Thoughts on leaving The Guardian

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.

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About Matt

Food writer, television presenter and big eater.
This entry was posted in Food for Fort. Bookmark the permalink.

35 Responses to Thoughts on leaving The Guardian

  1. Mark D says:

    Sorry to see you go. And I will indeed be back here to ‘eat’. Good luck

  2. john sutch says:

    Bien sur. May i also make a reading recommendation: Sweet Honey, Bitter Lemons:Travels in Sicily on a Vespa. Such an enjoyable read between Blogs or whatever.
    Many thanks

  3. Thank you for the work you’ve done in the past years, Matthew – and I look forward to what is to come. I’m sure it’ll be just as enjoyable and challenging.

  4. Kavey says:

    “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.”
    True, that.
    It’s like watching the scurge of copycat “talent” shows across the telly. Channel after channel falls in line…
    And Waitrose Illustrated –> to Waitrose Kitchen, don’t even get me started.
    I look forward to reading your thoughts here on your blog, though you’ll surely be missed at the Guardian.

  5. juliepeagee says:

    Hi Matt
    I’ll miss you in the Guardian having already missed your larger contributions. But I’m delighted you’ve got a blog going – and that I’m belatedly aware of it! Looking forward to much more

  6. Martin Hesp says:

    Am terribly sad to see you making a final exit from the Guardian Matthew as your writing inspired my own humble efforts in regional journalism down the years.
    Best of luck with whatever you are doing in the future and if you are ever down Exmoor way please don’t hesitate to bung me an email and maybe I can buy you a drink.

    Cheers

    Martin Hesp, senior feature writer, Western Morning News and others

  7. Sorry to see you leave (at around the same time as my mate Graham Boynton left the travel pages of the Telegraph. I have happy memories of our occasional encounters along the road. Good luck with what follows.

  8. Learned a lot from your answers to readers questions every Saturday, it was always one of the first things I turned to in the weekend food press and, unlike other similar features elsewhere, I felt confident that you hadn’t found all the answers on Wikipedia. Thanks.

  9. nick says:

    I suspect he won’t be missed per se, the Guardian seems to increasingly only care about online and the ‘what do you think?’ style of food article larded with keywords and links and SEO

    And it sees foodies as being much younger than Mathew and their fads and social media hive mentality is not interested in ‘old skool’ writing. Mathew is a bit of a dinosaur and I say that as a T Rex myself.

    It’s the way food writing is going. Get it free from bloggers, drive the online engagement, assume no one can read more than 400 words without blacking out and do it again tomorrow. Repeat for ever

    Were you a copywriter Mathew? I used to be too.

  10. shaun hill says:

    I expect I will not be alone in missing the erudite and – usually – affectionate Fort prose in the Guardian. Hopefully the blog will acquire a huge following.

  11. Matthew back in 1990 at the start of the previous recession a review changed my life from a potential newly opened and quickly closed restaurant to an overnight success, whilst i understand it was not your intention nor did we meet at that visit it was a turning point in my life.
    We later became friends wrote a book together and shared each others homes company food and wine.
    You are a wonderful writer with a curious mind for food like no other , today some critics can be entertaining but i have on many a time questioned their love of their true role in return for personal fame and glory at the expense of the chef and restauranteur who place their own money in investing in dinning rooms,kitchens,and teams.
    The Guardian is a lesser paper without your “critics” and knowledge
    Paul Heathcote MBE

  12. Kate says:

    I’m very sorry to see you go! Your ‘Food for Fort’ column is the first thing I turn to in the Weekend magazine each week.Still, I’m delighted to have come across your blog, and look forward to reading!

  13. Francis Wheen says:

    Sad but true. Still, your pages were great while they lasted. Why the Guardian no longer wants distinctive, adventurous and original food-related features – lovely aromatic pieces, seasoned with curiosity and quirkiness and fun – is a mystery to me.

  14. Melissa Cole says:

    Matthew, you will be sorely missed as a gourmet adventurer who illuminated the pages with witty insight and thought-provoking copy.

