Ernest Shepard illustration, John Smart on John Squire, Cheddar Gorge, SF Issue 71

Dreaming of Cheese

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When I was writing a biography of John Hayward, T. S. Eliot’s flat-sharer and friend for many years, I was intrigued to come across a letter from Eliot to The Times. It was a reply to a certain Sir John Squire who wanted to erect a statue to the creator of Stilton cheese. Who was Squire and why was this distinguished man of letters bothered about cheese? It was time to look at Squire’s original letter in the British Library.

The story really began with another letter to The Times. In 1935 M. Theodore Rousseau, a Frenchman visiting London, complained that he could not get Stilton at any London restaurant. He bemoaned the lack of interest the English took in their native cheese. If France had invented something as delicious, he wrote, he was sure that a statue would have been erected – as had been the case with Madame Harel, the creator of Camembert. A brisk correspondence followed. Some writers had managed to find Stilton; others were told it was out of season or faced blank incomprehension. One correspondent noted that so-called Cheshire cheese was an outrage to those who knew the real thing and that even good restaurants only offered diners a choice between ‘pink’ and ‘yellow’ cheese.

As a habitual letter-writer to The Times, Sir John Squire, poet, editor of the monthly London Mercury and man-about-town, pounced on the complaint. He extolled the merits of British cheese and asked: ‘What is killing the native cheese industry?’ Perhaps, he suggested, it was the snobbery attached to anything foreign-sounding – just as the ballerina Miss Jones had to become Miss Joneova and Mr Robinson the tenor became Signor Robinelli. Perhaps it was the lack of legal protection given to British brand names. At any rate, his request in London restaurants for Cheshire cheese had produced either no cheese at all or merely a soapy substance imported under the trade designation of ‘Cheshire’, which was a libel on tha

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About the contributor

John Smart lives in an old pub in Norfolk. He has written on John Hayward and T. S. Eliot, and on Modernism and twentieth-century drama, and is currently writing a life of Sir John Squire.

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