A Public-Spirited Culinary Passion

By Inglis, Fred | New Statesman (1996), August 23, 1996 | Go to article overview

A Public-Spirited Culinary Passion


Inglis, Fred, New Statesman (1996)


The Good Food Guide will publish its 42nd edition in the early autumn. It has been in existence for 46 years. For rather more than 30 of them, I was one of its unpaid, overweight, much-travelled and vocationally suspicious inspectors.

If you go to the Guide's press of fice they are surprisingly stubborn about not revealing how many copies they sell, but past editors, rather more unbuttoned, reckon that annual sales peaked at 50,000 in the early eighties. Earnest academics and most ex-prime ministers would settle happily for anything like those figures.

I've got all but the first five on my shelves, the very earliest (1960 and 1961) in the stocky little pocket edition published then, all the rest in the slender demi-crown octavo that has been the livery since. The still small and barely fledged Consumers' Association took the Guideunder its wing in 1963 but itbegan, as everything virtuous and public-spirited did, in the late 1940s, on dog-eared and smudged typescripts run off the heavy, ink-filled Gestetner drums and circulated to the faithful.

In the early days there was no such thing as the Consumers' Association, only the consumers themselves. They had barely thrown away their ration-books and eradicated the dreadful memory of how dried egg really tasted. They had heard Ldith Summerskill gallantly pretend to be unable to tell the difference between butter and merge ("the minister without palate") and a handful of worthy Hampstead-and-Oxbridge lefties had lined up behind a portly Labour historian, gentleman tutor in adult education, novelist, wine guide and socialist major in the Intelligence Corps in order to put the quality back into the dreary and tasteless equality of 1950s British restaurant food.

Raymond Postgate was that sharp and genial leader. He turned the phrase Good Food Guide, now repeated until it is a cliche, into the volumes appearing at first every two years, and then, as the industry and its rate of improvement quickened unimaginably, annually. In his plain man's, clubman's way, he dubbed his foundation "the good food club", but all you needed to join was enough money 3 for a meal out and a fountain pen with which to write a report to Postgate himself at his home in Hendon Lane. What you wrote was for your fellow diners. Nobody paid you anything, least of all the restaurant.

This was to be, as all good things were at the time, a popular and a democratic movement. Postgate invoked the work of Mass Observation in an early preface, and always insisted that such voluntary and public-spirited effortwas on behalf of the common good. The absolute principle was then and is now that all reports must be unknown to the restaurants. "You can corrupt one man, or a couple," he wrote, "you can't bribe an army."

When the Consumers' Association assumed publication in 1963, with Postgate still doing all the donkey-work, the always anonymous inspector had the bill for a meal for two paid, together with the price of a half-bottle of wine and (sometimes) travelling expenses. There are about 100 in the "circus", only 20 to 30 in the circle of chief spies. For many years, in a clubby way, the only recognition for inspectors in the Guidewas the printing of your name or, more discreetly, your initials, underneath the restaurant you had recommended.

This amiable cliquishness was lovingly parodied in Kingsley Amis's The Green Man and it is a mark of the fame of the GFG that Amis could do this so lightly, opening the novel with the entry and signing it, moreover, with the names of a mixed bag of chums, Bernard Levin, John Dankworth included.

Well, in the 1961 Guide you could find such names as Dwight Macdonald, Nigel Lawson, Michael Meyer,John Arlott and Norman del Mar below the restaurant entries. You could also find a 1949 Chambertin at Hort's in Bristol (long gone) for 25 bob, dinner at the Lygon Arms in Broadway for 14/6, and a ham and egg tea in Great Langdale for 5/6. …

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