  15. Yes, I will miss you, for your advice to others, sometimes carefully filed in my scrapbook cookery book. Your humour, passion for food, just reading your columns made my tastebuds tingle. I will also always feel a great sense of gratitude, for when you reviewed my daughter and her business partner’s restaurant The Cookhouse in Upper Richmond Road, you introduced loyal diners who stayed with them ’till the end. Thank you.

  16. Louis Anthony Woobine says:

    I have really enjoyed following your column, sorry you are leaving but glad that the blog continues!

  17. Richard says:

    A dissenting voice, I’m afraid. Your last column seemed to be aimed at people who couldn’t be bothered to use Google. In my memory (it was a long time ago) your restaurant reviews were overwritten and convoluted (those made-up names), although Lanchester and the appalling OFM are no better. All of this coloured by your TV persona which comes across, to me, as a mixture of pompous and know-all.

    • Matt says:

      Ouch. Double ouch, in fact. But my reviews seem to achieve their principle aim – to be read. At least you seem to have read enough of them to have registered in your memory after all these years – I gave up regular reviewing about seven years ago. As for being a know-all, what’s wrong with knowledge? Is ignorance better? However, I am not a know-all, as I know only too well. The more you know, the more you know you don’t know, if you catch my drift.

  18. nick says:

    Ouch indeed but we are in strange times in the food world. The gap between the old school food writers and reviewers and the new foodies of social media is now a chasm. There is barely a restaurant reviewer on a national paper under 40 and while people like Marina and Zoe try to be ‘down with the kids’ it’ s increasingly like watching your parents try to ‘disco dance’. All rather embarrassing.

    Maschler is now very erratic in quality and judgement and her recent attempt to review an East End ‘pop up’ read like the report of a maiden aunt returning from visiting her nephew’s shared flat at university. All gritted teeth and a determination to try and be nice while at the same time quite appalled. She went to the Delaunay and was much more in her comfort zone – recognised, genuflected to and generally made to feel all was right in her world. But the Delauney is an anachronism, it’s not what modern food fans are into and few will ever go there. Clearly she intends to keep her job until death. and probably for a few years after that, but the Standard must now be wondering how to show her the door.

    Food writers in general are also old and tired. The model of upper middle class women sending in copy from their agreeable town houses in Bath is of no interest to the current generation. They read blogs instead and they don’t want to read ‘boring old fart’ copy. They want hip young gunslingers.

    It’s all very similar to the emergence of punk rock in the 70s and the alternative comedians who toppled the old guard in the 80s. We are witnessing change and there’s nothing we can do about it, Mathew is a casualty and there will be a lot more.

  19. shanthaferrara says:

    Matthew I was surprised (not in a good way) to read in the Saturday Review saying that it was your last ever column. What an absolute shame. I do agree that you could pick up any weekend mag and read their food pages and not be able to tell which rag you are reading. Even the once interesting food writers ones have become very bland indeed. It seems that we have all become foodies (not in a good way) and food has become trendy, about class rather than just plain enjoyable, about eating. I wish you luck in your future ventures and do not go into hiding!

  20. Without wanting to agree with Richard or Nick, I’d have to say that their comments should not be ignored. The role of the critic has changed – and is changing. We’re a far less reverent lot than we were; far readier to trust our own and our friends’ judgments. (And those of strangers we read online on pages like these.) It’s nothing to do with food, restaurants or wine (my field, and that of a great Fort protegé Tim Atkin who also no longer has a column); it’s a trend that affects all kinds of critics.

    James Wolcott wrote a good piece in Vanity Fair in 2010 (http://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/features/2010/07/wolcott-201007) about the disappearance of movie critics in the US. (No fewer than 65 had lost their jobs). One reason for their fall from grace was the gap between their recommendations and the tastes of their readers.

    The music critics who made PJ Harvey’s their top album of 2011 and omitted Adele from their lists can congratulate themselves for their insight, but they should not be surprised when their publishers find they no longer need them.

