My Animal Life

Although she has had her fair share of terrors and humiliations, the novelist Maggie Gee has no single searing trauma to recount, nor triumph over tragedy to share. If the modern memoir crudely divides between the sensationalist survival manual or the finely turned writer's life, Gee has (not surprisingly) written a book more of the second kind, albeit in a rather original frame.

The story begins with a recent visit to hospital to explore unexplained stomach pains, only to discover it is not cancer, but probably an infection. The "greatcoat of terror" shrugged off, Gee takes the chance to look at "this astonishing living moment . . . between two states of non-being, two endless nights. Unprepared, we are thrust on stage . . . Life!"

It is a tall and potentially eccentric order to connect her highly specific existence, as a London-based writer in the 21st century, to the "blind out-of-season bee bombing the glass of this window . . . to the brown small-headed pheasant running by the lake". She pulls it off, largely by confining the animal-life motif to a brilliant but light daubing on the more conventional canvas of memoir.

In many ways, this is a quintessentially English story, the stuff of popular culture from Alan Bennett's The History Boys to Lynn Barber's
An Education. Gee's working-class parents had already moved up the social ladder. Her father was a headmaster, a man of rages and proud ambition, of whom she was nervous. Her adored mother briefly fled her husband's domination, the return home brokered by Gee, as a young adult, on conditions of greater independence. Clever and bookish, Gee won an open scholarship to Somerville College, and thereafter experienced a kind of class-based seasickness.

Gee can come across as rather dreamy in print, but her life speaks of someone more daring, and worldly. She was the victim of an attempted rape as a teenager. Two other assaults are mentioned almost in passing. None of these, she insists, has affected her consensual sexual life, which she celebrates with a refreshing candour.

But Gee's toughness emerges most clearly in her account of the "worst five years of my professional life", during which she could not get a book published. Given the modern taboo against failure, this chapter cannot have been an easy one to write. What was particularly wounding was that the wave of rejections came not at the beginning of her career, when disappointment can be de rigueur for the future great writer, but with her sixth book, years after she had been included in Granta's first Best of Young British Novelists list.

There is an agonising account of her stilted and viscerally uncomfortable relationship with a powerful agent who terminates their relationship by fax when she suggests approaching a small firm with her manuscript. Gee was threatened with extinction as a writer. In fact, the independent publisher turns out to be the place where she can be her true writerly self, another animal comfort.

This is unequivocally a female life, in the questions it raises about men's and women's natures, in its awareness of the need to balance the elements essential to all human beings: chiefly, work and love. As in her novels, Gee is not afraid to explore the depth and power of human love. The passages about her family and friends are all the more compelling for admitting ambivalence and imperfection at every turn, and there is a moving description of her mother's last days.

With no religious belief, Gee wonders if she will one day meet those who have died, including babies lost through miscarriages. She sees their possible existence beyond this world, after visiting an exhibition of Turner's Italian paintings at an Edinburgh gallery, as being like the artist's "distant islands of sharpness . . . more compelling than his foregrounds".

The risk is that happiness writes white; that we, the readers, say: "Yes, but what's the real story?" Or that those of us less fortunate might find her smug. Our problem entirely. It is a testament to Gee's skill with structure, her lightness of touch and her honesty, particularly about the most painful episodes, that she has fashioned this account of a fundamentally satisfying and happy writer's life into such a page-turner.

Melissa Benn's most recent novel, "One of Us", is now available in Vintage paperback (£7.99)

My Animal Life
Maggie Gee
Telegram Books, 224pp, £16.99

Melissa Benn writes for the Guardian and other publications on social issues, particularly education. She is the author of several books of non-fiction and two novels, including One of Us (2008), and reviews books for the New Statesman

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Cake or Death: why The Great British Bake Off is the best thing on television

Those who are complaining that the show has “caved in to political correctness” have missed the point.

The Cake is a Lie. That’s what viewers of the Great British Bake Off, now in its fifth season, are complaining about in the run-up to this week’s final. Out of thousands of amateur bakers who applied, three have made it through the gruelling rounds of Mary Berry’s disapproving pucker and faced down blue-eyed Cake Fascist Paul Hollywood’s demands without a single underbaked layer or soggy bottom in sight - and two of them aren’t white. The subsequent crypto-racist whining from PC-gone-madattrons in the press - one paper suggested that perhaps poor Flora, who was sent home last week, should have baked a "chocolate mosque" - runs against the whole spirit of Bake Off.

The charge is that the competition is not merit-based, and the entire basis for this complaint seems to be that two out of the finalists are of Asian origin - which makes total sense, because everyone knows that white people are better than everyone else at everything, including baking, so obviously it’s political correctness gone mad. The fact that last week Nadiya Hussain, a homemaker from Luton who happens to wear a hijab, baked an entire fucking peacock out of chocolate biscuits had nothing to do with it.

For those of you who mysteriously have better things to do with your time than watch 12 British people prat about in a tent, let me tell you why all of this matters. The best way to explain what's so great about The Great British Bake Off is to compare it to how they do these things across the pond. In America, they have a show called Cupcake Wars, which I gamely tuned into last year whilst living abroad and missing my fix of Sue Perkins getting overexcited about Tart Week. 

