An apparition causes havoc by menacing two people in their kitchen. From the London Stereoscopic Company Comic Series, 1865/Getty Images
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I was a die-hard sceptic, but then I saw a poltergeist

I was too stunned to be scared, but I remember the sense of conviction; surely, it was a poltergeist. Why had a supernatural being decided to show itself to me, a Marxist, who does not believe in ghosts?

One dim afternoon, I was doing the washing up, when I heard an insistent ticking noise. I looked to my right, and a just-washed wineglass, set aside to dry, was shaking slightly on the kitchen counter. Unthinkingly, I laid a finger on the base of the upended glass, silencing it.

I continued my washing; my brain finally caught up, and I wondered what the ticking noise had been. Then it started up again. I stared at the glass in horror, worrying that it signalled the return of the massive, brown rat that had occupied my kitchen for weeks, and that he was again chewing away at the wood of my cupboards. But no, only the one glass was shaking.

I was too stunned to be scared, but I remember the sense of conviction; surely, it was a poltergeist. Why, I thought, had a supernatural being decided to show itself to me, a Marxist, who does not believe in ghosts?

The ticking and rattling continued. In my mind’s eye I saw the home page of a YouTube channel with thousands of hits, and an increasing bank balance. I grabbed my phone and started filming. Then the fear came, and feeling like a brave reporter, sacrificing her own well being to capture historic footage, I held the phone out in front of me like the exorcist’s crucifix. I imagined myself on the red couch of The One Show, with perfectly coiffed hair, describing my encounter to a rapt audience, obscured by the blazing lights. Fixed to the floor, I watched the rattling glass through the tiny screen, as if its sense of remove could protect me from being ripped limb from limb by a spirit with inhuman strength.

My fiancé returned home from the store. I felt like Eve showing the apple to Adam. “David,” I said, “there’s a supernatural event!” As he watched from over my shoulder, he explained; I had put the glass down so quickly that a vacuum had formed, and as air seeped in under the nearly perfect seal between wet glass rim and counter, the glass shook and rattled. I stopped recording; he switched on a light, and I saw the tell tale foam on the upturned glass’s rim. My encounter with the supernatural had ended.

I was stunned by my credulity, and by how it had affected my thoughts and choices. Where was my sense of scientific inquiry? In my ego and my belief, I had stayed with the poltergeist, filming, afraid of scaring it away; if I had stopped for a moment to turn on the light, I would have seen the foam.

Humans flock to the supernatural. Psychologists, philosophers and anthropologists have long wondered why. Perhaps neuroscience will give us an answer, when the brain is finally mapped and understood. The world has always been an inexplicable place; even as humans mastered their environment, they wove stories of gods and spirits, imbuing them with human and animal personalities. By connecting the monstrous, unpredictable world with the smaller unknown of another being’s mind, those gods and spirits kept us from going mad with fear. We can pray to a god, or sacrifice for one; a spirit can be appeased. And, in the two months since I saw the poltergeist, I have realised that despite all of my education and understanding, as soon as there is a gap in my knowledge, the ghosts and spirits will enter.

I must admit that, now, I hunger for this experience. I seek out a sense of the numinous, and I find it, richly and wonderfully, in all elements of human experience. Consider the regular, deep gashes on this washed up log, found beached on the banks of the Tamar River. Was it gouged by the claws of an eldritch sea-beast, or gnawed by fat, writhing caterpillars the size of a duckling? I pause and enjoy these moments. Sometimes my curiosity wins, and I must sleuth out the answer, but sometimes I let my imagination run and find the most creative explanation.

Unfortunately, the world is still a horror. In some senses it is even worse than it was at humanity’s birth. We may know what causes an earthquake, but global poverty means that too many die when their buildings crumble into dust. We may understand climate change, but we still pour greenhouse gases into the air, ignoring our treaties and ensuring that floods and tsunamis will drown and beggar entire peoples. The elites who control us give us ghosts to believe in. They tell us to trust the free market to find solutions to our crises. It is a powerful spirit. In speaking of it, we even refer to market forces; to an invisible hand.

When we contemplate Stonehenge or Uluru, we may believe in ghosts, but we must renounce them when we contemplate our future as a species and a world. It is easy to throw together a few observables and come up with an explanation, but, even today, at the pinnacle of human civilisation, for each penetrating analysis there are many more ghosts. They are UKIP’s stock in trade. Immigrants and Europe did not cause recession, austerity and unemployment; selling our legacy to the bankers did that.

I feel smug here, until I remember that I, too, am susceptible. When I take stock of the horror, death and oppression across the world, I grasp for solutions as fervently as a medieval fisherman might have prayed as he watched the wave engulfing his house, from his vantage point on a high hill. Many ghosts hide within my Marxism, like belief in the infallible and mighty Leninist tradition, belief that building the vanguard party is the only way to save humanity and the planet. Unfortunately, those traditions are gone; I can mourn them, but I must never worship them.

My fiancé David, a counsellor, tells me that a belief is mutable and superficial, but a person’s values are deeper. When I chase away my ghosts, I find my values. I still know that justice exists, and that the workers and poor around the world hold the immense power to change the world in their hands. They are kept quiescent, or divided, or betrayed, by ghosts. And it is not my job to sit here and belittle them for their ghosts. It is my duty to do battle with the ghost-makers, who are, unfortunately, all too real.


Margaret Corvid is a writer, activist and professional dominatrix living in the south west.

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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.