My final regular contribution to The Guardian appeared last Saturday. My first appeared in October 1988.
When Alan Rusbridger rescued me from the slough of advertising,, and, on a whim and a prayer, so it seemed to me, offered me the position of Food Editor on the Weekend magazine that he was putting together at the time, I discovered my true vocation. While I had written a column on food for the FT for couple of years thanks to another visionary editorial risk-taker, J.D.F. Jones, as well as a contributed to the Illustrated London News during the tragically brief editorial reign of the inspirational Henry Porter, it had never occurred that you could actually earn a living writing about food. Alan Rusbridger and The Guardian suggested that it might be possible to do so. Some twenty odd years later, it still seems little short of miraculous that the bank haven’t foreclosed on the mortgage, the bailiffs haven’t carried off the furniture and I haven’t had to go in for a liver transplant.
I look back on that time with a good deal of pride. For the most part it was huge fun. I always felt that Guardian readers were a bright, intelligent and, above all, curious lot, and believed the way to persuade them to read the food pages is by giving them something they can’t get elsewhere. The only consistent criteria were that everything should be well-written and with a clear sense of individuality; that it should tell the readers something that they probably wouldn’t have known before, and might find useful; and they were very unlikely to come across in another publication. I didn’t expect the readers to like everything they came across, but every edition should be like a box of chocolates, with something there for everyone.
We were able to brilliant stories written by brilliant writers on such diverse subjects as the kosher detectives, about the rabbis whose job it is to declare one food kosher and another not; on football food at White Hart Lane; on how big multinational agrochemical companies had bought up so many of seed companies and were, in effect, controlling what we grew; on the food at Pentonville gaol. We carried out a comparative tasting of sacramental wines (Jewish wine came out top). We tested a breathalyser kit with surprising results. We organized the Guardian Great Sausage Quest, the first by a British newspaper and a great exercise in consumer democracy; ran the first ever story about Slow Food. We made the broadcast news by revealing that the government of the day recommended that we peel and top and tail our carrots because of chemical residues found in them. And there was the delight of the Murree Brewery in Rawalpindi, a legacy of the Raj, and the only brewery in Muslim Pakistan licensed to brew beer. There were, and for all I know still are, also 85,000 gallons of whisky that have been maturing in barrels for an unspecified length of time, which cannot be sold. They were distilled when that part of the world was coloured red for Empire, And I was allowed to spend a couple of days on HMS Cambeltown to find out now our navy ate. Yes, we were allowed to run proper features once upon a time.
The modest pages have launched and/or promoted the writing careers of a number of notable figures, Heston Blumenthal, Rowley Leigh, Jeremy Lee, Tim Atkin, Richard Ehrlich, Malcolm Gluck, Fiona Beckett, Roger Protz, Giorgio Locatelli, Alastair Hendy, Jeremy Lee, Angela Hartnett, the wonderful Rosie Sykes, the original and only real Kitchen Doctor, Victoria Moore, to name but a few. And their words and recipes were illuminated by gifted photographers of the calibre of Cameron Watt, Julian Anderson, Georgia Glynn Smith, Peter Williams, and Jonathan Lovekin.
A roll call of the good and the great of the food, and, indeed, non-food worlds also brightened the pages, among them Prue Leith, Colin Spencer, Cassandra Jardine, Laura Mason, Jill Norman, Clive Sinclair, Richard Boston, Germaine Greer, Peter Lennon, Byron Rogers, James Erlichman, Jon Joanna Blythman,, Stephen Bayley, Clarissa Dickson Wright, Raymond Blanc, Marco Pierre White, Jeanette Winterson, and Francesco Quirico . Not too shabby, as my friend, Stevie, would say.
I must also pay a tribute to Bob Granleese, friend, collaborator, minder, without whom the pages would never achieved the lustre, individuality and consistent brilliance. All writers who have contributed to the Weekend Food & Drink pages owe Bob an immeasurable debt of gratitude. He is the fellow who manages the pages, bullying people to get their copy in on time, trimming and shaping the contributions, not simply with the grace and precision of a great artist, but in such a manner that the writer him or herself will not spot the excisions and amendments. I have lost count of the times when I have cast an eye over my prose in the paper and thought ‘Do you know, that isn’t half bad. I can really write sometimes,’ and then compared it to the original and thought ‘Ah. No I can’t, but Bob makes it look as if I can.’
Effectively I stopped controlling the Weekend’s food pages some years ago. Little by little my room for manoeuvre became constrained, and if a chap can’t actually choose the writers who appear on the pages he nominally edits, then he isn’t editing. Instead they became framed by an editorial policy that looked to what was happening in other newspapers rather than setting its own agenda. Indeed, the food sections of all magazines have become so homogeneous that you can’t really tell whether you’re reading the Guardian, Telegraph, Times, or Independent from the nature of their content. Not surprisingly, increasingly the more frustrated readers are finding their culinary and gastronomic nourishment elsewhere.
And hopefully, they’ll find some on this blog.