Is It Just A Cake?

There’s something amiss in the Bake Off tent, not quite rotten but still not quite right. It’s visible in the eyes of the contestants as they wait nervously for Mary and Paul to judge their baking. It’s in the wringing of hands, the stressful sighs and the general air of fear. It bubbled to the surface most overtly when, in episode one, one of the contestant’s Black Forest gateaux kind of just fell apart in an oozing, chocolately mess. Minutes from the deadline she began to cry and comedian Sue Perkins came to console her saying “it’s just a cake” to which she replied “it’s not just a cake.” If this is indeed the case and it is not just a cake then that begs the question what exactly is it?

As the Court of Denmark in the play Hamlet comes to act as a metaphor for the entire body politic of the country, symbolic perhaps also of Elizabethan England, then perhaps there are ways in which the Bake Off tent is a metaphor for our own society. From birth onwards we are relentlessly judged – our parents/guardians/carers tell us how and how not to behave, our teachers deem us worthy by giving us marks and grades, professors at university do the same except the marks tend to be lower, our bosses tell us if we’re good or not via the medium of money (if we’re lucky enough to have a paid job), mainstream advertising likes to remind us that we’re not good enough, newspapers like to scapegoat and blame whole groups of people and even our friends and loved ones will often be there to remind us what we could be doing better.

It is from this societal context of relentless comparison and competition that the twelve bakers arrive at the tent. Judging only what I’ve been shown in the first hour-long episode it seems like lots of them have something to prove – they want to prove they’re good at baking, really good. This could be a healthy, competitive attitude but when one contestant explained that her mum had told her not to bother coming home if she got kicked out in the first round one does start to wonder. Furthermore, as Paul Hollywood reminds us, the contestants, whilst great bakers, are at “the bottom of pack of great bakers”. It’s so hard to be the best especially when Hollywood and Mary Berry seem to have a monopoly on bestness anyway, it’s an ever elusive goal that we can be goaded into pursuing even though we’ll never attain it. It’s basically the mantra of our society – work harder, be better, work harder still and one day you might be happy (oh, and don’t complain whilst you’re at it, all that stiff upper lip and ‘keep calm and carry on’ sort of thing).

And then there are the facial expressions. The grimaces of fear and anxiety as Berry considers the flavour and Hollywood judges the sogginess of the bottom juxtaposed with the sighs of relief when the baked goods have been judged worthy. It seems like one major ingredient in the Bake Off tent is desperation as contestants try to fill the holes in their hearts with nods of approval from Mary Berry and a delicious assortment of baked goods. The idea that these people may already be more than enough just as they are and don’t need to prove anything to anyone seems an alien concept when it all comes down to being the best.

At the end of the episode one of the contestants (the one whose cake collapsed) admits that she feels like she’s “been initiated into truly what Bake Off means”. What, then, is that? Is it to strive constantly to impress others hoping that their admiration will yield a sense of worthiness? Is it to chastise oneself for every soggy bottom and forget to celebrate every other solid bottom? Is it to whip guilt and despair with a tantalising sprinkle of unattainable hope all served on a dish of insecurity? If so it sure makes for compelling viewing!

Great British Bake Off
Judging you worthy: Bake Off judges Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry

Quentin Letts And The Right To Bigotry

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” said Evelyn Beatrice Hall, an English writer of the 19th and 20th centuries. It’s a nice summary of the principle of freedom of speech – i.e. we’re all free to say what we like and anything that curbs that freedom is a form of censorship and an abuse of our rights.

Well, I disapprove of what Quentin Letts had to say about the latest series of The Great British Bake Off, and whilst I’m probably not going to risk my life so he can repeat it I do wish to explain exactly why I disapprove in the hope that he’ll be less likely to say it again. To clarify, I am most certainly not advocating censorship, far from it, I think it better that the views of Letts are aired precisely so we can challenge them and in doing so maybe even inspire him to be a little less of a bigot.