    None of this is to suggest that Fort (or Atkin) re out of tune with their readers, but to underline the way the relationship between writer and reader has altered. A few years ago, Nick and Richard had to share their dissent with their friends. Today they can publish it on the same page as luminaries such as Wheen, Hill and Heathcote.

    Those of us who want to continue to share our opinions have little choice but to accept smaller audiences, or to adapt to the changing times.

    • Matt says:

      I can see the themes of a fierce on-going debate here. I’m not sure that critics were ever that revered by the majority of their readers. Loved, cherished, admired even, but revered? No. Revered is the kind of word that critics would like use about themselves. I lost count of the restaurants lambasted by the critics at the time of opening, and which are still doing a roaring trade years later; and of those places hailed by the same discerning voices, only to vanish a few months later. Critics can have a short term effect on a small proportion of their readers, but the majority remain obstinately unmoved by the most eloquent of prose.

      Newspapers were like small shops to which you went because you liked them or they were convenient, and you took whatever selection they offered. Now, through the internet, there is a supermarket of critical views to choose from. If you don’t like one, you can try another, and ot won’t cost you a penny. In many cases, it’s true that the reader has become the critic, untrammeled by editorial responsibility, accountable to no one but themselves.

      The trouble is that there’s no money in on-line ventures, or not much.The traditional financial model which allowed newspapers to pay their critics handsomely has been destroyed, and the internet hasn’t yet matured enough to develop a variety of financial models of its own to let critics earn enough of a crust to keep them. It’s an expensive business, eating out, and one can only suppose that the on- line critics either have well-paid other jobs, or that they are finding some other way to pay for their passion.

      It’s tempting to see the AA Gills, Jay Rayners, Fay Maschlers, John Lanchesters, and Marina O’Loughlins of this world cling on as the last dinosaurs roaming the earth, mastodon calling to mastodon across the primordial swamp. However, I prefer to see them as an endangered species, like the Giant Panda or the Natterjack Toad. They should be cherished. Their habitat should be preserved and they should be given extra bamboo shoots.

      In spite of everything, I’m not sure that the fundamental relationship between the reader and the critic has actually changed as much as people like to think. That still depends on two things: a) whether you actually want to read that particular critic, be it in blog, web site or terrestrial form; and b) whether you trust them. The first depends on you finding the voice of the writer congenial or amusing or whatever; and the second is built up over experience. The principles that underpin all effective communication haven’t changed because the medium has changed.

      Anyway, I bloody well hope that there’s room for a few old buffers in the critical spectrum. It can’t all be down to the new generation of fllnty-eyed, self-confident, self-governing, self-appointed guardians of public taste, can it?

      • Thanks for the characteristically thoughtful response. I like the analogy of small shops and supermarkets, though it’s arguably not a comfortable one for the critics: it’s tough being up against Asmorritesbury. I’m sure the relationship between SOME readers and critics will survive, like the relationship between customers and independent butchers, but I’m arguing that what we’re seeing is our own form of unpredictable climate change.

        All I do know is that whether the critics of tomorrow are dinosaurs or pandas, the passion and knowledge of the flinty-eyed amateurs with whom they will compete is going to force them to be right on top of their game.

        As I am sure you will continue to be…

  21. notfrangible says:

    Proof of the penultimate para (Matt’s 2209 reply) pudding is, presumably, in this eating – ie, we’re all here reading you. Glad you were able to have such fun for so long and glad I can still read you on here for both reasons a) and b).

  22. meljappy says:

    Matt – the Guardian is poorer for its loss but I am sure your blog will be a great success. I’ve just added you to my bookmark bar and had to bump something else to do so…no higher praise. You are so right in saying that the newspapers have lost their way. There was a time when the food pages were the first I turned to….not now. When I look I literally sigh with boredom. They are no longer the place for inspiration. Where they once led, now they follow. But out here in blogland, there are no such constraints. Lead on Macduff…lead on.

  23. nick says:

    Warning, long post!

