Margot Asquith in 1924. The Brocks’ edited collection has reinvigorated Margot’s vitriolic comments. Photo: Sasha/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.
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Reviews round-up | 30 August

The critics' verdicts on Ahamed Liaquat, Kerry Hudson and Margot Asquith.


Money and Tough Love: Inside the IMF by Ahamed Liaquat

This offering from the "Writer in Residence" series commissioned by Alain de Botton’s School of Life sees Liaquat Ahamed, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his Lords of Finance, relaying the results of several months spent with his former organisation, the International Monetary Fund. Ahamed describes the everyday business of meetings and work abroad for employees of the Fund, presented alongside photography by Eli Reed.

Phillip Aldrick of The Times is impressed by how Ahamed manages to "humanise a faceless institution ... and teach a little economic history along the way." The book, according to Aldrick, describes well the "prosaic truth" of why the IMF shrank from prominence on the world stage. Aldrick notes the "sense of fading glory" as one of the book’s main themes. While he worries that "it’s hard to imagine many people outside the IMF being particularly interested," he nevertheless claims that Ahamed’s "gentle prose" serves as a "good introduction to the IMF".

The Financial Times’ Edward Luce calls the book an "enjoyable portrait." Luce knows Liaquat personally, at his own admission, but claims that the author "removes his rose-coloured spectacles" in order to write the book. Assuming Luce manages the same in his review, the book is credited with "bringing life to an institution that is too often deadened with jargon." SinceMoney and Tough Love is "about the troops not the generals," Luce also mentions Ahamed’s daily-reportage style, adding that this helps "avoid the leaden prose of an in-house biographer." The Fund is a complex machine and its "finances are usually arcane," writes Ahamed. Luce is taken with this apparently clear and entertaining look at such an organisation.

The book endures a much more tepid reception from Alex Preston writing in The Telegraph, who claims that the ‘anonymous and dull’ nature of the organisation applies equally well to Money and Tough Love. Writing that the book lacks "drama and stylish prose," Preston questions why Ahamed’s project seems so drab despite the "extraordinary access" he was granted, and compares the attempted look at the human side of the organisation unfavourably to a fictional counterpart – namely, David Foster Wallace’sThe Pale King and its "greater scope to show us the unique complexity of every human life."

Thirst by Kerry Hudson

Thirst is Kerry Hudson’s second novel, following her well-received debut,Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-cream Float Before He Stole My Ma. The story follows Alena, a young Russian, who is the victim of a sex trafficking gang in East London. Beginning with an encounter with Dave, a security guard who catches Alena shoplifting, the novel explores a conventional romance among a backdrop of “unrelenting horror”. Yet the characters’ back stories are more complex than they first appear, allowing for the plot to unfold with “horrible inevitability”.

Louise Welsh of The Guardian applauds the novel’s “wit and shrewdness”, confronting “hard-hitting” topics, while being “never miserable”. She praises Hudson’s decision, as in her debut, to explore the lives of communities who are “not generally considered fit for literature”, while emphasising her ability to create “complex working-class characters faced with moral dilemmas”. In fact, Welsh suggests that recent critics who have drawn attention to “literature’s failure to portray working-class characters with intelligence, education or culture” are likely to be impressed by Thirst.

The Independent’s Katie Welsh similarly admires Thirst, describing the novel as “heartbreaking”, “beautiful” and “touching”. Welsh praises Hudson’s maturity in dealing with depictions of a “brutal series of sexual assaults” without descending into “sensationalism”. As with the Guardian’sreview, special praise is reserved for Hudson’s ability to write “from the perspective of people whose voices are rarely heard”, largely a result of her “meticulous research”.

Writing for The ScotsmanLesley McDowell suggests that Kerry Hudson has “consolidated her position” as a writer “prepared to face the injustices and the grimness of life”. The review congratulates the novel’s authenticity, praising Hudson’s ability “to get to the heart of her characters”. DescribingThirst as a “tale of female powerlessness”, comparison is made with events of “brutal male domination” that have cropped up in the media in recent weeks. Given this, McDowell asserts that although Thirst is “hardly a summer read”, it is “probably an essential one”.

Margot Asquith's Great War Diary 1914-1916: The View from Downing Street, Michael Brock and Eleanor Brock

Margot Asquith’s diaries fill 22 volumes in total, and this single volume, edited by the Brocks (Michael and Eleanor), tells a part of the story only two years long. Those two years are the wartime years of Herbert Asquith’s premiership. Replete with vociferous opinions and depictions of the most notable political characters of the time, these diaries provide a long-awaited, very personal insight into the upper heights of the UK government during the onset of the First World War.

Writing in the Telegraph, an impressed Miranda Seymour calls the collection a "beautiful work of conjugal editorship by Eleanor Brock and her late husband." "The sensation of intimacy is remarkable," writes Seymour, who is particularly taken by Margot’s defence of Richard Haldane from charges of treachery. She adds that "Margot may have been rude and overbearing, but she was also observant, bright and thoughtful," and concludes that these "private records are all the better for being unspeakably, delectably, impenitently frank."

Jane Ridley writes in the Literary Review that "Michael and Eleanor Brock have edited Margot’s writing with meticulous academic precision." However, she characterises the diaries themselves with a mixed tone, saying that Margot’s "party tricks" of writing "characters" of people and coming off best in every argument can be "tedious." She adds that Margot was "slapdash and egotistical... emotional and histrionic." But ultimately she calls the wartime picture that is painted "really striking," and adds that the diary is "invaluable and fascinating."

Writing for the TimesLawrence James is impressed by the book, describing it as a “vivid, fascinating and disconcerting record of war as seen from the top”. He describes Margot Asquith’s bold, swashbuckling spirit” and “caustic wit”, while praising the “lucidity and scholarship” of the editors who compiled the volume. James highlights how the “partisan record” is predictably supportive of Margot’s husband Herbert, whose virtues of “humanity, compassion and warmth are praised throughout”. Nonetheless, James emphasised the “pleasure” he took in reading the book.

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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.