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Why nothing beats a good cup of tea
It's part of our complex history that we're surrounded by beauty that was funded by atrocity
If the Cutty Sark was set on fire deliberately, it must be by the laziest saboteurs ever. Because they only had to go a mile up the road and do the Dome instead, and they'd have been the most popular arsonists in history. It would have been like the last scenes of The Wicker Man, with smiling children and delirious citizens holding hands and doing country dancing as the flames roared. Then the Government could have launched a fund in order that: "This valuable piece of our heritage can be fully restored to its former pointlessness."
Instead it was the magnificent Cutty Sark that burned down, as popular as the Dome is despised. Maybe that's because as the Dome is a symbol of all that's corporate and soulless, the Wetherspoons of national landmarks, the Cutty Sark had wood and beams and brass and stuff that had been made because it looked and felt beautiful, rather than because it was functional and you could fit the emblem for O2 across it.
At the risk of getting all Daily Telegraph, imagine if the thing had been built with modern practices. Years would have gone by, until Multiplex issued a press release saying: "We regret the ship has not been completed in time for the British Empire, but sincerely hope it will soon be ready so it can go straight to Greenwich as a museum."
If Richard Branson had won the contract, the captain would forever have been on deck with a megaphone, yelling: "We apologise for the severe delay to your journey, which is due to an unexpected volume of water in the Pacific. This tea clipper is being taken out of service for essential repairs. Please climb overboard and await a replacement pedalo service, which will take you to the Cape of Good Hope."
It is possible that in 150 years, school trips, tourists and Londoners with picnics will regularly head for the place where they keep Connex South Central's 8.17 to Charing Cross. And you can get guided tours that tell tales of treacherous overcrowding, scurvy and the days when it seemed so hopeless someone would suggest they start eating each other.
But the Cutty Sark also represents the audacity of Empire. It was built to bring tea from China, at a time when British rulers believed they were naturally superior, so their ships, like their exhibitions, monuments and cricketers were expected to do more than be practical, they had to add a flourish that suited a dominant nation.
This may be why newspapers and commentators who usually complain about almost all public spending are demanding its full restoration, whatever the cost. Because they'd love to return to the values of the Empire, wishing they could step off the Cutty Sark in China, accost an official and bark: "Now you look here, it's tea you people are supposed to be supplying us with, not microwave ovens. And why should we buy your cheap trainers when we've got plenty of child labour of our own?"
This might also be why there are articles full of stuff like: "Britain's magisterial command of the waves instilled fierce loyalty amongst the crew. Many were the occasions when, if the voyage was held up for an hour through inclement climate, deck-hands would beg for the opportunity to dive overboard in order to lighten the load so the time could be made up, crying as they jumped, 'I give myself gladly to any piranha, for no Englishman can bear the thought of his queen waiting until half past five for her lapsang souchong'."
Britain could only control the tea trade in the first place because it fought the opium wars, which opened Chinese ports so the East India Company could flood the place with opium. Which means the Cutty Sark was paid for by money made from drugs. So it could have been on Pimp My Ride, the designer chuckling: "Hey baby, what you say to tinted sails? Or how about we jack up the masts, add in some alloy portholes? You gonna look cool, man."
As well as drugs, some gentle persuasion of the locals was required to secure the Cutty Sark's trading route. The Reverend John Liggins, reporting on the bombardment of Canton during the second opium war, described how "field pieces loaded with grape were planted at the end of long, narrow streets crowded with innocent men, women and children, to mow them down like grass 'till the gutters flowed with their blood."
To admire the aesthetics and splendid engineering of the Empire, without acknowledging its purpose, is like cooing about the precision of a beautifully crafted dovetail joint without mentioning it's holding together a stretching rack.
It's part of our complex history that we're surrounded by beauty that was funded by atrocity. The other irony is that the long-term result of the opium wars was that the British got addicted to tea. "Ooh, put the kettle on, I'm exhausted," was my parents' generation's catchphrase when I was a boy, followed by: "Aaah, there's nothing in the world beats a good cup of tea."
And I would think: "Hang on. I'm 13 and you're telling me that the best thing I can ever hope for in life is a cup of tea. I've not even driven a car or got drunk or had sex yet, but don't worry because none of them beat a good cup of tea."
And the dreadful thing is, as I got older I realised they were probably right. We might not have turned into a country that thought like that, if it wasn't for the Cutty Sark.