A delicious life: Jane Grigson in the kitchen with her daughter, Sophie. Photo: Graeme Robertson/Rex
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Jane Grigson: the woman whose words you'll want to eat

Grigson's recipes still have the power to surprise – God knows what readers in 1971 made of sushi with sweet beans – and her enthusiasm for her subject is utterly infectious.

Jane Grigson is sometimes described as “the food writer’s food writer”, which is probably a euphemism for “the food writer all other food writers would secretly like to be”. I’m sure I’m not alone in the wide-eyed admiration and green-eyed envy with which I read her work.

Yet, on the 25th anniversary of her premature death, Grigson is in danger of becoming the secret pleasure of the food cognoscenti instead, puzzlingly less well known than contemporaries such as her great friend Elizabeth David, who is widely credited with nothing less than a British culinary revolution.

In a recent article celebrating her life, Rachel Cooke mused whether Grigson’s comfortable home life is to blame – rather than having the scandalous glamour of the famously difficult David, she was so happily married to the poet Geoffrey Grigson that when she appeared on Desert Island Discs in 1978 she chose his work as both her book and record.

Listening to her speak across the decades in that cartoonishly clipped accent of the pre-war generation (hardly a trace of her native Sunderland), one gets a sense of the immense geniality that won her the flinty heart of David, a woman who is said to have preferred male company.

A great humanity shines through in her writing, too. An early campaigner for animal welfare, she eloquently cautions readers of her long-standing Observer column not to be fooled by “barn eggs”, a label that conceals “some concentration camp under the nice Cotswold-tiled words”.

David hits the nail on the head with characteristic directness in her introduction to The Best of Jane Grigson: the Enjoyment of Food, a collection of her friend’s work recently reissued by Grub Street. She describes Grigson as “a writer who could combine a delightful quote from Chaucer on the subject of a pike galantine with a careful recipe for a modern chicken and pork version of the same ancient dish, and who could do so without pedantry or a hint of preciousness. Jane was always entertaining as well as informative.”

Though she read English at Cambridge and won awards for her Italian translation, Grigson wore her scholarship lightly, motivated as it was by a curiosity so boundless that her recipes still have the power to surprise – God knows what readers in 1971 made of her scattered sushi with sweet beans – and her enthusiasm for her subject is utterly infectious.

She is best known for her work on English and French food, both of which she saw with the clear sight of someone who moved frequently between the two countries (she spent her summers in what People magazine described as a “three-and-a-half-room primitive grotto” in the Loire Valley). “It’s easy enough to get a thoroughly disappointing meal even in France,” she writes in the introduction to my favourite of her books, English Food. “The food we get publicly in England isn’t so often bad English cooking as a pretentious and inferior imitation of French cooking or Italian cooking.”

Instead of insisting on that nebulous concept, authenticity, her recipes explicitly celebrate the links that bind us all across time and borders. Cookery, for Grigson, was an act of “continual plagiarism”.

Never precious, she is also gloriously practical: a recipe for shepherd’s pie includes instructions for stretching the dish further with extra potato or “cheap but good offal”, and one is reminded of David’s claim that, for many years, the family couldn’t afford a fridge.

Above all, reading Jane Grigson again, I’m struck by the beauty of her writing, as in this lyrical account of an English garden in summer: “Buzzing and warmth and crushing raspberries with your tongue . . . and everyone pleased that the crop should not be finished by the birds.” I came away, as always, feeling culturally, as well as culinarily, richer. Also, extraordinarily hungry.

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 01 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Crisis Europe

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The quiet civil war for control of the Labour grassroots machine

The party's newly empowered far left is trying to wrest control of local branches.

“Party time! PARTY TIME!” A young man wearing a Jeremy Corbyn t-shirt appears on screen and starts dancing, accompanied by flashing emojis of a red rose and a party popper.

“There’s only one game in town and it’s getting our boy J Corbz into Downing Street”, he announces, and to do that, he is planning to explain the “nitty gritty” of local Labour politics, and, promisingly, “give a little gossip on the way”. The man is Michael Walker of online left-wing outlet Novara Media, and the video has been watched more than 38,000 times on Facebook in just two weeks.

So why should Labour members suddenly be made to care about “structures, factions, conference, selections, rule changes”? “There were shedloads of people who got involved in the Labour Party for the first time by knocking on doors during the general election,” Walker explains, “but to make sure that the Labour Party represents their voices as it goes forward, they’re going to need to take getting involved in Labour’s bureaucratic structures seriously.

“There’s a risk that the party structures and bureaucracy will try and shut down participation in the Labour Party just like they did last summer, and we want to make sure that it can’t happen again.”

While the Parliamentary Labour Party is going into recess as a more united group since the election than it had been in the past two years, there is a quiet war still being fought at local level. Now that their man has proved that he could exceed expectations and turn Labour into a solid opposition, Corbynites want to make sure that the centrists cannot keep a hold on the internal party machine.

This involves projects like Walker’s catchy videos, and Momentum’s Your Labour Conference website, which encourages members to get interested in the election of the conference arrangements committee, in order to have more of a say on what gets discussed at the party’s annual conference.