    Well let me fess up here. I co founded http://www.london-eating.co.uk and edited the site for years. We pretty much created the concept of online customer restaurant reviews. This was before blogs really and so this was how people got their opinions heard. They varied from the stupid to the really rather intelligent.

    The thing was though that readers could quickly get an idea, based on ten or so opinions, whether the restaurant was worth visiting or not. Even if a review was poorly written the opinions were normally genuine, and just because someone is a poor writer doesn’t mean they don’t have any taste. It was clear that if 9/10 people liked a restaurant then the statistical probability was that it was worth spending money in. And vice versa.

    Today when looking to see if a restaurant is any good, checking ten or so blogger reviews is bound to be more reliable than reading one newspaper critic. After all the critic only went in once, his face is well known, so he will almost certainly have received better service, and his food will have been given special attention. The bloggers are anonymous diners and their reviews by their number and variety give a better overview and of course are nearly always more up to date. Plus they have those bloody food pictures, which I can’t stand but the young’uns find indispensable for getting their taste buds tingling..

    This is why PRs now are feting those bloggers who have high numbers of followers, they are actually more influential when it comes to getting bums on seats than the critics are. And their audience see them, rightly or wrongly, as more in tune. Bloggers don’t come down from Olympus to write reviews, they are on the same level and engaging with their readers all the time.

    The restaurant critic has to be something else, an entertainer and the best ones are. If people want to know where to eat tonight they will go to the internet and bloggers and twitter. If fhey want a good read on the train, or on a Sunday afternoon, they will turn to the papers.

    But can papers survive? Clearly print cannot go on forever.The costs of producing a newspaper are enormous and ad revenues are down as advertisers put more and more faith and money into digital and social media. Then there is the question of all those trees and the effort of recycling all that paper.

    So will the good critics still have a job on the web? Well people are reluctant to read long copy on web. The boring layout is against it and so are the circumstances, it’s never comfortable sitting in front of a computer to read. The web subs will break copy into smaller paras, as that is found to be more readable, despite the fact the writer did not write it that way so the flow is affected. The web editor will demand more key words per para, which will affect the readability, he will want more internal and external links, and finally the copy must end with a ‘what do you think?’ to drive comments, which are currently the Holy Grail. That’s not conducive to the kind of writing we like.

    Electronic publishing is perhaps the answer, At least then you can reproduce the design of a paper and its structure. People are more likely to read long copy in a well designed ‘newspaper’ on their iPad or Kindle and advertisers can run their ads in a similar way.

    I now edit http://www.foodepedia.co.uk. We value long copy and good writing and we don’t do keywords or SEO or any of that. We try to offer readers something better, and quite a few people seem to like it.

    Your welcome to write for us Matt, but guess what, we have no money!

    • Matt says:

      In reply to nick.

      Good, if depressing points, well made. However, a couple of thoughts. I agree that would-be gourmets can shop around for available comments on whatever restaurants they’re interested in, and make their judgments that way. But the same observation applies to the bloggers/web site operators as applies to traditional critics – their views are likely to be based on one visit, too. A large number of snap shots is no more than a series of snap shots, even if they all say the same thing. No critic is foolproof, or would pretend to be so (or should pretend to be so). The virtue of building a relationship with a single critic is that you get used to their strengths and weaknesses, you factor that into your own assessment of their review. So a double critical process is going on – the reviewer is reviewing the restaurant, and the reader is reviewing the reviewer based on past experience. I don’t see why that doesn’t apply on line as well. The principle difference between on- and off-line reviewers is transparency, to use that ghastly word. We know who pays the bills when a Jay Rayner or a Fay Maschler reviews a restaurant. We don’t know who pays the bloggers bills, or, indeed, if they pay them at all. I’m not saying that they don’t. We just don’t know. But we do know that commercial organizations and advertising agencies have been extremely quick to exploit the free and easy, unpoliced nature of the internet to their own ends.

