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Posh Bingo

This year's Booker judges don't inspire much confidence.

The judges for this year's Man Booker Prize were never likely to be given a free pass, pri­marily because, on paper, they don't look up to the job. Take the chair, Dame Stella Rimington. An able and intelligent woman - but you wouldn't ask John Bayley to be a consultant on Spooks. And Rimington's status as a novelist doesn't much help matters. Do we really believe that the author of Secret Asset would have recognised the virtues of, say, Midnight's Children or Life and Times of Michael K or How Late It Was, How Late?

It was one of this year's shortlisted novelists, Julian Barnes, writing almost 25 years ago, who provided the most damning account of the prize's decline. After describing it as "increasingly an affair of the book trade", he reflected that, "whereas in 1972 the three judges were Cyril Connolly, George Steiner and Elizabeth Bowen", in 1987 Trevor McDonald, "by virtue of having written a biography of Viv Richards", was "at least more 'literary' than one of the other judges". Those were the days. Even the most legitimate of the judges for this year's prize, Susan Hill, a judge back in 1975 (together with Angus Wilson, Roy Fuller and Peter Ackroyd), is somewhat questionable. She would grind her axes all day long if it weren't for that chip on her shoulder.

At the press conference held on 6 September to announce the 2011 shortlist, the judges didn't do much to settle doubts. The political columnist Matthew d'Ancona made a meal of praising Stephen Kelman's Pigeon English, drawing parallels between events in the novel and the Damilola Taylor case as well as the London riots - before insisting that topical parallels are irrelevant. Both d'Ancona and Hill, speaking in praise of Esi Edugyan's Half Blood Blues, used the term "patois" - as if to reclaim the word (from David Starkey) on behalf of literature, or anyway the Man Booker Prize.

It was equally perplexing to hear the time-honoured "we judge the book, not the reputation" line being used about the exclusion from the shortlist of Alan Hollinghurst's novel The Stranger's Child, given the praise being lavished on this particular book: "a masterclass in the art of the novel", "an extraordinary achievement", "probably the best novel this year so far", "If this wonderfully well-made and witty novel doesn't win the Man Booker Prize, there is no justice in the world".

But there were also signs of proper critical intelligence. Most of those came from Gaby Wood, the literary editor of the Daily Telegraph, who gave Barnes's The Sense of an Ending the kind of eloquent praise missing from the reviews, which merely fawned. I am by no means alone in thinking ill of Barnes's book, but those who have whispered their disparagement in my ear tend to vanish like good Germans, as Wilfrid Sheed once put it, when asked for public corroboration.

Anyway, unless Carol Birch (Jamrach's Mena­gerie) ruins his night, the novelist who advised his fellow practitioners to think of the prize as posh bingo seems about to have his numbers called, proving in the process that it's not all about "pulling out the big one": "Sometimes the judges prefer you to pull out the small one." (Last year, I looked like the neighbourhood weirdo when I expressed doubts about The Finkler Question - but it is enlightening, a year on, to see the book's one-star reviews on Amazon nudging the 100 mark while the five-star reviews dawdle in the low twenties.)

The literary director of the prize, Ion Trewin, emphasised the number of independent publishers represented - a point that stood up better for the longlist, which contained books from such off-trail outfits as Sandstone Press, based in the Highlands, and Seren in Bridgend, but works less well when he needs to lean on Granta (publisher of Patrick deWitt's The Sisters Brothers). What is most notable about this year's shortlist is how nearly plausible it looks, given the preposterous longlist. The old prizes-for-everyone remark offered by judges - "We could easily have chosen another 13 books" - rings true indeed. Could have, and should have: David Bezmozgis, Philip Hensher, Hisham Matar, Ali Smith, Ross Raisin, Hari Kunzru, Belinda McKeon, David Miller, Tessa Hadley, Edward St Aubyn, Michael Ondaatje, Adam Mars-Jones, Dermot Healy.

Although the judges put on a fairly good show, in some cases it was all too obvious that they were putting on a show. The former Labour MP Chris Mullin described himself as “a simple country boy" - a simple country boy, he implied, who couldn't be expected to understand complicated city things like Literature. Mullin also said something about how friends, knowing the Booker's form, had urged him to pick a "readable" book - as if Howard Jacobson were a 21st-century descendant of Robert Musil or James Joyce.

I think we can all agree that if a book is to be given a prize, it ought not to be unreadable, but some of us recoil from the use of "readable" to mean (essentially) "can be read without struggle/thinking/turning off the telly". And people who have been selected for their skill as readers should not be making a point of using "read" as a noun. "An excellent read." This is what people say when they think they are talking about books that don't demand too much of readers but are really talking about books of which readers don't demand too much. Books such as A D Miller's Snowdrops, a well-written thriller which has made this year's shortlist.

These days, prizes generally speak louder than words, especially if those words take the form of literary criticism. But the Man Booker Prize still has principles - a vision, even - and it articulates these in the calibre of its judges, and of the novels they reward. Failures of the former all too obviously threaten the latter. And if things continue as they are, it isn't hard to imagine a time when the prize will be seen as a way not of celebrating novels, just of selling them.

The winner of the Man Booker Prize will be announced on 18 October. For more information about the prize, visit:

Leo Robson is the New Statesman's lead fiction reviewer

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Which Tories is it ok to love?

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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.