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Breakfast with George

The curious story of Orwell’s recipe for marmalade is the focus of one of 70 free events at the UCL Festival of Culture next week

30 May, 2019 — By Jane Clinton

George Orwell

GEORGE Orwell once wrote how the “national addiction to sugar has not done the British palate any good.” It was a typically astute analysis from one of our greatest writers.

He made the proclamation in his 1946 essay “In Defence of English Cooking”, which was commissioned by the British Council. Along with a summary of British culinary tastes, Orwell included a series of recipes, including one for that once breakfast staple, marmalade. As current criticism of over the consumption of sugar rages, Orwell’s observation seems more relevant than ever.

The essay, as well as his recipe for the morning condiment, however, was rejected by the British Council.

Orwell’s description of the British diet as “simple, rather heavy, perhaps slightly barbarous” was not so palatable and the British Council decided it would be “unwise to publish it for the continental reader” when food was still a “painful subject”.

His recipe for marmalade was also criticised for having “too much sugar and water”.

The essay, written when food was still heavily rationed, did, however, see the light of day when a shorter version was later published in the Evening Standard.

This curious moment in post-war culinary debate will be the focus of “Orwell and British Food”, one of more than 70 free events at next week’s UCL Festival of Culture, which celebrates arts and social sciences.

The discussion of Orwell’s essay, will also take in his attitude to food and the connection between food and national identity.

It will feature Alasdair Donaldson, senior policy advisor at the British Council – who unearthed the rejection letter – and Kaori O’Connor, a food anthro­pologist based at UCL and author of The English Breakfast. Polly Russell, British Library food curator and FT columnist, will also join the discussion. Jean Seaton, director of the Orwell Foundation, will chair the event and supply marmalade made to the original – rejected – recipe.

The UCL Festival of Culture, now in its fourth year, features talks, debates, workshops, live performance, walking tours, film screenings and exhibitions held across UCL’s central London Bloomsbury Campus.

Another highlight of the festival is “Deeds Not Words: Helen Pankhurst in Conversation” (Tuesday June 4). Helen Pankhurst, great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst and granddaughter of Sylvia Pankhurst, leaders in the British suffragette move­ment, will join academics for a discussion on women’s lives.

More recent activism will be examined in “Women Against Pit Closures: Women and Feminism in the Miners’ Strike, 1984-5”, (Wednesday June 5). Dr Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite (UCL History), Dr Victoria Dawson (UCL History) and Dr Natalie Thomlinson (University of Reading) will share what they have found from collecting more than 100 oral histories from across the UK about what it was like being a woman and an activist during this movement.

On the subject of wellbeing there is the discussion – “A five-a-day for the arts? Why community arts matter for our mental health”, (Monday June 3). The MARCH mental health research network, led by UCL, is a national initiative aiming to transform our understanding of how arts and culture affect mental health. This talk will introduce some of the cutting-edge research and projects in this area.

UCL’s Festival of Culture director, Catherine Thomson, says: “UCL has a rich history of shaping modern ideas, and the Festival of Culture offers the public a chance to explore and engage with our world-leading research in the arts, humanities and social sciences.”

As for Orwell’s take on British food, it received a “pardon” this February, after the rejection letter was discovered.

The British Council issued the apology, more than 70 years after the event, admitting it may have been “po-faced and risk averse” at the time.

It added it was “delighted to make amends for its slight on perhaps the UK’s greatest political writer of the 20th century”.

• For more informa­tion and full details of all events at the UCL Festival of Culture, which runs from June 3-7, go to: www.ucl.ac.uk/festival-of-culture/
The festival is free but booking events in advance is advised

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