In the Critics this week

Craig Raine on Manet, Alexandra Harris on Britten, Toby Litt on Tracey Thorn, Cheryl Strayed interviewed and much more.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, poet, novelist and critic Craig Raine visits “Manet: Portraying Life” at the Royal Academy in London. Raine declares the exhibition “absorbing”. And comparing Manet with Rembrandt, Raine concludes that “Manet’s best portraits are conspicuous refinements, subtly understated, less dramatic, more realistic [than Rembrandt’s]”.

Our lead book reviewer this week is the writer and critic Alexandra Harris, who reviews Paul Kildea’s major new biography of Benjamin Britten, whose centenary is being celebrated this year. “Britten’s journey to the centre of British public life was amazingly rapid,” Harris notes, “and does not seem to have been much hampered by the chattering prejudice that followed wherever he went.” As befits a practising conductor, Kildea is particularly good on Britten’s music itself. “[His] verbal explorations of the music are done with level-headed sensitivity leavened by a quirky lightness of touch …”

Also in Books: Tim Bale, one of our leading historians of the Conservative Party, reviews Tory Modernisation 2.0, edited by Ryan Shorthouse and Guy Stagg (“The Tories are in far more trouble than they – particularly those on the Thatcherite and populist right – realise”); Jonathan Derbyshire reviews The Scientists: a Family Romance by Marco Roth (“The Scientists is not just an intellectual memoir, a memoir of reading … it is also a memoir of Roth’s father”); novelist Toby Litt reviews Tracey Thorn’s memoir Bedsit Disco Queen (“It’s no surprise that Bedsit Disco Queen is an immensely likeable book. Everything But the Girl are (were?) an immensely likeable band”; Nina Caplan reviews Lawrence Osborne’s alcoholic travelogue The Wet and the Dry: a Drinker’s Journey (“[Osborne] is not interested in cultures that exist without alcohol but in people who drink where drinking is forbidden”); and Kate Mossman reviews A Prince Among the Stones: That Business with the Rolling Stones and Other Adventures by Prince Rupert Loewenstein (“This is one of the funniest rock books I’ve read …”).

In his “Notes in the margin” column, Jonathan Derbyshire celebrates the New Statesman’s association with the Goldsmiths Prize, a new prize that will reward fiction that is “genuinely novel and which embodies the spirit of invention”. And in the Books interview, Derbyshire talks to American author Cheryl Strayed about her memoir, Wild. “I couldn’t have written this book at 26,” Strayed, who is now in her early forties, tells him. “I wasn’t yet the writer who wrote Wild. It takes years to become a writer.”

Elsewhere in the Critics: our classical music critic Alexandra Coghlan enjoys the opening week of the Rest is Noise festival at the Southbank Centre; Ryan Gilbey is not wholly convinced by Robert Zemeckis’s new film, Flight; Rachel Cooke sings the praises of Jonathan Meades’s BBC4 documentary The Joy of Essex; Andrew Billen reviews Polly Stenham’s No Quarter at the Royal Court and the Almeida’s stage adaptation of Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw”; Antonia Quirke enjoys a BBC World Service documentary about chickens.

PLUS: Will Self’s Real Meals.

A visitor at the Royal Academy's Manet exhibition (Photograph: Getty Images)
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As it turns out, the Bake Off and the Labour party have a lot in common

And I'm not just talking about the fact they've both been left with a old, wrinkly narcissist.

I wonder if Tom Watson and Paul Hollywood are the same person? I have never seen them in the same room together – neither in the devil’s kitchen of Westminster, nor in the heavenly Great British Bake Off marquee. Now the Parliamentary Labour Party is being forced to shift to the ­political equivalent of Channel 4, and the Cake Meister is going with. As with the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, so with Bake Off: the former presenters have departed, leaving behind the weird, judgemental, wrinkly old narcissist claiming the high ground of loyalty to the viewers – I mean members.

