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

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder