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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

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