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March 14, 2014 6:34 pm
A few weeks ago the 2014 edition of the Good Food Guide landed on my desk. I love the GFG and greet its yearly arrival as if it were a slightly tweedy but much-loved relative popping round for “supper”. But this year, for the first time, emblazoned above the cover title, is the single word “Waitrose”.
The grocery arm of the John Lewis Partnership bought the GFG and its website last summer and now sells the printed guide through Waitrose branches. The sum paid was undisclosed but the guide’s brand value is substantial.
To understand its appeal you really have to get to know its founder, a journalist, writer and academic called Raymond Postgate. Born in 1896, Postgate became a conscientious objector during the first world war and went on to co-found the British Communist party in 1920. He served in the Home Guard during the second world war and afterwards pursued a career as a writer. Like many young idealists at the beginning of the last century, he became “a man of the left”.
As rationing continued in Britain long after the war was over, there was also a government-imposed cap of five shillings on restaurant meals – a restriction which gave restaurateurs an excuse to churn out execrable food, but at least protected diners from extortion. This was deeply troubling to Postgate. Reading his work today one can’t help but love his seeming naivety: his greatest wish was for equality for all people, but he seemed to believe this could manifest itself as equal access to decent wine and reasonably priced good food. The epithet “champagne socialist” may not have been invented solely for Postgate but I’m pretty sure he would have liked it.
In 1949, in Leader magazine, Postgate wrote a kind of manifesto for an imagined “Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Food”. He described British restaurant food as “soggy, sour, slimey, stale or saccharin” and skewered its failings under headings such as “The Rape of Cabbage”. It’s an amusing and heartfelt piece – oddly like a post on a modern food blog, and it might well have been as far as the Society went. But in 1950, when the five-shilling cap was abolished and with it, according to Postgate, the last protection for the diner, his moment had arrived.
“It is time,” he wrote, “that something was done about the standard of British Food and in this edition of Leader it’s going to be done. We have been extremely patient but the last excuses have ceased to be valid. The five shilling limit has been cancelled… From today, therefore, the society for the prevention of cruelty to food becomes The Good Food Club… Good Eating,” he signs off, “and don’t be trodden on any more”.
A year later the first Good Food Guide appeared. Priced, cheekily, at five shillings, it contained reports from ordinary diners, who sent accounts of meals to Postgate on cards printed in the back of the book. It was a brilliant idea – a prototypical TripAdvisor without the mean-mindedness.
Postgate, true to his gently egalitarian politics and his personal taste for decent indigenous food, stripped of pretension, gave us a uniquely British food guide. If a chap is travelling across country and needs a place to stop for a bite, he can trust the recommendations of other chaps – exactly the original idea behind the Michelin Guides. The GFG still retains a faint redolence of pipe smoke, horse brasses and half-timbered hostelries but it has a kind of honesty that appeals to us.
Today, the GFG still takes reports from real diners and sends in a small team of professional inspectors to confirm their findings. Postgate would probably have been delighted that it is now available as an app – but what would he have made of its new publisher, Waitrose?
As brand alliances go, this one is interesting. Postgate insisted that the GFG take no advertising; he had faith in the collective actions of real diners. As he put it, “You can corrupt one man. You can’t bribe an Army.” Like Michelin, though, Waitrose doesn’t run restaurants but has a customer base which uses them regularly.
In the terminology of the marketeer, there is “synergy”, so I wish both the supermarket and my beloved guide the very best. I just hope both they and their readers never quite forget the roots of this lovely British institution.
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