He begins by describing the different contestants that have been chosen for the sixth series of Bake Off. He notes that one of them is Muslim and wears a headscarf, one is a house husband, another is a female vegan bodybuilder from Lithuania, one of the men has tattoos and wears a hat, one of them is Afro-Caribbean, there’s one on a gap year, at least one of the contestants lives in the north of England, there’s a British-Asian male and another man originally from the Philippines.

This might sound like an exciting and interesting group of people who we can look forward to getting to know as the series progresses but not for Letts. What he takes umbrage with is the very diversity that the contestants represent. He considers this part of a grand political conspiracy as perpetrated by the BBC, in his own (far too easily parodied) words: “a leaning to modernity, to fashion, to ‘the alternative’, the ‘different’, sometimes for reasons of group-think, sometimes out of a desire to jack up the ratings in the manner of a commercial TV station. It is in keeping with the creed of egalitarianism. It is deeply unconservative.” No doubt it’s political correctness gone mad, something he writes about in his book Bog Standard Britain as crushing “the individualism from our nation of once indignant eccentrics.”

Of course, Letts’ version of individualism (and conservatism) is of a particular hue: namely white. He makes it pretty clear that in his world it’s not Muslims or Lithuanians that bake but homosexual men or older, white, middle-aged women (“mum-next-doorish” types as he describes). As a white, middle class male Letts has the privilege of being one of the most represented groups in mainstream culture (and history in general), so it’s no surprise that he gets a bit uppity when suddenly there are fewer people like him appearing on his favourite television shows. He wants to see more “humdrum, plain-as-white-flour, Middle-English bumblers” (nice to see him appealing to the casual bigotry of equally insecure Middle-Englanders, that infamous squeezed middle beset upon by socialist loons, crafty immigrants and vicious feminists). His privilege is being undermined and whilst this is a good thing because it represents power being more equally distributed and an increase in equality all Letts wants to do is get angry. He expresses his anger (and deep set insecurity) by cracking racist, sexist, homophobic and Islamophobic jokes in his article, no doubt scoffing into his favourite suitably middle class and white supremacist breakfast cereal as he does so. For all his life Letts will have found positive discrimination working in his favour but because it’s so ingrained and commonplace he never will have questioned it, let alone give it a second thought. But now’s it not working in his favour he’s going to kick up a fuss.

“I just wish I didn’t feel, as I looked at the contestants yesterday, that I was being preached at – that the BBC’s social engineers were up to their transparently political tricks again.” Some unintentional comedy gold from Letts here who has just spent a whole article preaching bigotry and narrow-mindedness at us. He accuses the Beeb of having a political agenda whilst clearly forgetting that white, heteronormative, androcentric patriarchy fired at us on a daily basis is itself just drenched in politics. But it doesn’t suit Letts to acknowledge this so instead he’ll deride the “sinister” politics of the BBC, one that favours equality, diversity and representation – you know, those really sinister values. He’s scared these values depart so far from the mainstream “that they often fail to represent adequately that very mainstream” – but Letts doesn’t really care about these people, his article has shown such a lack of compassion that it’s hard to think he cares about anyone, no, he cares about himself and wants more men just like him on TV (he wont’ be happy until Mary Berry’s been replaced by Jeremy Clarkson and Sue Perkins has been ousted for someone overtly heterosexual, such as Katie Hopkins).

So no I don’t approve of what Letts has to say and whilst I won’t risk my life in defence of him saying it I still won’t call for its censorship. His argument is as floppy as a failed souffle and has the soggiest of soggy bottoms. Whilst the BBC’s sinister world of equality and diversity is just brimming with creamy Victoria sponges and rolling Swiss Rolls. He’ll figure it out one day – that a more equal and fair society works out better for everyone, even people like him, but in the meantime we’ll just have to tolerate the bitter aftertaste of his bigotry.

Quentin Letts with spaghetti (interestingly not a baked good)
Quentin Letts with spaghetti (interestingly not a baked good)