Down Memory Lane with Sarah Jane Evans

‘I joined the Guild fairly soon after it started. (I wasn‘t at the launch – though I remember hearing rumours that there weren’t enough canapés, a very food-writer critique.) At that time it was definitely a guild of food WRITERS. It was peopled with my food heroes, the people who wrote the books that were on my shelves, and who wrote about food in magazines and newspapers. Those were the days when features had space and could be so much more than just an intro and recipe/s. So it was terrific to be able to go to meetings and talk about our favourite topic – food in all its diversity – and build friendships. We had all come to this apparently “new thing” called food writing from different directions.

‘As a small group at the beginning you could meet and learn from experts in different areas. That was a remarkable time. Gradually, as the GFW got bigger, we began to diversify, to go in different specialities – health, history, traditional foods, regional and cultural differences, politics, children, campaigning…. And further on still to recognise our skills beyond writing for print: stylists, nutritionists, ghost writers, teachers. The Guild Directory gave a tangible sense of our growing strength in numbers. I loved the impressive weight of its later editions. Our website is wonderfully sleek, but in this aspect it fails, you just can’t feel the weight of the authority of numbers. What it does give us is easy access to the member pay survey. It’s such an important tool when so many of us are freelances.

‘Events, and the education they gave, have been such an important part of the GFW since the beginning. They were a chance to learn techniques, to discover new foods, to listen to the experts. For some reason, a “How to make risotto” session with Antonio Carluccio sticks in my memory. In the early days, in more innocent times, there was less pressure to please a client or sponsor. I have been following the correspondence about the early Guild trips to New York and Spain. I’m sorry to say I missed these, because I was already working full time for BBC Good Food. It looks like the real bonus was that these were designed (and paid for) by the members, that’s to say there was no requirement to promise to deliver a feature at the end of it to a given sponsor. In the “outside world” brands require commitment to features. I hope that the Guild will always be able to continue to find ways to ensure that all members can attend activities. Without sponsorship organisations cannot fulfil their aims, but it’s a tightrope.

‘Rosemary Stark encouraged me to stand for election to the Committee. An unexpected outcome of joining the Guild was the experience it gave me of working in organisations – as a committee member, Chair, President of the Guild. And then subsequently, after I became a Master of Wine, as Council member and Chair of the Institute of Masters of Wine. I’m not a committee person by nature, though; I need to be really committed to the organisation. And the Guild guaranteed deliciousness and fun.

‘Still, being Chair has its moments. I have a stressful memory of a Guild Lecture/Dinner when the speaker said they would not come down from their room to give the lecture to the already assembled audience. As Chair I was always nervous of the AGM. I could guarantee that Hugo Dunn-Meynell had read the accounts of the minutes more carefully than I had and would be ready with a pertinent question. As there would have been no Guild without Hugo, he took care of the infant organisation.

‘Then there was the time Charles Campion suggested the Guild should have a website on the new-fangled internet, and I demurred, on the grounds that it would be far too expensive and complicated. (How wrong I was!) And then once it was up and running we had the Guild sparklist, another newfangled communication device where we could all talk to each other. That was the real step ahead. It reinforced the Guild as a national, even international organisation.

‘At the beginning it had its teething problems. A few members were very outspoken and given to using CAPITAL letters and !!!! to make a point (no emojis in those days). Some of the wording overstepped the mark, especially amongst a community of writers who chose their words carefully and were feeling their way towards electronic communication. One of the early topics that caused grief was accusations of plagiarism. Who created the first meringue? The first lasagne? Can you copyright a recipe? And how can you find a fair way to acknowledge your sources? Plenty of time was spent on this, on principles of good writing, and on conduct. The key for the GFW as it grows is that should retain a memory of this so that there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. The Guild’s new-ish Facebook page is great. I have felt that its guardians are just a tad too directional in their guidance. But looking back on it, the sparklist went off like a cracker, and with no editorial guardians some members felt burnt. (And PS if you are not on Facebook, have a re-think. Make sure you manage your security settings, and then you’ll find you get the Guild talking to each other but with full technicolor pictures.)

‘Another issue that preoccupied the Guild during my time as Chair and President was whether it should be involved with the food issues of the day: sugar, food hygiene, BSE, children’s education, school meals, sustainability, animal husbandry... I was always of the opinion that the Guild should be involved with the totality of the food world, on the basis of the evidence. I learnt so much from Colin Spencer and Derek Cooper in the early days. The late, sadly missed Miriam Polunin would surely have spoken up for our engagement.

‘Ultimately that interpretation of our role faded. The larger the Guild gets, the more conflicting interests are involved. But these things are cyclical. Members have recently been encouraged to contribute their views to Henry Dimbleby’s survey, which is encouraging.

‘I must end with a final note to thank two essential people to the Guild, our original administrator Christina Thomas and her successor Jonathan Woods. We wouldn’t be where we are without them.’