      On slightly different tack, there seems a general assumption that all food writing begins and ends with restaurant criticism, possibly with restaurants and recipes. Luckily, food is far more diverse and interesting than that. I feel that experience and knowledge in one area informs another. You can’t really separate the politics of food from the supply of raw material and the raw materials from cooking them (professionally or domestically).

      It’s like being in Europe in the hundred years after Gutenburg published his Bible. Moveable type transformed communication in the 15th Century in the same way the internet has ours. Suddenly we didn’t have to bother with boring old scribes and all the old stuff. Anyone could become a writer. We could have books and newspapers and pamphlets and all manner of dazzling bits of paper. It took a long time for it to settle down and for enduring forms and criticism to emerge. I reckon we’re at that stage with the internet. It will continue to evolve at a blinding rate, but I wouldn’t be all that surprised if it didn’t end up duplicating the orthodoxies many are so busily decrying.

      • nick says:

        On the point about bloggers etc only making one visit, that’s true of course but surely a series of snapshots that roughly concur is something, statistically, that can be relied on? If 20 people say it’s great and one person doesn’t, chances are that last person is wrong or was unlucky. Assuming all the reviews occurred within the same time frame.

        On the question of transparency my own experience is that the bloggers are hair-shirt about this. They pay their own bills and if they are lucky enough to be comped they say so very clearly and often at boring length. They do tend to review the lower priced places when paying their own bills, but then their readers are on roughly the same income so it works.

        All my reviews are comped. My policy is to write what I feel is the truth and if the PR doesn’t like it then tough. I have never had a problem. Most PRs know when a restaurant client is crap and while they know my unfavorable review will cause them some grief they also know I am not doing it out of malice. They live with it. I try to write fairly and not use any restaurant as a football unless I feel they genuinely set out to rip people off, rather than just fail to deliver.

        I do agree that there is more to food writing than restaurant criticism, it’s just that the latter is more widely read as it tends to be more entertaining, more visible and more accessible. I read car reviews but I don’t read articles on how cars are made.

        Moveable type still needed some capital investment to use. Internet writing requires only access to the internet and we all have that now and we have it all day when we should be working!

  24. Off topic, I know, but not entirely so… For anyone interested in media, this lengthy, densely argued piece by Clay Shirky about the future of newspapers is worth reading.

    http://www.shirky.com/weblog/2012/01/newspapers-paywalls-and-core-users/

  25. In terms of on-line writing earning you enough pennies to do the eating out that we’d all love to hear about, consider small-scale sponsorship (rather like what Jenny Lawson aka The Bloggess (thebloggess.com) does) or a Paypal ‘donate’ button. I get the impression that there’s a whole raft (albeit a small select one) of people earning their livings from writing on-line rather than depending upon traditional media.

    • nick says:

      All I’d say from experience is that earning money from online is not at all easy. Advertisers and sponsors look for traffic figures, and they want big ones. We’re talking Deliaonline kind of traffic.

  26. Chris B says:

    As I was out of the country over Xmas & New Year I’ve only recently got round to the NYE magazine, and it’s very sad news. Can I add my belated best wishes, thanks for so much erudite advice, and gratitude for finally discovering this blog.

  27. William says:

    Really interesting discussions, a lot of it very sad though I guess. I’m from the younger generation and I do indeed have a ‘blog’ (although I hate that word) but I’m in total agreement with you Matthew. I write long copy and I go off on tangents, because that is what interests me – although perhaps not what interests the masses. As you say, there is so much more to food writing than just writing about food. The internet is clearly the most incredibly convenient tool (I still struggle to believe that it actually exists – where are the wires!?!) but so are supermarkets. I worry that are we continuing to priotise convenience over quality and this will be ultimately detrimental. I will always love those food writers or presenters for whom the food represents something more substantial, such as a way of life or a link to the culture and the history of a place. Whether or not you ever get the chance to experience it, just reading about it, like great fiction, is often enough. Long live the ‘old school’ breed of food writers!!

  28. Pingback: Food Links, 15.02.2012 « Tangerine and Cinnamon

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