kept locked away, ethnic minorities would be discriminated against and homosexuality would be illegal.

    It’s easy to look backwards with rose-tinted spectacles, but then it’s easy to overlook that in the past this country wasn’t a very pleasant place to live for many minority groups.

    • 05/10/2009 at 9:04 pm

      Your reply indicates you are nominally referring to British society, while I referred to the world you originally mentioned. No matter.

  36. lordnorton
    05/10/2009 at 5:29 pm

    McDuff: There are social differences, reflected in whether one says ‘let it brew’ or ‘let it stand’ (or in some areas, ‘let it mash’); I once had a student who said ‘let it infuse’. The differences, though, may not always be in the form you indicate. For some working-class families, it may be the done thing to bring out cups and saucers for visitors – but if Tony Benn visited he would probably expect a mug.

    • 05/10/2009 at 9:09 pm

      and finally:

      Yasmin Le Bon is “…not allowed tea bags,” she says. “Simon wilts tea leaves over steam and mixes his own blend.”


      Note to Lord Norton: she is the wife of the lead singer in a popular beat combo.

      • lordnorton
        06/10/2009 at 11:14 pm

        ladytizzy: Oh dear, not sure if this tells one much about tea as about popular entertainers.

  37. 05/10/2009 at 10:09 pm

    ladytizzy: Sorry about the world v UK confusion.

    Lord Norton: I like “let it infuse”! One question is if Anthony Wedgwood Benn, former Viscount Stansgate, is working class, but that’s a different discussion.

  38. lordnorton
    06/10/2009 at 11:16 pm

    Jonathan: I think he likes to think he knows how the working class drink tea.

  39. 11/10/2009 at 5:35 am

    If you have to do it, you might as well do it right.,

Comments are closed.