Why I love the Ashes

It's the age-old rivalry that makes matches like this weekend's Test so thrilling to watch.

It was at The Oval in 1882 that Australia claimed their first victory over England in cricket. An obituary was posted in The Sporting Times claiming that English cricket had died and its ashes would be taken (very very slowly) to Australia. The English media, gawdlove'm, dubbed the return series down under "the quest to regain The Ashes". Add to this the macabre gift of a tiny terracotta urn from some over-enthusiastic Melbourne ladies to the England captain and you've got yourself a rivalry to last the ages. Some one hundred and thirty years and sixty-six series later, Australia are leading by just thirty-one wins to England's thirty. It's still all to play for!

Perhaps after losing the 1882/83 series, the Aussie captain WL Murdoch said, "best of three" to the Hon IFW Bligh and it just carried on from there, the ante being upped every so often. There's probably a 1930's beermat somewhere with a drunken agreement scrawled on it, "the first team to twenty has its shoes shined by the opposition for a whole week," signed Hammond and Bradman. Where does it end? Or as my girlfriend asks, "what's it all for?" To which I reply incredulously, "who cares!"

I've heard it said of football, "it's not a matter of life and death - it's more important than that". Well, it's not actually, and nor is cricket. But it is a jolly nice way to pass the time, in between properly important stuff like death and shoe-polishing. And what makes it even more pleasurable is taking it far too seriously. That, and ridiculing your adversaries . . .

The English like to focus on how supposedly crass and uncultured Australians are (even the venerable David Gower was at it recently), and on how their strength and fitness is just the natural outcome of a more conducive climate. What they really want to say is: how come the convicts ended up with all the barbecues and surfing, when we (who didn't steal any loaves of bread) are stuck here digging our cars out of snow-drifts?

The Aussies have a fabulous pantomime contempt for the English. "Aw listen mate, the Poms are just a bunch of whinging big girls blouses who can't hold their beer or successfully satisfy their wives. No wonder they can't play cricket". The fact that England have won three of the last four series and look like winning the next two is but a small grey cloud in the otherwise clear blue sky of their innate superiority.

It is the original love-hate relationship, and both tribes play up to the caricature that the other side expects of them. Remember Jeff Thompson joyously provoking a crisis in Bumble's Balkans? Ted Dexter insisting he was unaware of any errors he had made after England went down 4-0 in '89? Merv Hughes snarling at Gooch, "I'll get you a piano - see if you can play that"? Or Johnny Douglas describing his 1921 England team as a "damnable side of picnickers"? (No, nor do I.) All the way up to Warner and Root's minor misunderstanding in the Walkabout the other week. It's all part of the fun.

Yet again, the cricket is of the highest calibre, but what makes these matches really unmissable is the pleasantly crackling undercurrent of mutual antipathy/undying admiration. Australia will not go down without a fight. It's not in their nature; their fabulous, insanely competitive, massively over-generalised nature. England should win, and despite getting off to a good start will no doubt do their very best to lose, always preferring the plucky underdog as they do. Whatever happens it means two months of sitting on the sofa, drinking posh alcopops and listening to the inspired ramblings of Bumble, Blowers, Beefy, Warney, Aggers and Athers. Life is sweet!

Neil Hannon is one half of The Duckworth Lewis Method. Their new album, Sticky Wickets (Divine Comedy Records), is out now

England celebrate victory in the first Ashes test on 14 July. (Photo: Getty.)
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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.