Knowingly undersold

The difficult birth of Beryl Bainbridge's final novel.

My last conversation with Beryl Bainbridge took place over the phone in May last year, during the general election campaign. She was in a bit of a quandary about where to place her vote. David Cameron was a new kind of Tory, wasn't he? I assured her that Cameron was very much of the traditional school. "Well, in that case," she replied distractedly, "I suppose I'll have to vote for old Frank [Dobson]."

Beryl was much more interested in reporting the progress she was making on her latest novel. At last the finishing post was in sight. She was writing and rewriting, cutting out extraneous material so that the book said just as much - or as little - as she wanted. It was a finely balanced exercise. She used to say that she hated books where you read a page and could tell immediately what was going to happen next. Her own novels were painstakingly designed to give away no more than was necessary, even to the extent of forcing readers to retrace their steps in a fruitless exercise to attempt to establish exactly what had taken place. "Darling we'll have brekkie at the beginning of July," she said as she signed off, "when it's all over."

Beryl had told friends that the cancer for which she'd been operated on several years earlier had returned. At dinner in April she had appeared fragile, suffering unduly from the cold, the sparkle of her conversation uncharacteristically dimmed. But it came nevertheless as a great shock to learn of her death in the first week of July after a short spell in University College Hospital, London.

My first thought, after the news had sunk in, was for Beryl's novel. It seemed cruel that she should have died without seeing the book in print. The pain and misery of writing it had dominated much of the final decade of her life. For the first time in her career, she had found herself suffering from writer's block. Previously she had kept up an extraordinary rate of production, publishing a work of fiction every other year over almost three decades, but this 18th novel had almost defeated her. She was worn out and drinking more to compensate for the feeling of detachment she experienced whenever she went to a literary event or party. And she found it impossible to write without the perennial cigarette in hand. She was jubilant when she found a doctor who permitted her to smoke, having realised that writing was more important to her than life.

I suggested to Beryl my own solutions to her dilemma - an autobiography, perhaps. "But my life's all in the novels!" she exclaimed, and at times she did appear to have difficulty distinguishing between the fictional re-creations of her life and actual events. She remembered the first novel she wrote, Harriet Said, completed in 1958, and how one publisher had described

it as repulsive beyond belief. The twist in the tale was based on a trip the 16-year-old Beryl had made to Paris with a business acquaintance of her father's. "He seemed to me about 60, but I suppose he was 40. It seems a bit daft, but I can't remember whether we had an affair. At the hotel, I do remember the concierge at the desk saying, 'Courage, mademoiselle,' as we were going upstairs. That's the first novel."

I pressed on Beryl the idea of writing a book about Dr Crippen. We were both fascinated by the survival until the late 1960s of Ethel Le Neve, Crippen's mistress, and Beryl pointed out the site of the old Bedford Music Hall in Camden Town where Crippen's wife, the unfortunate Belle Elmore, had performed. But when, one Christmas, Beryl presented me with her copy of The Trial of Dr Crippen in the Great Trials series, I realised that the idea had no appeal for her.

For a time she was attracted by the idea of a novel that would play with different notions of time, suggested by Time and the Conways, a play by one of her heroes, J B Priestley. The novel she eventually decided to write, however, took its inspiration from a trip she had made to the United States in the late 1960s. The book would begin and end at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, where Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968, and the plot would revolve around the mysterious sighting of "a girl in a white dress with polka dots" who reportedly ran from the scene of the crime.

Beryl's The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress, published on 26 May, is a bitter-sweet masterpiece. It possesses all the elements of tragicomedy associated with the Bainbridge name, and at the same time leaves us with an unforgettable self-portrait of the author as its heroine, Rose. Like Beryl, she has a hatred of confrontation, born out of a dysfunctional upbringing, and a native intelligence that is constantly underestimated.

People found it easy to patronise Beryl. As Lynn Barber once said, she practically did the job for you, telling you how clever you were and how stupid she was. Yet, underneath it all, she was proud of her achievements as a writer and consistently strove to make the next book as good as, if not better than, the last. Publishers took her seriously, too. She may have been paid peanuts by Colin Haycraft, but his successor at Duckworth, Robin Baird-Smith, gave her a hefty sum for her 1996 novel about the Titanic, Every Man for Himself, and saw a solid return on his investment when the paperback sold more than 100,000 copies.

If anything overshadowed Beryl's genius as a novelist, it was the warmth of her personality. Ronald Harwood, raising a glass to her memory at the "Beryl Booker", the public competition to select the best of her five shortlisted titles, put it well. "Beryl Bainbridge," he said, "was a terrific writer and a glorious woman." l

Mark Bostridge's most recent book is “Florence Nightingale: the Woman and Her Legend" (Penguin, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 30 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Hands up who knows how to fix our schools

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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.