Obituary: Christopher Driver
Saturday 22 February 1997
He was born in 1932, the son of a doctor living in south India. His father eventually retired into the book trade, running a shop in the Dorset town of Shaftesbury which Christopher Driver continued to manage until its sale a couple of years ago. He was educated at the Dragon School, Oxford, at Rugby, where he was head boy, and at Christ Church, Oxford, where he read Greats. Classics, particularly Latin, were the ever-present bedrock (and occasional volcanic peak) of his complicated, but always logical, prose style. It now seems inevitable that one classical scholar, Raymond Postgate, should have ensured his succession at The Good Food Guide by another.
A conscientious objector, Driver undertook his National Service after Oxford in the Friends Ambulance Unit, an organisation that embraced both religious and intellectual nonconformity in a peculiarly British, albeit internationalist, style. A perfect niche, in fact, for Driver, who later acknowledged its role in his gastronomic education. Another pillar of British taste at that time, George Perry-Smith, of the Hole in the Wall restaurant in Bath (perhaps The Good Food Guide's favourite, if ever it could have been less than impartial), was also transmuted from Cambridge graduate to cook by the solvent of the FAU.
Driver joined the Liverpool Daily Post in 1958 to learn the craft of journalism, moving to the Manchester Guardian in 1960, where he remained, with intermissions, until his death. From 1964 to 1968 he was features editor, then, after his stint with The Good Food Guide, he returned to edit the first weekly page devoted to food and drink in any national newspaper, from 1984. Latterly, he shared responsibility for obituaries. Driver's cast of mind - clever, knowledgeable, sardonic and not a little dismissive of the sacred cows of the establishment - seemed perfectly attuned to that of the Guardian.
He had been informally involved in the bourgeois democracy of The Good Food Guide since it was sold in 1963 to the Consumers' Association by its founder Raymond Postgate, who continued as its editor. Begun by Postgate in response to some articles he had written in 1949 about the awfulness of British catering, it was harbinger of the whole process of British consumerism: the middle classes telling each other how to master the confidence tricksters of commerce and reporting their successes on thousands of little forms that were converted into a publishable annual.
Driver's appointment as successor to Postgate in 1970 was in fact unexpected, another having been groomed for the editor's chair, but he soon set about revitalising the guide, profiting from the acute guidance and information provided by its chief inspector, Aileen Hall.
The British catering trade has never liked criticism. In 1970, except for the GFG, there was none: merely slavish reports of freebies by impecunious journalists anxious to fill space, or very poor guides that took the trade at its own valuation. Even Postgate's guide tended to the gentle. Driver had none of it. Disregarding that aspect of restauration and hotel-keeping that has more to do with theatre and entertainment than good cooking, and is more concerned with profit and charges than value, he did away with scores of hitherto unblemished entries; excoriated many which remained with intelligent prose which exposed the soft belly of their cupidity and the vain pretensions of their customers; and included with gusto and near-apostolic zeal Indian, Chinese and other ethnic restaurants which had hitherto been thought beneath a linen-and-crystal gourmand's notice.
The effect was galvanic. In 1978, the fancy end of the business combined (for once) to launch letters to the Times, meetings with the Consumers' Association, and constant abuse from its lackeys in the trade press. With hindsight, Driver was right, and they were very wrong. Without his barbs, and they could be difficult to extract from a bleeding, bloated limb, the customer would have been less well served than he was.
He was less than happy with the populist turn that both the Consumers' Association and the guide were to adopt after his departure (which to the outsider seemed prompted by a certain decline in sales, mostly due to the Thatcher-Howe slump), but he was able to state his view of things with impressive clarity in The British at Table 1940- 1980 (1983), a history of our food habits that seems almost impossible to fault for its careful analysis and exquisite phrasing.
His love of food - and his enthusiasm at the sight of good food and wine was quite infectious - was balanced by a strong sense of faith: nonconformist, independent. This had to be one reason for his disliking the gratuitous display that seemed inextricable from haute cuisine. He was a board member of Christian Aid (1972-84). He wrote his first book in 1962, A Future for Free Churches; and revisited his non-violent past in The Disarmers (1964), about CND. In 1968 he took leave of absence to study universities in The Exploding University. Latterly, he wrote more about music (Music for Love, 1994) which impassioned him (two of his three daughters are professional musicians) and social history (Pepys at Table, with Michelle Berriedale- Johnson, 1984). His last book, published only the month before he died, was John Evelyn, Cook, which is his transcription of Evelyn the diarist's own recipe book, never before printed. He ended with a flurry of activity: a new volume of poems, Strokes, and an orchestration of Schubert.
Recent years had been dogged by a stroke that he suffered while walking in the Lake District in 1987, and the subsequent discovery of a brain tumour in 1993. This did not impair his faculties, though making his prose more convoluted than ever it had been. He continued to enjoy any signs of mordant wit, fine wine, friendship and food, while with the devoted care of his wife Margaret, who survives him, he managed concerts at Wigmore Hall until the last.
Christopher Prout Driver, writer and broadcaster: born 1 December 1932; Reporter, Guardian 1960-64, Features Editor 1964-68, Food and Drink Editor 1984-88, Personal Page Co-Editor 1988-94, consultant 1994-97; Editor, The Good Food Guide 1969-82; married 1958 Margaret Perfect (three daughters); died London 18 February 1997.
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