Big mistake. Cupcake Wars is nothing at all like Bake Off. Cupcake Wars is a post-Fordian nightmare of overproduction and backstabbing filmed under pounding lights to a sugary version of the Jaws soundtrack. Contestants mutter and scheme over giant vats of violent orange frosting about how they're going to destroy the competition, and they all need the prize money because without it their small cupcake businesses might fold and their children will probably be fed to Donald Trump. Every week a different celebrity guest picks one winner to produce a thousand cupcakes - a thousand cupcakes! - for some fancy party or other, and it’s all just excessive and cutthroat and cruel. Cupcake Wars is Cake Or Death.

Bake Off is quite different. Bake Off is not about the money, or even really about the winning. Bake Off is a magical world of bunting and scones and dapper lesbian comedians making ridiculous puns about buns and gentle, worried people getting in a flap about pastry. There are very few hysterics. Legend has it that if anybody has a real breakdown in the middle of a signature bake, presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins stand next to them repeating brand names and swear-words so the cameramen can’t use the footage, and don’t you dare disabuse me of that fact, because I want it to be true. The prize money, in a desperately British way, is almost never mentioned, nobody tries to sabotage anyone else’s puff pastry, and at the end whoever has to leave gives a brave little interview about how it’s a shame but they tried their best and they were just happy to be there and they’re definitely going to do some more baking almost as soon as they get home. 

Bake Off is the theatre of the humdrum, where fussy, nervous people get to be heroes, making macarons as the seas rise and the planet boils and the leaders of the world don't care that they've left the oven on. I’m always a little bit frightened by people who can bake, because I can’t even make a muffin out of a packet, although one danger of watching too much Bake Off is that you become convinced you ought to give it another try, and I apologise to my housemates for making them eat my savoury vegan chilli-chocolate cookies (don’t ask). They say that if you can bake a cake, you can make a bomb, and by that logic I should definitely be kept away from the explosives when the zombie revolution comes- but the Bake Off contestants are probably the sort of people who will be Britain’s last line of defence, quietly constructing landmines and apologising that the stitching on the flag of insurrection isn’t quite perfect. People with this specific and terrifying personality type are that are precisely the reason Britain once had an empire, as well as the reason we’re now rather embarrassed about it. 

For now, though, Bake Off is a gentle human drama about all the best bits of Britishness- and diversity is part of that. In fact, this isn’t even the first time that two out of three finalists have not been white - that was two years ago. But something seems to have changed in British society at large, such that the same scenario is now more enraging to the kind of people who get their jollies from spoiling everything lovely and gentle in this world with casual bigotry - they know who they are, and may their Victoria sponges never rise and all their flatbreads turn out disappointingly chewy.

Britain is getting harder and meaner, and even Bake Off is not immune. In the first season, it was more than enough to bake a half decent brioche. This season an affable fireman got sent home because the grass on his miniature edible Victorian tennis court was not the right shade of green, and I’m not even joking. In one of the challenges the bakers had to produce an arcane french dessert that looked like the turds of a robot angel, and most of them actually managed it. The music is getting more dramatic, the close-up shots of flaky chocolate pastry and oozing pie-lids more reminiscent of 1970s pornography. It’s all a bit much.

The human drama, though, is as perfectly baked as ever. Lovely Flora, the baby of the bunch who missed out on a spot in the final because her chocolate carousel centrepiece was slightly wonky, was actually one of my favourites because she's so deliciously millennial, with her pussy-bow collars and obsessive, Type-A attention to detail. Paul the Prison Officer was a delight, mainly because he looked so much like Paul Hollywood- cue six weeks of two enormous men called Paul having bro-offs over bread, nodding and trading gruff, dudely handshakes over the specific crunchiness of biscotti. One week, Prison Officer Paul produced a giant dough sculpture of a lion's head and Judge Paul gave him a special prize and then they probably went off into a gingerbread sweat lodge together and it was the manliest moment ever in Bake Off history.

This is what Bake Off is about, and that’s why the people who are complaining that something other than merit might have been involved in selecting the finalists have missed the point entirely. The point of Bake Off is not to determine the best amateur baker in the land. That's just the excuse for Bake Off. Even the gentlest TV show needs a vague narrative structure, and otherwise there'd be no tension when someone's blancmange collapses in a heap of eggy foam and broken dreams. But in the end, when all's said and done, it's just cake. If your ornamental biscuit windmill has a soggy bottom, well, nobody died, and you can probably still eat the pieces on your way home to have a cup of tea and a little cry. 

That's the point of Bake Off. None of it really matters, and yet it consistently made me smile during a long, weary summer of geopolitical doomwrangling when absolutely everything else on television was unremitting misery. I hope Nadiya wins, because she’s an adorable dork and I love her and she gets so worried about everything and I want nothing remotely distressing to happen to her, ever; I expect Tamal Ray, the gay doctor whose meat pie had me drooling, is the best baker overall, but I can’t be objective there, because I keep getting distracted by his lovely smile. Ian Cumming, the last white person in the tent (apart from both of the presenters and both of the judges) is a little bit dull, which is a problem, because of all the delicious treats produced on the show, Ian's are the ones I would probably eat the most. I want his tarragon cheesecake in my face immediately. I would just rather have a conversation with Nadiya while I'm doing it.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter! And that’s the utter, unremitting joy of Bake Off. It’s possibly the last show on earth where in the end, it doesn’t matter who wins, as long as everyone gave it their best shot and had a laugh over a disastrous scrambled-egg chocolate tart or two, because ultimately, it’s just cake. And that’s marvellous. Now let’s all have a nice fat slice of perspective and calm down.


Now listen to a discussion of the Bake Off on the NS pop culture podcast:

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.