Controversy over soccer star Alex Morgan’s tea-drinking World Cup victory dance has died down, but it has reignited debate among readers of The Times of London, Britain’s second-starchiest broadsheet, over a matter that has long troubled the British people: When pouring tea into a teacup, what should be poured first? The tea? Or the milk?
The duelling letters to the editor began Thursday, when Bob Maddams, of Brighton, mused aloud about whether Morgan, the soccer player, pours her milk in first. This inspired a response from Tom Howe, from Surrey, which was printed Friday:
“Bob Maddams’ letter (July 4) on Alex Morgan’s tea celebration at the Women’s World Cup suggests that it is correct to put the milk in first. I was always led to believe that the milk first or second question was originally a signal of social standing. Cheap porcelain cracked when hot tea was poured into it, so the milk was poured in first to lower the temperature and avoid such a disaster.”
That letter really set them off.
Facing an array of historic social dilemmas, Britons have not lost the capacity to become agitated about trivial ones.
On Saturday, The Times printed not one but four responses.
Peter Sergeant wrote from a village in Leicestershire to point out that “tea stains porcelain, so putting the milk in first mitigates this.” The second response, sent from a village in Oxfordshire, argued that tea must be poured first so as to determine how much milk is necessary. The third referred to the Boston Tea Party. And the fourth, from the felicitously named Catherine Money, of Surrey, provided important cultural context, as well as an acronym for “milk-in-first.”
“Sir,” she wrote.
“Tom Howe is correct in his recollection of the message given by pouring milk into a cup before the tea. Describing someone as ‘rather MIF’ told one all one needed to know.”
The debate returned to the Letters page on Sunday, with a reader noting that George Orwell poured the tea first, then the milk. But the point had been made: Facing an array of historic social dilemmas, Britons have not lost the capacity to become agitated about trivial ones.
The letters pages of Britain’s newspapers are a sensitive instrument, which can be used to detect waves of dismay emanating from the heartland. This spring, for example, the editor of a weekly newspaper in Oxfordshire decided to phase out “Sir” as the form of address for letters to the editor and was so inundated with angry letters — “What utter tosh!” began one — that he promptly reversed the decision.
“They do offer sort of a window into the British character,” said James Owen, an author and historian who edited The Times Great Letters, a 2017 anthology.
He said he was surprised, upon reviewing decades of letters, that they were, as a rule, not inspired by historic events. Instead, long chains of letters were written on matters that were either very obscure or very ordinary.
He offered, by way of example, “the origin of turned-up bottoms of trousers; why parents of the bride should pay for the wedding; why mice seem to eat only black keys of church organs; what form of words should be used to end a letter in a friendly fashion. The famous, if esoteric, example was about how an ancient Greek trireme was rowed, which led to the actual reconstruction of one.”
Things, as he put it, that “only somebody British would get steamed up about.”
Ellen Barry is London-based chief international correspondent of the New York Times.