Thomas de Quincey said that tea was the favoured beverage of intellectuals. I have made it my life’s work to test every claim ever made by de Quincey, so to this end I decided to gather a smattering of intellectuals and plop cups of tea in front of them to see what would happen.
If de Quincey was right, each intellectual would lift the cup to their lips and drink deep and thereafter emit an “aah!” of satisfaction. At least one would say something along the lines of “there is nothing quite like a nice cup of tea”.
Conversely, if de Quincey was wrong, then the intellectuals would pick up the cups, pour the tea into the gutter, and fill the now empty cups with hooch from a flask taken from their pockets. They would then glug the hooch before emitting the same “aah!” of satisfaction, this time accompanied by a belch of alcoholic fumes strong enough to fell an ox.
I was interested to see what would happen.
But before distributing the cups of tea, I realised that I had to make absolutely sure the persons I gathered, at the trestle table in the field under the viaduct, were indeed intellectuals. My experiment would be hopelessly compromised if just one of them was a dimwit or peasant or was otherwise unintellectual. My assistant, Mungo, he of the hunchback and twisted face and slobber, had given me a very sensible piece of advice.
“Uurggh, Master!” he had slobbered, the day before, “Just because someone has a beard and is French and bespectacled and gesticulates wildly when speaking of things you do not understand is no guarantee that they are an intellectual.”
I took this to heart. How easily the wool could have been pulled over my eyes had I not listened to Mungo!
Incidentally, in case you were wondering, Mungo himself does not drink tea. His favoured beverage is brackish water from a spigot, gulped from a battered tin beaker. But he does not claim to be an intellectual. Quite the opposite. Mungo has often told me that he has only half a brain, and that half befuddled. He is, however, absolutely invaluable as an assistant, when I can persuade him to come down from the belfry where he likes to cavort and lollop with his pet owls and bats and scorpions.
Mindful of Mungo’s advice, I went roaming the streets on the lookout for possible intellectuals. At first I buttonholed anybody whose head resembled an egg. As I grabbed their collars, I fired at each of these persons a question.
“Are you an intellectual?” I cried.
If they answered in the affirmative, I asked a supplementary question, to wit; “What abstruse theorem would you posit to account for the unconscionable delay in the completion of the roadworks on the Blister Lane bypass?”
If the egghead claimed to be above such petty everyday concerns as roadworks, and to never have even heard of Blister Lane, I dismissed them. A true intellectual, I reasoned, while being above such petty everyday concerns as roadworks, and never having even heard of Blister Lane, would nonetheless have an abstruse theorem to posit, even though it might be utterly meaningless to a mere mortal such as myself who knew the roadworks and the bypass and the delay like the back of his hand.
By this tactic, I found it devilishly difficult to find a single intellectual. My Thomas de Quincey tea experiment was unravelling before it had even begun! I decided to broaden the scope of my search and to accost those persons whose heads did not look much like eggs, though I stopped short of questioning anybody whose head resembled a potato, for obvious reasons.
This was to be my undoing. Seeing me approach various persons sashaying about the streets but pointedly ignoring him, a man with a potato-shaped head lumbered towards me and cornered me in the doorway of a butcher’s shop.
“Oi!” he said, “You are stopping all sorts of people to ask if they are intellectuals, but you have pointedly ignored me.”
I blathered some rubbish. He whacked me on the windpipe and bundled me into the back of a van. He then drove off at speed.
Some time later, the van screeched to a halt. He dragged me out and, threatening me with his fist, commanded me to follow him. He had parked at the edge of a forest, and it was into the dense trees we now went. I was terrified, and wished Mungo were with me. But I had left him in his belfry, brewing a large pot of tea.
Eventually my abductor and I arrived at a clearing. There was a bonfire, around which sat a group of men each of whom had a potato-head, some even more potatoey than the man who had brought me here. One of these rogues looked up at me, and spoke.
“Welcome,” he said, “We are the woodland chapter of the Potato-Headed League of Acolytes of Alain de Botton. A denser concentration of intellectuals you could not hope to find for miles and miles hereabouts.”
All I could say in reply was “Gosh!”
I noted that they all had well-thumbed and heavily annotated copies of A Week At The Airport (2009), the Swiss sage’s book based on his stint as writer-in-residence at Heathrow Airport and one of the decisive intellectual tours de force of the past hundred years. If I needed any proof that these potato-heads were intellectuals, here it was!
“Perhaps you’d care to join us for a nice cup of – ” said the leader. But I did not hear the last word, because at that moment a flock of woodland birds began to shriek, deafeningly, from their perches in the trees.