Sunday, February 11, 2007


Difficult To Swallow

Something in yesterday’s Guardian shocked me. That’s unusual, but I have to admit mainly because my regular Saturday Guardian does nothing most weeks but add to the piles of papers edging us out of the flat; I tend to read Charlie Brooker, and leave the rest. Yesterday, however, with no Mr Brooker there to read, I turned to the rest and found that a restaurant has successfully sued a food critic for a bad review. Paul Walter has given an excellent round-up of the story, but I should declare an interest before covering it myself: writing rude reviews is fun. I’d rather watch or eat something I enjoy and point other people towards why I enjoyed it, but warning people against a bad experience is just as important – while the best way of repaying a bad experience is to create a good one of your own in finding creative ways to express your disdain.

I like writing reviews. I like giving praise, too, and I’ll often choose subjects I’m fond of in order to encourage more people to look at them, and because that’s more of a challenge. It’s much more difficult to write something interesting if you’re being nice, so being nasty can be a break; it’s fun to let it out, and I admit it’s much easier to write a memorable review that way. Now, I generally try to steer a course between the earnestness of talking something up and the joy of putting it down, but sometimes it’s just satisfying to put the boot into something that genuinely deserves it. Not unfairly, you understand, but why be blandly reserved when you can write something that’ll make people smile, perhaps going a little over the top for comic effect? I don’t want to worry that – to take a completely random example – I couldn’t write about Primeval for fear that ITV might sue. Consumers have little enough power, and they should jealously guard their right to their own opinions.

There are plenty of reasons for reviewers to get into trouble. If you write a review of something you’ve not actually seen, read or tasted, or if you’ve been paid or treated to give a good review for your benefactor or a bad one for their competitor, you deserve a good hiding (well, all right, the days of your face reddening between your whiskers and striding off from your club to horsewhip the offending copywriter have gone, but it’s certainly a bad show). Like it should for anyone else, the law should frown on you if you incite hatred likely to inflame violence, or tell provable malicious untruths. But that’s as far as libel should go. Freedom of speech should work so that exceptions are unusual and specific against actual harm, and never just for ‘being a bit mean’, for poetic license, or even for your business suffering if people decide against you on a matter of taste. With the price of eating out today, a review is a service and almost a necessity. If a critic can’t exercise their own taste, what’s the point of writing? Who would read an opinion that they know is entirely under the veto of the ‘producer’? Is this to be extended to word of mouth, if you tell your friends you didn’t think much of a meal / book / programme / political party? And surely it’s not just me who finds the idea of restaurants imposing ‘gagging’ orders strangely unappetising?

I’ve only written one restaurant review for this blog – if anyone would like to take Richard and I to dinner, though, as long as you’re not a restaurateur with an interest I’ll give you a namecheck and we’ll eat heartily, purely in a spirit of investigation you understand – and what I said about EleganZe in Stockport was largely favourable. Despite that, the first article I remember writing that brought widespread congratulations was nearly ten years ago, and it was a restaurant review.

Liberal Democrat Conference came to Eastbourne in 1997, and back then I was part of a team writing the Gazette, a distinctly independent-minded free Conference magazine given out every day. You’ll not be surprised to know that I was writing the daily political analysis of motions for debate, which generally won praise from people of similar views and scorn from internal opponents. However, the Gazette team (including at least two of us who are now Lib Dem bloggers) went for dinner early in the week, and it was dreadful. The food was poor, the service was poor, and after we complained the manager followed us onto the pavement to harangue us. I won’t name the place after all this time – it’s probably changed – but I excoriated it in a review in the next issue. It’s the only thing I’ve written for a Lib Dem publication where people constantly stopped me to tell me how much they agreed with it. I remember one fellow member of the FPC at the time and peer who’d never knowingly agreed with me taking me to one side to express their delight. People were simply sick of restaurants profiting from the Conference trade that knew people wouldn’t be around long enough for a bad reputation to spread, and they all felt this was a long-delayed blow for the customer. What I wrote was fair enough – I reported the one dish that was popular – but damning. Two nights later we went back to the same street for another meal, and only one restaurant in a street full of them wasn’t open. I like to think that Liberal Democrats had voted with their feet in the intervening days and they’d given up that night.

If anyone still has a copy of that Gazette (and a more efficient filing system than my tottering stacks), let me know and I’ll reprint it in solidarity with Caroline Workman, albeit with the restaurant name removed to protect the possibly-by-now innocent. Best of luck to her and the Irish News with their appeal.

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64 seconds from computer to filing system and back to computer clutching copy of your review.

A copy is in the post.
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