Literary luncheons: The Kitchen by Vanessa Bell, c. 1943
Show Hide image

A feast of eccentric detail: Felicity Cloake on what the Bloomsbury set ate

From Virginia Woolf's boeuf en daube to Bunny Garnett’s “orgy of squid”, the glorious new Bloomsbury Cookbook fleshes out the Group’s relationship with food.

In the grand tradition of pretentious youth, I was once madly in love with Virginia Woolf – a passion that manifested itself chiefly in ostentatious reading of To the Lighthouse. Yet what do I retain of that heady affair, 15 years on? Little but a pungent memory of Marthe’s boeuf en daube – that “confusion of savoury brown and yellow meats, its bay leaf and its wine”.

For a suspected anorexic, she could write a good meal; as E M Forster observed, “when Virginia Woolf mentions nice things they get right in our mouths, so far as the edibility of print permits”. That “enlightened greediness” belies a complicated relationship with food – her devoted husband, Leonard, wrote of the “terrible process” of getting her to eat – and yet it is a motif. Even her feminist manifesto, A Room of One’s Own, rails against the depressing catering at Cambridge’s women’s colleges, concluding famously, “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well. The lamp in the spine does not light on beef and prunes.”

Every single such reference has been lovingly catalogued in Jans Ondaatje Rolls’s glorious new Bloomsbury Cookbook (Thames & Hudson, £24.95), which uses the Group’s correspondence, diaries and art to flesh out their relationship with food. Here, amid recipes spanning nearly 90 years, from the Beeton-esque nursery food on which Woolf and her friends were weaned to a 1977 recipe for an “orgy of squid” from one of the last survivors, the writer David “Bunny” Garnett, there’s a feast of eccentric detail. I’m not sure I’ll be making Helen Anrep’s fish with bananas, but I am tempted by the promise that her post-impressionist orange cake will both “appeal to the eyes and arouse the taste buds”.

Though their earnest, rather intense reputation earned them the excellent sobriquet “the Gloomsbury Group” with Virginia’s lover Vita Sackville-West, it seems they took their meals as seriously as their art. This comes as little surprise, given that, in the words of Ondaatje Rolls, “Conversation was fundamental to their way of life, [and] what better forum for exchanging and developing ideas than the dining table?”

Naturally, the dinners for all those parties didn’t cook themselves – and as the woeful description of the daube suggests, Woolf and her circle were no more involved in their preparation than was Mrs Ramsay. Clive Bell, Woolf’s brother-in-law, saw no problem with the idea that “civilisation requires the existence . . . of slaves – of people who give some part of their surplus time and energy to the support of others”. Woolf had a vexed relationship with domestic help, writing to her sister, “I am sick of the timid, spiteful servant mind.”

But she was pathetically reliant on that mind and muscle; an attempt to learn to fend for herself after her first breakdown resulted in her distinguishing herself only “by cooking my wedding ring into a suet pudding”. That said, her last cook, Louie Mayer, was surprised by her mistress’s talent for breadmaking. But as Mayer’s predecessor Nellie Boxall noted waspishly, “She used every dish in the place and left all the washing-up.”

Such delicious details bring these characters to life – I relished the tale of the frugal economist John Maynard Keynes purchasing a crate of discount tinned meat so rancid that “the bargain-hunter himself could barely keep it down”, and the discovery that Lytton Strachey insisted on eating rice pudding every day.

And surely the arrangements at the painter Augustus John’s Dorset commune, where “salads were prepared and served with fantastic rituals, the leaves being finally tossed with her bare hands by the senior virgin present”, must have made even bohemian eyebrows rise. If you, too, fancy a bit of fantastic ritual for lunch, rest assured – the recipe is included in the book.

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 21 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Peak Ukip

Getty
Show Hide image

Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.