“We recognise the fact that sometimes the Labour Party can be a bit of a labyrinth and something which can be pretty hard to work out, and we want to push people forward and help them get more involved,” a Momentum spokesperson says. “We’re trying to make it more open and more accessible to younger people and help people understand what’s going on.”

With tens of thousands of people joining Labour over the past few months – including around 20,000 since the election – their intentions seem noble: the Labour party internal structure is, after all, notoriously complex. However, it isn’t clear how the existing members who are involved in local organising – a lot of whom are or were until recently sceptical of Corbyn – will deal with this new influx of activists.

“Corbyn supporters are no longer the underdog in the party, and understandably people who joined recently are highly motivated to get their opinions across, so they’ve been turning up in droves at local meetings,” says Richard Angell, the director of Blairite organisation Progress.

“They’re not brilliantly organised but they’re there, and they turned up with this sense of 'we told you so', so they’re starting to win things that they wouldn’t have before the election.”

Centrist and centre-left Labour factions have often been the most organised campaigners in constituency Labour parties, and they’re now worried that if they were to get ousted, the party would suffer.

“Lots of our members are the people who hold the CLPs together – lots of people turned up in certain places to campaign, and the people who organised the clipboards, the data, did the work to make that happen are still a network of moderates,” Angell adds. “If Momentum tried to sweep them away in a vindictive wave of jubilation, it would backfire, and that’s what they have to think about now.”

Though the people at the helm of Momentum have never explicitly called for a takeover of the party at local level, some CLPs are struggling with bitter infighting. Lewisham is home to some of these battlegrounds. With three CLPs in the borough, the local Momentum branch is trying to gain more power in the local parties to implement the changes they want to see at that level.

“There’s an organised left-wing presence in all three CLPs in Lewisham,” a local Momentum organiser, who did not want to be named, says. “We want the CLPs to become outward-looking campaigning bodies, and we want them to be functionally democratic.”

What the branch also wants is to have a radical rethink of what Labour does at council level, and the activist was critical of what the councillors have been doing.

“Under the right-wing, Lewisham CLPs never really campaign on anything – they’ll occasionally have these set pieces, like the Labour day of action on education, which is good, but in reality there’s no one going campaigning on anything,” he says.

“The other thing is about the record of the council - no-one would deny that Labour councils are in a difficult situation, in terms of getting cut again and again and again, but equally at the moment, the attitude of a lot of Labour councils in Lewisham at least is 'it’s not just that there’s nothing else we could do, we’re actually going to go further than the Tories are demanding'."

“It’s not just that they’re saying 'oh, there’s not really anything we can do to fight back against cuts' but it’s also that they’ve actually absorbed all the neoliberal stuff.”

The response to these allegations from a long-term Labour member, who wants to remain anonymous but is close to the currently serving councillors, was unsurprising.

“It is utterly absurd to suggest that councillors want to cut services – Labour members stand for council because they want to stand up for their community and protect local services,” he says. 

“As for campaigning and taking on the Tories, it was the 'right-wing' Lewisham Council which took the government to the High Court over their plans to close Lewisham Hospital – and won. The 'right wing' CLPs worked tirelessly with the Save Lewisham Hospital campaign, and we won.”

According to him, Labour is doomed to fail if it doesn’t unite soon, and he worries that left-wing activists may be getting carried away. “The vast majority of members in Lewisham are really pleased with the result and with the way the party pulled together – locally and nationally – for the election campaign,” he says.

“At the second members' meeting after the election, we had a discussion about how we all needed to carry on in the spirit of unity that we'd recently seen, and that if we did so, we have a good chance of seeing a Labour government soon.”

“It's a shame that some people want to label, attack and purge fellow members, rather than working together to beat the Tories. The more they focus on internal, factional in-fighting, the less chance we will have of seeing a Labour government and ending the cuts.”

Beyond the ideological differences which, as the election showed, can mostly be smoothed over when the party senses that it’s getting close to power, an explanation for the Labour left’s occasional bullishness could be its sense of insecurity.

After all, the wave of new members who joined after Corbyn became leader was hardly welcomed by the party’s mainstream, and the narrative quickly turned to Trotskyist entryism instead.

Momentum also spent many of its formative months being treated with suspicion, as a Trojan horse aiming to get MPs deselected, which is yet to happen two years on. Painted as the opposition to the opposition, activists from the Labour’s left had become used to being party pariahs, and need to figure out what to do now that they are in a position of power.

“They’re behaving like an insurgency still, but they’re in charge”, says Angell. “It’s quite a big change in mindset for them, and one I don’t think they’re really ready for.”

“We have shown that we will campaign for the Labour Party anywhere in the country, whoever the candidate is, to try and get the best result in a general election, and there is no acknowledgement of that from them at all.”

This was, amusingly, echoed by the Momentum activist – if there is one thing all factions agree on, it seems to be that the Labour left needs to figure out what it wants from the party machine it’s in the process of inheriting.

“Momentum nationally had a very good election, it mobilised a lot of people to go to marginals, and got a lot of people involved in campaigning, and that’s a step forward, to go from getting people to vote Corbyn to getting them on the doorstep,” he says, “but it’s another step from actually having a vision of how to transform the Labour Party.”

Marie le Conte is a freelance journalist.