A literary hothouse on the South Circular

The Dulwich College conveyor belt is still working.

The historian David Cannadine made an excellent contribution to Radio 4's A Point of View strand yesterday. "Stars of South London" was a paean to the south London suburb of Dulwich (where, in the interests of full disclosure, I should say that I reside) -- in particular to P G Wodehouse and Raymond Chandler, two of the many literary luminaries to have been produced by Dulwich College, the venerable independent school on the South Circular.

Cannadine made a rather persuasive case for there being deep similarities between Wodehouse and Chandler, for all the obvious differences in their respective worldviews and in the atmosphere of their novels. He attributed these similarities to the influence on both men of their headmaster at Dulwich, Arthur Herman Gilkes, who, he said, "taught them to write... superb English prose". And then there was also the fact that neither Wodehouse nor Chandler went on to university.

Nor, interestingly enough, did the former New Statesman literary editor V S Pritchett, an alumnus of Alleyn's School, just up the road in East Dulwich. Cannadine didn't mention Pritchett, though he did cite A E W Mason, Dennis Wheatley, C S Forrester, Graham Swift and Michael Ondaatje, who also went to Dulwich. That's an impressive list and it doesn't stop there. Next month, Jonathan Cape publishes C, the third novel by Tom McCarthy, who made his name with Remainder, an unlikely bestseller that owed more to the French nouveau roman than it did to Bertie Wooster or Philip Marlow, and who was also educated at Dulwich. It must be something they put in the water...

(You can read an essay McCarthy wrote on the genius of David Lynch for the NS here.)

UPDATE: Thanks to Neeko in the comments for pointing out that V S Pritchett didn't in fact attend Dulwich College, but went to the nearby Alleyn's School. I've modified the post accordingly.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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With the BBC Food’s collection under threat, here's how to make the most of online recipes

Do a bit of digging, trust your instincts – and always read the comments.

I don’t think John Humphrys is much of a chef. Recently, as his Today co-presenter Mishal Husain was discussing the implications of the BBC’s decision to axe its Food website (since commuted to transportation to the Good Food platform, run by its commercial arm), sharp-eared listeners heard the Humph claim that fewer recipes on the web could only be a good thing. “It would make it easier!” he bellowed in the background. “We wouldn’t have to choose between so many!”

Husain also seemed puzzled as to why anyone would need more than one recipe for spaghetti bolognese – but, as any keen cook knows, you can never have too many different takes on a dish. Just as you wouldn’t want to get all your news from a single source, it would be a sad thing to eat the same bolognese for the rest of your life. Sometimes only a molto autentico version, as laid down by a fierce Italian donna, rich with tradition and chopped liver, will do – and sometimes, though you would never admit it in a national magazine, you crave the comfort of your mum’s spag bol with grated cheddar.

The world wouldn’t starve without BBC Food’s collection but, given that an online search for “spaghetti bolognese recipe” turns up about a million results, it would have been sad to have lost one of the internet’s more trustworthy sources of information. As someone who spends a large part of each week researching and testing recipes, I can assure you that genuinely reliable ones are rarer than decent chips after closing time. But although it is certainly the only place you’ll find the Most Haunted host Yvette Fielding’s kedgeree alongside Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge, the BBC website is not the only one that is worth your time.

The good thing about newspaper, magazine and other commercial platforms is that most still have just enough budget to ensure that their recipes will have been made at least twice – once by the writer and once for the accompanying photographs – though sadly the days when everyone employed an independent recipe tester are long gone. Such sites also often have sufficient traffic to generate a useful volume of comments. I never make a recipe without scrolling down to see what other people have said about it. Get past the “Can’t wait to make this!” brigade; ignore the annoying people who swap baked beans for lentils and then complain, “This is nothing like dhal”; and there’s usually some sensible advice in there, too.

But what about when you leave the safety of the big boys and venture into the no man’s land of the personal blog? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff and find a recipe that actually works? You can often tell how much work a writer has put in by the level of detail they go into: if they have indicated how many people it serves, or where to find unusual ingredients, suggested possible tweaks and credited their original sources, they have probably made the dish more than once. The photography is another handy clue. You don’t have to be Annie Leibovitz to provide a good idea of what the finished dish ought to look like.

Do a bit of digging as part of your prep. If you like the look of the rest of the site, the author’s tastes will probably chime with your own. And always, always, wherever the recipe is from, read it all the way through, even before you order the shopping. There is nothing more annoying than getting halfway through and then realising that you need a hand blender to finish the dish, just as the first guest arrives.

Above all, trust your instincts. If the cooking time seems far too short, or the salt content ridiculously high, it probably is, so keep an eye on that oven, check that casserole, keep tasting that sauce. As someone who once published a magic mince pie recipe without any sugar, I’m living proof that, occasionally, even the very best of us make mistakes. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad