Monday, 8 October 2007

Throwing in the Towel

There are some things I will never understand about the British: their strange affection for Marmite and Hobnobs, for example, or why they pronounce "lieutenant" the way they do. But chief among the Mysteries of the British is their embrace of the common tea towel.

Figure 1: A tea towel in its natural habitat.

A tea towel is a roughly 16-by-23-inch rectangle of fabric. While a normal towel's primary purpose is to absorb liquid, a tea towel is designed to repel liquid. It's woven from a special water-repellent type of cotton. Even so, the English keep tea towels in their kitchens to deal with spills. The towels don't sop up the spills. Instead, if you're confronted by a little puddle of water--on a countertop, say--you use the tea towel to push the water around. The water won't soak into the towel, but you will eventually produce enough friction so that the water starts to evaporate.

Starts to evaporate, but never completely evaporates. The British love moisture. It may have something to do with living on an island. Surrounded by water, they crave dampness. That's why convertible tops in MGs and Triumphs leak, why windows and roofs in English houses let in the rain--and why tea towels shed water like the back of a duck.

But the tea towel is more than just a maddeningly inefficient household tool. It represents one of history's most stunning cartographic achievements. For example:

Figure 2: Devon in all its glory.

Note that various Devon tourist attractions are depicted on the towel above. There is also a map of the county, with the positions of more than two dozen towns--from Ilfracombe to Torquay-- marked with red dots:

Figure 3: Mercator would be proud.

If the level of detail on that towel is too coarse for safe navigation through Devon, one only need grab a tea towel that depicts North Devon:

Figure 4: North Devon.

In addition to crudely-rendered images of such attractions as an Exmoor pony and the Hartland Lighthouse, there is a map of North Devon's major population centers:

north devon detail
Figure 5: Ilfracombe and Woolacombe.

All of Britain is graphed out on tea towels, down to a scale of 2 cm to 1 km, just like on Ordnance Survey maps. I'm pretty sure that during World War II the Ministry of Defence confiscated the more detailed tea towels, lest they fall into German hands.

Showered With Affection
Here's a strange question I hope you'll answer in the Comments section: When do you bathe? The question came up yesterday when a gaggle of acclaimed international journalists were trying to make their way to the bottom of a bottle of wine. The Chinese journalist said before he traveled to England, friends told him that the British shower in the morning. Chinese, he said, shower in the evening.

It's the difference between a shower as a relaxing activity at the end of a stressful day and a shower as an invigorating activity at the beginning of a day. Thoughts?


Akinoluna said...

I take a shower if I feel dirty, no matter when it is...well, if I'm also tired I'll sleep first but since I have such a weird work schedule that's pretty much all the time.

That made no sense huh? ha

kathleen said...

I always shower in the morning. It wakes me up and makes me feel clean for the upcoming day.

suburbancorrespondent said...

Morning, all the time. Evening, only if I've gotten really sweaty during the day.

I wonder why I had never thought of tea towels as a security risk before...

John Kelly said...

Adding my own experience (mornings) to our informal poll, it looks like the AM wins out over the PM. I think it's an interesting cultural divide. Is it possible we Americans would rather be clean outside our house than in it? Or are we just more polite, wanting to smell good for strangers rather than family?

Mary said...

Since I live in a community setting, I shower in the late afternoon, when I can get space to myself.

Anonymous said...


And my tea towel is Irish linen, but also not especially absorbent.

Now, my Guinness bar towel, that boy is thirsty!