Tea: A British response to Natural Disasters

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Why do the British always respond to adversity with tea? And why is this tea always metallic, loaded with sugar, and quite unlike the tea found anywhere else in the world? Now it can be told:
The Somebody Else's Problem (SEP) Project

In the late 1940s the escalating cold war began to weigh heavily on the collective British mind: so much so that the engine of British productivity, the Civil Service, was grinding to a halt. Civil Servants were sitting at their desks, staring into space, worrying about the Bomb. Called upon to study this phenomenon, the Home Office quickly realised that the problem was endemic and affected almost the entire working population of Britain. Drastic measures were called for.

Britain's finest minds were commissioned to look into the matter. They decided that what was needed was a system to persuade the subconscious that these weighty matters were Somebody Else's Problem, thus enabling the conscious mind to get on with whatever it was doing. This idea, which eventually led to the development of the SEP field, became official policy in January 1950*.

A drug had already been developed at Porton Down in 1942 which could prevent the mind from latching onto any thought. It was tested on sheep on Gruinard, a remote Scottish island. The result was tragic: the drug was far too strong, and the sheep became convinced that nothing mattered at all, and promptly died. The island was not finally decontaminated until 1986**. The Porton Down team was reassembled in February 1950 and set to refining the drug until it was ready for human trials. It was found that low doses, combined with certain hypnotic sounds, had the effect of inhibiting the subconscious, leaving the conscious intact. The new treatment was secretly tested on the England cricket team, on the grounds that nobody would notice whether they were catatonic or not. The trials were successful, although the cricket team was not***.

Two great hurdles remained to be overcome. First, distribution of the drug in such a way as to conceal it from the enemy. Nobody minded if the Russians found out, but MI5 were very firm on the Americans being kept in the dark. The second was some means of broadcasting the necessary hypnotic sounds.

The medium for distribution of the drug was a simple choice. All foods were strictly rationed, and tea was the only beverage readily available in Britain (apart from gin and beer, which were obviously out of the question for the abstemious bureaucrats). In addition, the quality of tea had deteriorated due to poor supply from India, so the rather metallic taste of the drug was unlikely to be noticed. There remained the problem of broadcasting the hypnotic sounds.

Clearly this had to be done via the BBC Home Service (now Radio 4), as nobody else could be trusted with such a serious task. And, of course, there were no other wireless broadcasters in Britain at the time. The great breakthrough came when somebody noticed that the sounds were even more effective when played at half speed on a tape recorder. The result sounded very much like a cow. Inspiration struck: the BBC were consulted and an elite team was drafted from the Ministry of Agriculture to devise a format which included cows and was capable of being sustained indefinitely without requiring expensive creative input. The Archers was born.

Distribution started in 1951, and the effect was immediate and dramatic. In a sudden excess of energy the Civil Service nationalised half the industry of Britain and set up the National Health Service.

An elite corps of Civil Defence volunteers was set up, ready to be rushed to the scene of any disaster. They were equipped with Bakelite wireless receivers and huge urns of tea, containing the drug at double strength. To mask the strong metallic taste, extra sugar was added at source.

By the 1980s the nuclear threat had subsided. An attempt was made to remove the drug from the tea. The result was quite unforeseen: riots in the streets. The Police, avid drinkers of tea, were particularly badly affected, and the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, never recovered. Since then the authorities have been weaning the public gradually: the Archers is being moved around the radio schedules to times when nobody can listen; the hypnotic noises which were first modified (they now sound like pigs), then reduced (ever wondered why John Archer was killed off?). The drug is tailing off in tea, as well, although it is still available at full strength wherever older people congregate. It is forecast that by 2010 there will be no trace of this early SEP experiment.

This has all been revealed under the 40 Year Rule, despite delaying tactics by the outgoing Conservative government: only when all those involved have died will all the details be known.

There are, of course, side effects to this operation. The most serious is the British conviction that, whatever the problem, "they" will sort it out - "they" being Somebody Else. In the end this has had far-reaching consequences for Britain, to the extent that it is now owned almost exclusively by American and Japanese firms. But the British upper lip remained stiff in the face of adversity and that, after all, is the important thing.

*Delayed by three weeks while the Minister was on his Christmas holidays.

**The cover story was that the island was infected with Anthrax.

***The dosage was increased after the defeat by Australia in January 1951, with the result that we scored a narrow victory over New Zealand in March '51 - but the cricket team was subsequently excluded from treatment on the grounds that (a) the BBC commentators were beginning to remark on the poor quality of the tea and (b) it was thought to be almost as unsporting as practising beforehand.

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