Propagate, propagate: a Worcestershire gardener uses army surplus metal pyramids to force rhubarb in 1962. (Photo: Getty)
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Who knew rhubarb had a dark side?

The dark underworld of West Yorkshire rhubarb forcing.

Even the kindest of souls would struggle to describe Jonathan Westwood’s West Yorkshire farm as a rural idyll. Instead of rolling hills and bleating sheep there are long, low sheds and the drone of traffic from the M62 and M1; just past the pigs and cabbages lie slip roads and raw new housing estates.

Yet inside those sheds, it’s still 1880. The smell hits me as I duck through a crooked Victorian doorway: warm and vegetal, almost rainforesty. Westwood switches on his torch, and rhubarb looms out of the gloom, ranks of spindly pink stalks and acid yellow leaves stretching back as far as the eye can see.

It’s a surprisingly unsettling experience for anyone who read The Day of the Triffids at an impressionable age and so I’m pretty keen to get out again, though not before he has explained that growers started raising the plants in the dark in the late 19th century, to keep the stems tender and sweet. With enough warmth and water, he says with enthusiasm, they can put on two inches a day. Shudder.

Slimy green tendrils of stewed rhubarb never held any fear for me at school, but I find these slender pink stems, shooting up in the silent darkness, strangely eerie. Legend has it that you can even hear “forced” rhubarb growing; its buds bursting, leaves unfurling, stems creaking. Fortunately, I don’t.

The farm sits in a triangle of land between Wakefield, Leeds and Morley which has been a hotbed of indoor rhubarb production for a century and a half, thanks to good soil, a frosty microclimate and (once upon a time at least) a ready supply of fuel from the mines to heat the sheds. Even the fertiliser is unmistakably local; as we drive round the farm Westwood points out great soggy piles of the “shoddy”, or wool waste, that he buys from a mill in nearby Dewsbury.

In the triangle’s heyday during the Second World War, when the government fixed the price of rhubarb to feed a population starved of fruit, there were more than 200 growers in the area. Many folded once bananas returned to Britain, and by the 1980s, Westwood recalls, sales were so poor that the biggest rhubarb grower in the area was ready to pack it in altogether – “and then we managed to get it into the supermarkets”.

This coup, coupled with a revival of interest in classic British cookery, saved the few growers that remained. Westwood sells everything he can grow under the Red Tractor badge and is hoping next year to extend the indoor season, which runs from November to April, to compete with the Dutch.

But it’s still not an easy business: the fuel and labour costs make forced rhubarb an expensive crop to grow. Westwood employs almost 40 people year round and some of them have been working for him for nearly 50 years. Everything, from watering to harvesting and packing, is done by hand.

With only ten growers still operating in the triangle, it’s little wonder the Leeds and District Market Gardeners Association, now in its 94th year, has had to give up the Best Sticks competition at its annual rhubarb dinner-dance for lack of interest. “I think I won it four years in a row – it was just embarrassing,” Westwood says, looking not at all embarrassed.

Indeed, the certificates are still proudly pinned up on the walls above his head in the cluttered farm office where he works with his sister and cousin. “Best box of Timperley”, “Best six sticks of Fenton”, they read – tributes to a vanished world where the Rhubarb Express ran nightly from Wakefield to the London markets.

I ask him what keeps him in the business. “Madness. Sheer madness!” he sighs, shaking his head ruefully. Yorkshire through and through, just like his rhubarb.

Next week: John Burnside on nature

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 05 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's power game

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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser