IIn the larger scheme of things, and amid so much Covid devastation, it may seem frivolous to be outraged by the shutdown of a venerable national publication. Times and priorities change, after all. Tastes and markets change. Every year, long before Covid, many other posts have also died.
However, the passage of the Good Food Guide, which was quietly announced last week by its current owner, Waitrose, was a cruel and avoidable death with a broader resonance for British life and social history. The annual guide to the best places to eat in this country was in good commercial health as it approached its 70th anniversary. As restaurants rebuild, if they can, after the pandemic, the guide’s public service role would have been more important than ever.
Waitrose appears to have closed the guide after heavy losses suffered by its parent company, the John Lewis Partnership, in the pandemic. These have led to store closures, thousands of layoffs, and, for the first time in John Lewis’s history, the suspension of the annual profit-sharing bonus paid to his entire workforce.
In such circumstances, the elimination of a guide whose readers would likely be wealthier and middle-class than many of the workers may have seemed to share the pain. Yet by ending the Good Food Guide, Waitrose has abruptly ended one of Britain’s most successful grassroots socialist projects, and one of the few with a genuine claim to have helped spark a lasting social revolution.
The Good Food Guide was the brainchild of radical historian and journalist Raymond Postgate. Postgate was a middle-class activist against World War I and a founding member of the Communist Party in 1920. He married the daughter of the pacifist leader of the Labor Party, George Lansbury, and was the brother-in-law of political theorist GDH. Cole, with whom he wrote a once famous social story, The Common People.
Postgate’s many other writings include biographies of Robert Emmet and John Wilkes. He was editor of the Tribune newspaper before Aneurin Bevan replaced him. He also wrote the Bolshevik theory, which HG Wells personally recommended to Lenin, who in turn sent Postgate a signed photograph that he kept for the rest of his life.
Postgate was not just a socialist. He also believed that good food and drink were everyone’s rights. So appalled was he by the state of British food in the period after 1945 that he planned a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Food, which became the Good Food Club. Around the same time, he published The Plain Man’s Guide to Wine. Postgate viewed food, says Observer restaurant critic Jay Rayner, “as something that was as important as any other aspect of our cultural life, such as the arts, fashion and sports.”
Postgate was not alone in this. The Good Food Guide was created in the same postwar period as the NHS, the Arts Council, and later the Open University. Although it was what we might now call a “great society” project, created at the grassroots by middle-class consumers, it embodied the same postwar ethos that saw universal access to the best as an essential part of a good society.
In 1951, Postgate published the first guide. From the beginning it was a cooperative and inclusive company, a complete contrast to the Michelin Guides with their top-down edicts. For many years, it always featured blank pages and forms for users to submit their own reviews. There was no advertising, a tradition that continued to the end.
The Good Food Guide was not solely responsible for the transformation of diet, cuisine and restaurants that marked Britain over the past half century. There were many other factors involved: kitchen writers, greater wealth, vacations abroad, immigration, and more efficient supply chains, all in between. But the role of the guide was also crucial. Its success, according to social historian David Kynaston, was “a pioneering case of consumer power.”
In part this is because he was never obsequious towards mastering French cuisine in top British restaurants or towards the capital city. As food historian Pen Vogler points out in her book Scoff, a recent study of food and class in this country, the first edition featured vegetarian, Chinese, Spanish, Greek and Italian restaurants, as well as French. This cosmopolitan approach grew stronger and stronger over the years.
Nor was he a slave to the more expensive restaurants. There was always a place for fancy hotels and later celebrity chefs like Heston Blumenthal. But they came face to face with all kinds of restaurants, from curry houses and early gourmet pubs to a fish and chip shop like the one down our road when I was a kid in Leeds. In the 1960s, the guide made headlines by including an entrance into the Leicester Forest East service area on the newly built M1.
Nor was it dominated by London. Growing up in Yorkshire, I would read their recommendations for places like Box Tree in Ilkley and Red Lion in Burnsall, which my parents would sometimes take us to. Without the Good Food Guide, I would never have found my own way in later years to places like the drunken duck near Ambleside, the carved angel in Dartmouth, the ubiquitous chip in Glasgow, the walnut tree in Gwent or Harry’s Shack, a wonderful fish restaurant alongside to Portstewart Beach on the Antrim Coast. Even Jay Rayner admits, “They’ll always find some places that I haven’t heard of and want to try.”
The Good Food Guide has changed in countless ways over the years. But its essence and spirit are the same in 2021 as in 1951. What has changed, enormously, is the number and standard of restaurants and the other ways that customers judge where to eat. Home delivery has created a revolution of its own, as have crowdsourced reviews.
However, if good food is important, and it is, then the Good Food Guide should be an essential aid in finding those special places that modern life, not just modern middle-class life, is constantly looking for. None of the other guides match it in reliability, values, and most of all in the geographic and culinary range that stems from its consumer-oriented approach.
Reading editor Elizabeth Carter’s introduction to the 2020 edition is especially poignant this week. Why buy a printed guide like this one, Carter asked, when digital media was now full of recommendations? “Simply put,” he replied, “the Guide’s long-established and reliable voice is needed more than ever. With so much information out there, you need advice you can trust. ”And that was before Covid.
As Britain emerges, if it does, from this summer’s pandemic, many restaurants will open, succeed, fail and close. It will be an extremely turbulent period for an ever-changing industry. The Good Food Guide is needed right now, for both suppliers and consumers. Waitrose should reconsider its decision. If not, others must step forward to rescue and renew the agility, flamboyance, independence, high standards and, most of all, the commitment to the well-being of the people who drove Postgate to create it in the first place.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism