|Review 1 Roy Hater Author and Hotelier former Reasearch Specialist for the Institute of Hospitality England
From Roy Hater on The Life and Times of Arthur Edwin Simms
It is impossible not to admire the effort that Michael Flagg has put into this biography of his one-time mentor, and latterly friend, Arthur Simms (born September 11, 1915, died August 13, 2003). Simms achieved some prominence in the world of catering education, and being fortunate to coincide with times when funding for further education was quite generous, also impacted on the world of fine dining and gastronomy. There are photographs and descriptions of Simms welcoming the Duke of Edinburgh to Highbury College (where Arthur had been instrumental in creating the catering department, in 1951, and ran until his retirement in 1977, 26 years later), and menus from banquets and all sorts of social events.
For former students of Highbury, this book will have a lot of nostalgia, but as the author is quick to warn, this is not a light read. The wider, and potentially great value, is to anyone researching the developments of catering education (which, of course, has transmuted into ‘hospitality’, despite Michael Winner loathing the term, and declaring it inappropriate in countless reviews for ‘The Sunday Times’). Flagg is indefatigable in his research: a subject, place or event is mentioned, and you get exhaustive background.
The book turns in at over 470 pages, similar in size and weight to the telephone directory of a substantial city, and in number of words probably not far off. The type size is larger, of course, and there are many illustrations (of variable quality), and otherwise very little ‘white space’. The author may well have typed the manuscript himself, for it does not have a typographer’s touch, the proof reading has been careful, but the layout tends to be dense. Flagg has not only spent several years researching and compiling this monumental book, but had it published at his expense by Author House in the USA, where it was printed. The shipping costs alone must have been substantial.
Besides those who knew and respected Arthur Simms, who should buy it? The librarians of all universities and FE colleges which offer hospitality programmes, the industry’s (too many) trade and professional bodies, and research students requiring background on the industry’s development. The references alone – and Flagg is diligent in providing these, as well as assiduously acknowledging copyright permissions – would justify the cost.
The dense array of names and facts, frequently interrupted by the caption to a photograph or reproduced menu, is lightened when the author relaxes a little and shows the human side – of Arthur Simms, as one might expect, and of other subjects:
Recounting the opening in 1910 of the UK’s first cookery school (for the trade – domestic cookery courses had been running for two decades or more), Westminster Technical Institute (at which Simms was, two decades later, to take the three year Diploma in Professional Cookery), Flagg writes:
Not surprisingly the cookery course was staffed entirely by French chefs who by tradition since the nineteenth century, had been paid to educate youngsters, [who] could speak little English. Consequently there was a requirement for all cooks in the kitchen to be able to speak and write in French…. By the outbreak of the First World War there were 50 boys but the college had to be closed, as the cookery teachers were all on reserve and had to go back to France where tragically they were all killed during that war.
Recounting Simms appointment to the Army School of Cookery in Aldershot in 1939, Flagg uses the transcript from his interviews (six, over the final 18 months of his subject’s life). Simms was on his way to work, by motorbike, at the start of his third week, when he lost control coming off the slipway of the A20 at Kingston:
“Crossing at the bottom of the road was a milk float with a horse. I tried to stop and pressed the lever the wrong way and accelerated. I then put the brakes on and went flying into the air. However, the motorbike continued on through the legs of the horse. Fortunately it was not seriously hurt and the milkman was more concerned about it than me.”
He was taken to Guildford Hospital by ambulance (which happened to be passing), but the injuries were not serious. A policeman was waiting to interview him, and Simms was accused of dangerous driving. When he responded that he would be happy never to see the bike again (for which he was paying £1 per week), the bobby offered him £25, and that was that (at least police corruption was on a more modest scale in that era!). Simms had then to get home, his season ticket took him back to Waterloo, from where he had decided to get a taxi back to his home in Brixton:
“I was concerned on the train that people were looking at me as a tramp in a tattered suit also that the cab driver at Waterloo would think the same. I said, to the cab driver, I do need you to be a bit tolerant since I have been in an accident, have no money and have got to get home to Brixton. However, I can only pay you the money when we arrive at the house. He said ‘OK I’ll take you on trust but don’t think that you can get away with it if you don’t pay up!’ On arrival I rang the doorbell for Muriel [housekeeper and close friend to Simm’s father] asking if she could lend me half a crown. She managed to find just this which left the driver displeased as there was no tip. I later phoned the instructor at Aldershot telling him that as a result of this accident I would be away for a couple of days. He replied ‘Well if you are not here in a week we shall have to cancel your appointment! This was my first job in the kitchen at Aldershot as a sauce cook. I was consequently limping around as I could not afford to lose it.”
Simms had a lonely ending to his life. His was deeply affected by the death of his wife, Bridie. They met in the summer of 1935, after his return from getting work experience in France, and with the help of another former student of Westminster, got a job in the kitchens of the Valley of Rocks Hotel in Lynton: Bridie was housekeeper at the time. They married a year later, and Simms was given the day off work.
After Bridie’s death, Simms became very depressed and reluctant to leave the flat in which they had enjoyed more time together than his previous work had allowed. He then moved to a rest home in Southsea (sadly many of his papers were destroyed, making Flagg’s toils considerably harder), where he did enjoy regular visits from his son, John (Patrick, the younger son, died in tragic, and never fully explained circumstances, in Kashmir, after setting out to film the sunrise, aged just 27), and good friends, the Williamsons (former students and now lecturers at Highbury College). In his small room at the rest home, he was (exceptionally) allowed to smoke his pipe, provided the window was open:
His days consisted of not a lot, other than going down in the lift to breakfast, talking to the old ladies, coming back and waiting for the coffee trolley to come round, reading the paper, going down to lunch and back, then the tea trolley and finally down to dinner and back.
Now to the value of this huge work to researchers. Some facts would require substantiating – Flagg does not claim to be authoritative in these, to him, asides – and some rather brisk conclusions might be challenged. As an example of the former, BTEC is wrongly described (a common error, admittedly) as the Business and Technology Education Council (it should be ‘Technician’ – Flagg gets this correct, which many do not, for this body’s part-predecessor, the Technician Education Council), and states that BTEC was formed in 1984 (this should be January 1983, and it took over the roles of TEC and the Business Education Council on October 1st of that year).
In Flagg’s account of the formation of the Industrial Training Boards, the levy system (which began at one percent of payroll, with exemption on a sliding scale for those employers who had implemented approved training schemes for their employees), and the appointment of the Hotel and Catering Industry Training Board’s first tranche of training advisors, he writes:
This initiative had some early success although eventually any effectiveness petered out altogether as a result of the gradual decrease in the training costs which could be claimed back through the imposed levy on payroll. Sadly, however, it was in the longer term deemed to have been a failure.
Although the HCITB went through a succession of name changes (and there is no reason for Flagg to bother with these), it did continue to exist when many of the ITBs had been abandoned, and survived through the loss of levy-raising powers, its transition to a National Training Organisation and to a Sector Skills Council, People 1st, and as recently as March 2012, was reported in The Guardian (and possibly other titles) for its work in promotion training for ethnic restaurants (in the light of the problems they are encountering due to the government’s clamp down on immigration, having previously relied on recruiting the skills they need from their home countries).
A final grouch, the index, whilst apparently comprehensive, is not user-friendly (it would be good for the main entries of a particular subject to be in bold, for example), and some of the page references under Highbury Technical College (arguably a centre piece to the book, given Simms long years there as head of department) take you to references for John Fuller and the Scottish Hotel School. Both have their own extensive references, but there is also an entry for ‘Ross Hall School’, with just one page reference. Ross Hall (of which this reviewer is a former student) was used inter-changeably with the Scottish Hotel School, getting this name from the premises in Crookston, Glasgow, it first occupied.
John Fuller is accorded extensive treatment by Flagg, who spent several days pouring over the Fuller Collection at Oxford Brookes University. The connection with Simms is coincidental, rather than personal. They both had formative years in catering for the services. Arthur with the Army Catering Corps and John Fuller with Royal Air Force Catering. Both headed important departments, both carried out consultancy work for developing countries including Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), India (for Simms) and Pakistan (for Fuller), both wrote books (although Fuller was more prolific), and both were influential in the development and work of gastronomic societies, and the appreciation of food and wine.
Other topics of interest to researchers include the early developments of catering education; the role of City and Guilds (Simms served as chairman of its committee for the conduct of practical examinations in 1962); the formation and early work of the Hotel and Catering Institute (which is now the Institute of Hospitality, but has fewer members, sadly, than the period Flagg reports: 1955, when it reached 7,558).
There is good material on the developments of the country’s first cookery school, Westminster; the transition of diplomas to degrees at the Scottish Hotel School (when, under John Fuller, it became part of the University of Strathclyde – a decision that is felt by many to be equivalent to signing the death warrant, for indeed the hospitality department was closed a few years ago, and most of the staff made redundant), as well as at the University of Surrey. Likewise Grand hotels (including that in Broadstairs, where Simms spent his first industrial placement while studying at Westminster); J Lyons corner houses and tea rooms (an amusing anecdote is given of an attempt to get a free meal, after planting rat tails in a dish, and claiming poor hygiene standards). There is a meeting with Auguste Escoffier, when Simms was working in Paris, and reference to Alexis Soyer (whom Simms rated as the cleverest of the two); the Trocadero restaurant (including a reproduction of the menu for the dinner given on January 16th 1896, for Cecil John Rhodes – another Zimbabwe connection); army catering training at Aldershot; the Gargoyle Club (which by night was a “cosmopolitan gathering of social, sexual and intellectual challenge”); food rationing in Britain in 1940; Brighton Technical College (Simms was appointed the first Head Chef Instructor there in 1946); recollections of former students of the early years of the department of catering and hotel keeping at Highbury College Portsmouth; the Promotion of International Gastronomy Society (PIGS); hotel and catering education in India (Simms was principal of the Pusa Institute New Delhi between 1964 and 1966); the Association Culinaire Francaise and Le Conseil Culinaire Francaise de Grande-Bretagne (prestigious groups to which Simms belonged); and the Chandris Shipping Line (Simms was consultant to the company in the mid-70s).
The first chapter of the book, by Geoff Felix, describes the years Simms spent helping his father (known as “Quisto”) with Punch and Judy shows at Buckingham Palace, Balmoral and Sandringham.
With that royal fanfare, I urge you to find out more about this work by Michael Flagg on: www.arthursimmspioneer.com also on http://frompunch.yolasite.com
Roy Hayter lives in Llanidloes, mid-Wales, where he has run Lloyds Hotel & Restaurant for some 20 years with his partner, Tom Lines. During Roy’s time at the Hospitality Training Foundation (previously the Hotel and Catering Training Company), he wrote several books, which were jointly published by Macmillan Education (including titles on cookery, food service, housekeeping, health and safety and bar service), was editor for the Mastercraft series of 11 books and 18 videos for NVQ trainees. He also wrote ‘A Directory of Catering Education and Training’ (HCITB, 1985), ‘Careers & Training in Hotels, Catering & Tourism’ (Butterworth-Heinemann, 1993) and ‘A Career in Catering’ (Pergammon, 1980). The last mentioned was written while Roy worked in the education and information departments of the Hotel, Catering & Institutional Management Association and met Michael Flagg.