The complexities of our colonial legacy

It happened by accident. In 1829 the naturalist Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward was trying to hatch a moth pupa. He placed it in a sealed glass container, along with some soil and dried leaves, and set it aside. Sometime later he was surprised to find that a fern and some grass had taken root in the soil, despite having no water. As Sathnam Sanghera writes in Empireworld, the discovery ‘revolutionised the logistics of international plant transportation’. Suddenly there was a means of securely transporting seeds and seedlings across vast distances. Empireworld is a sequel to Sanghera’s wildly successful Empireland. Where the latter examined the legacies of empire in Britain, this book

The greed and hypocrisy of the opium trade continue to shock

‘A fact that confounds me now when I think back on it,’ writes the acclaimed Indian author Amitav Ghosh at the start of this expansive and thoughtful book, ‘is that for most of my life China was for me a vast, uniform blankness.’ There were many reasons for this, he says. The war between India and China in 1962 might have played a part, along with the complex relationship between the two countries since then; but also the way that ‘an inner barrier’ has been ‘implanted in the minds’ of many around the world – one that blocks out China but allows in the ‘language, clothing, sport, material objects and

Fascinating: Radio 4’s Empire of Tea reviewed

I can scarcely remember a time before tea: I started drinking it at around four, at home in Belfast, as a reward after school. Before long I was as fiercely protective of my right to a brew as the workers of British Leyland’s Birmingham car plant, who were famously spurred to strike action in 1981 when the management proposed cutting tea breaks by 11 minutes. Decades on, my passion is undiminished. There is no problem to which tea is not at least a partial solution: it restores flagging spirits, calms the over-excited, warms in winter and refreshes in summer. Sathnam Sanghera’s recollections in his Radio 4 five-parter Empire of Tea

Cake expectations: afternoon tea has gone OTT

The other day, I came across a description of afternoon tea written by Alfred Douglas in 1920: ‘Two kinds of bread and butter, white and brown, cucumber and tomato sandwiches, cut razor thin, scones, rock buns and then all the cakes — plum, madeira, caraway seed — the meal had about it the lavishness of a Victorian dinner.’ There are a few things about this feast which I find striking. It includes two kinds of bread and butter. Sliced bread and butter never features on the modern table but a century ago, people used it to fill themselves up; it took the edge off your appetite. Note also the simplicity

Even tea drinking is cultural appropriation now. Oh mea cuppa…

On the street where I grew up there was an old man who was sweet, friendly… and racist. This was the 1980s: every street had one. Always draped in an overcoat, even when it was tarmac-meltingly hot, he’d march back from the corner shop each morning, tabloid tucked under arm, looking to ensnare one of us in chat. About the weather. The football. ‘Coloureds.’

One time, I was walking back from the Chinese takeaway when he appeared. Spotting the takeaway’s distinctive white bags, he cried out cheerily: ‘You don’t wanna be eating that muck! Can’t your mum make a roast?!’ His blather burst out of my memory banks recently when I