Signing off from The Staggers

After 18 months of blogging, I’m still convinced religion must be better understood.

After just under 18 months, this will be my last post on The Staggers, in a series that began as the "God Blog" but which then ranged beyond religion into world affairs – two subjects which in many countries are so intertwined that they cannot be regarded as separate areas of discussion – and the occasional foray into British domestic politics.

I think it would be fair to say that, as often as not, my thoughts irritated or even enraged many commenters, leading some to suggest that they should not have appeared on the website of a magazine with such a distinguished left-wing history. This stemmed at least in part from two views with which I would disagree.

First, that the New Statesman should always take a strongly atheist and avowedly secular stance. I pointed out the connection between religion and radicalism in my introductory column, "Age of Homo Religiosus", which I still believe rebuts this point. By way of example, I will merely reproduce the words Keir Hardie wrote in 1910:

I have said, both in writing and from the platform many times, that the impetus which drove me first into the Labour movement, and the inspiration which has carried me on in it, has been derived more from the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth than from all other sources combined.

If that was good enough for him . . .

The other argument I have tried to make – although I have been made very aware of the limits of my powers of persuasion in this regard – is that religion is an overwhelming fact in the world. Whatever certain readers may think, my aim has never been to advance the case for any religion, let alone proselytise, but instead to suggest that we would all benefit from understanding it rather than reducing it to extreme and backward-looking versions which we naturally find repugnant. This only serves the interests of fundamentalists of any or no faith.

Certainty is what makes me suspicious, whether it be an unquestioning belief in the current conclusions of sciences that are – as they should be – constantly changing as new discoveries are made, or in dogmas that do not allow for different circumstances and times, remaining stuck in the fabrics of societies that vanished centuries ago. I would include in this also certainties about the desirability of imposing our form of liberal democracy in countries with other histories and sets of values.

Any universalism always starts from a particular standpoint, and when it comes to how we think societies should order themselves the western standpoint is not unique; it also strikes me as arrogant to suggest that it is uniquely right. Those who maintain that the only justifiable left-wing position is to do just that may not realise how much that smacks of neo-colonialism in the many countries that have had quite enough of being told what to do by European and American powers. To me, it seems more naturally left-wing not to subject them to lectures and threats, but to regard and treat them as equals free to determine their own futures.

Second, and less importantly, there has been some objection to my occasional columns in support of Liberal politics. I have always thought of British Liberalism as being on the left – just look up Lloyd eorge's speeches against the privileges of the aristocracy, for instance – and that radical Liberals had much reason to be furious about the actions of the last Labour government.

Who betrayed the left during those 13 years? Not Liberals (who opposed the Iraq war, etc). Tribalism may trump principle in practice, but not, I would hope, in the pages of the New Statesman, which I believe should feel like home for Liberals just as much as it does for Labour, Green and all sorts of open-minded thinkers.

All of which brings me to thank the NS for having me as an online columnist for the last 18 months. The magazine's tolerance for divergent opinions is a tribute to its range and intelligence – and to its readers, however much they may have disagreed with me.

And on the subject of readers, my thanks to, too, to the regular commenters. I will mention just two: Daniele, who frequently took me to task, but from a consistent and coherent standpoint (and one that I respect more than Daniele perhaps imagines), and most especially to Lou, who was often a very welcome voice of support – precisely because he was the only one!

I will still be writing essays and book reviews for the magazine. Perhaps we will meet again in the comments section when future articles appear. Until then, as the Roman poet wrote, "Ave atque vale."

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to 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