Is the analogy stretched, or capable of being still more elasticised? Dunno – but what I do know is that Bake Off is some weird-tasting addictive shit! I resisted watching it at all until this season, and my fears were justified. When I took the first yummy-scrummy bite, I was hooked even before the camera had slid across the manicured parkland and into that mad and misty realm where a couple of hours is a long time . . . in baking, as in contemporary British politics. It’s a given, I know, that Bake Off is a truer, deeper expression of contemporary Britain’s animating principle than party, parliament, army or even monarch. It is our inner Albion, reached by crossing the stormy sound of our own duodenums. Bake Off is truer to its idea of itself than any nation state – or mythical realm – could ever be, and so inspires a loyalty more compelling.

I have sensed this development from afar. My not actually watching the programme adds, counterintuitively, to the perspicacity of my analysis: I’m like a brilliant Kremlinologist, confined to the bowels of Bletchley Park, who nonetheless sifts the data so well that he knows when Khrushchev is constipated. Mmm, I love cake! So cried Marjorie Dawes in Little Britain when she was making a mockery of the “Fatfighters” – and it’s this mocking cry that resounds throughout contemporary Britain: mmm! We love cake! We love our televisual cake way more than real social justice, which, any way you slice it, remains a pie in the sky – and we love Bake Off’s mixing bowl of ethnicity far more than we do a melting pot – let alone true social mobility. Yes, Bake Off stands proxy for the Britain we’d like to be, but that we can’t be arsed to get off our arses and build, because we’re too busy watching people bake cakes on television.

It was Rab Butler, Churchill’s surprise choice as chancellor in the 1951 Tory government, who popularised the expression “the national cake” – and our new, immaterial national cake is a strange sort of wafer, allowing all of us who take part in Paul’s-and-Mary’s queered communion to experience this strange transubstantiation: the perfect sponge rising, as coal is once more subsidised and the railways renationalised.

Stupid, blind, improvident Tom Watson, buggering off like that – his battles with the fourth estate won’t avail him when it comes to the obscurity of Channel 4. You’ll find yourself sitting there alone in your trailer, Tom, neatly sculpting your facial hair, touching up your maquillage with food colouring – trying to recapture another era, when goatees and Britannia were cool, and Tony and Gordon divided the nation’s fate along with their polenta. Meanwhile, Mel and Sue – and, of course, Mary – will get on with the serious business of baking a patriotic sponge that can be evenly divided into 70 million pieces.

That Bake Off and the Labour Party should collapse at exactly the same time suggests either that the British oven is too cold or too hot, or that the recipe hasn’t been followed properly. Mary Berry has the charisma that occludes charisma: you look at her and think, “What’s the point of that?” But then, gradually, her quiet conviction in her competence starts to win you over – and her judgements hit home hard. Too dense, she’ll say of the offending comestible, her voice creaking like the pedal of the swing-bin that you’re about to dump your failed cake in.

Mary never needed Paul – hers is no more adversarial a presenting style than that of Mel and Sue. Mary looks towards a future in which there is far more direct and democratic cake-judging, a future in which “television personality” is shown up for the oxymoron it truly is. That she seems to be a furious narcissist (I wouldn’t be surprised if either she’s had a great deal of “work”, or she beds down in a wind tunnel every night, so swept are her features) isn’t quite as contradictory as you might imagine. Out there on the margins of British cookery for decades, baking cakes for the Flour Advisory Board (I kid you not), taking a principled stand on suet, while the entire world is heading in one direction, towards a globalised, neoliberal future of machine-made muffins – she must have had a powerful ­degree of self-belief to keep on believing in filo pastry for everyone.

So now, what will emerge from the oven? Conference has come and gone, and amateur bakers have banged their heads against the wall of the tent: a futile exercise, I’m sure you’ll agree. Will Jeremy – I’m sorry, Mary – still be able to produce a show-stopper? Will Mel and Sue and Angela and Hilary all come sneaking back, not so much shriven as proved, so that they, too, can rise again? And what about poor Tom – will he try to get a Labour Party cookery show of his own going, despite the terrible lack of that most important ingredient: members?

It’s so hard to know. It could be that The Great British Bake Off has simply reached its sell-by date and is no longer fit for consumption. Or it could be that Tom is the possessor of his alter ego’s greatest bête noire, one as fatal in politics as it is in ­bakery, to whit: a soggy bottom. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.