Born: 6 November 1896
Died: 29 March, 1971
Education: St John's College, Oxford
Married: In 1918, to Daisy Lansbury
Raymond William Postgate’s best memorial is the book he began over 60 years ago in the front room of his house in Finchley. His editorship of The Good Food Guide was a long one: he minded the nation’s stomach for 20 years. Yet it started as a sideline, for he was also a classical scholar, economist, social historian, journalist and a crime writer – his most famous novel being Verdict of Twelve, published in 1940.
At the end of the eighteenth century the reputation of British food was high, considered better than in France, yet by 1950 it had sunk to being among the worst in the world. Postgate determined to reverse the situation. Mock cream, synthetic custard, margarine masquerading as butter – the bad victuals and bad habits encouraged by years of rationing fuelled Postgate’s ‘campaign against cruelty to food’. It resulted in the Good Food Club, and the subsequent recommendations of decent places to eat from people all over the country became the ‘first mapping of an unexplored country’ – the 1951 edition of The Good Food Guide.
He was convinced that a more enlightened general public could bring the force of public opinion to bear on British catering and have the desired effect. He was right. Raymond Postgate’s legacy is the growing reputation of British food and restaurants – nowadays, one even hears the odd niggle that eating in France is not what it was.
This snippet from The Good Food Guide 1951 gives a glimpse into Postgate’s working method as Editor of the Guide, and also shows how similar it is to the system used to compile the book today.
‘My own business, as President and Editor, is merely to receive and co-ordinate […] reports, edit them, and prepare them for publication. When I receive a recommendation, I must write to the inn concerned – not disclosing the member’s name or what he has said – asking some standard questions about prices, specialities in the kitchen, and so on; thereafter, I must try and arrange for another active member living nearby to drop in unannounced and find out if the first member’s experience was only a happy accident or if the cooking and courtesy is still at a high standard. If possible, it is best to try and get two members to visit as “inspectors”, but that is not always feasible.’
Postgate always left his own small thumbmarks in every edition of the Guide, a word in Greek or a recondite joke. He edited the Guide for twenty years, before handing over to Christopher Driver* in 1971. Postgate died the same year. In the introduction to The Good Food Guide 1972 Christopher Driver wrote of him:
‘For those of us who work in this office, there are still tasks we cannot perform, correspondence files we cannot open, and restaurants we cannot visit, without seeing his burly figure in the mind’s eye, and hearing a bark of irritation or ribald amusement. […] Without him, our own lives – and post-war Britain generally – would have been infinitely duller.’
Raymond Postgate himself reserved his highest praise for the Guide’s readers; ‘this is your book. It could not exist if you ceased to communicate with us, advising, warning, and praising. We only interpret, verify, co-ordinate, and evaluate.’
*Editor of The Good Food Guide 1971 to 1982
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