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Memory Palace at the V&A: Shored against my ruins

In effect, this exhibition is a book in 3D, a walk-through experience where much (but not all) of Kunzru’s words jump out of the pages in rusted copper lettering.

Sky Arts Ignition: Memory Palace
Victoria and Albert Museum, London SW7

“I originally resisted moving to Brooklyn because it’s so fucking clichéd,” says the novelist Hari Kunzru, now an Essex boy in New York. We’ve just had to leave the first Brooklyn coffee shop where we’d wanted to do the interview because the entire cast of Girls were sitting tapping on their MacBook Airs and nursing lattes. Sometimes the New Yorkness of New York is overwhelming.

I’m here to talk to about Memory Palace, a collaborative, multi-dimensional project between him and 20 graphic designers and illustrators for the V&A in London. The curators, Laurie Britton Newell and Ligaya Salazar, wanted to put on the first exhibition of graphic design in the museum for a decade but for it to centre around a specially commissioned work of fiction. The result is a dystopian novella by Kunzru – chosen for the non-linear and allusive quality of his fiction, in novels such as Gods and Monsters – and a simultaneous exhibition of the book, as interpreted by the designers. In effect, it’s a book in 3D, a walk-through experience where much (but not all) of Kunzru’s words jump out of the pages in rusted copper lettering.

Kunzru also seems a natural choice of author because he’s at ease with the contemporary art scene, has artist friends and writes on art. He tells me he can feel closer culturally to that world than the literary one. “The book world can feel rather divorced from other cultural institutions and it frustrates me.”

His brief was deliberately loose. He worked with the curators and designers on what a book would look like conveyed in a museum space. To Kunzru, it was imperative the book “should use the fact it was going to be presented in the V&A of all places – imperial treasure house”, while bringing in many strands of his interests and obsessions: Sixties “inner space” science fiction, green anarchism, Norse mythology, the 18th-century cult of ruins, disaster movies and the eponymous “memory palaces”.

“I came across the concept of memory palaces reading about the Renaissance. It was the idea of imagining spaces, mostly cathedrals populated with mnemonic objects to remember complicated pieces of information.” This became an anchor for his story as he imagined the circumstances in which such a system would be used again: “And I realised it would only be if you took away the whole digital world and the internet.” At the same time he was becoming obsessed with online writing by anti-civilisationist anarchists. “I find it an intriguingly alien set of thoughts: they believe that everything went wrong at the dawn of agriculture. To them, as soon as you start having a surplus, you’re going down the route of building a palace for the leader, and with that comes numbers and writing and domination . . .”

Memory Palace is a semi-allegorical, everyman story of a London far in the future in which a magnetic storm (“the Withering”) has wiped out the world’s technology and knowledge. Books and any forms of remembering are banned by the hardline, kiltwearing rulers, or thanes, “the bringers of the Wilding”. London is in ruins and people have lost the art of memory, except for a small resistance group called the “memorialists”, of whom the nameless, Winston Smith-like protagonist is one. We read and see his journey as told from prison; both book and exhibition are presented in fragmented form, chunks of prose interspersed with illustrations; and in turn the text and graphics brought to life in the gallery space.

As much as there is a solemnity and seriousness of intent about the project, it’s also clear Kunzru has had tremendous fun with the language, in the mangled and misinterpreted words from the past (an “internet” for a banned group, “landfills” for vast treasuries, “pewters” for computers, “sign” for information, “tricknology” for technology and so on). “It allows you to be a little bit sly and satirical – and any time you’re writing a dystopian story, you’re not really writing about the future, you’re writing about now.” As such Kunzru sees it firmly as a “post economic crash book”. But it’s also a chance for the self-professed sci-fi geek to obliterate his former hometown, turn the Olympic park into the worst slum in London and shatter the Shard: “It’s a privilege of being a writer that it’s very cheap to express ideas that would be expensive on film – I can destroy London just by typing a few sentences.” He knew early on that he wanted to include the Olympic Park: “it’s immediately amusing to take this shiny, new venue and ruin it straight away.”

The ruin of London is nothing new in literature, he says, from early 20th-century sci-fi and “weird Victorian penny dreadful stories about airships bombing London and yellow hordes storming up the Thames”. The main work of dystopian fiction that influenced him, however, was Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker. “It’s an extraordinary novel set after a nuclear disaster that imagines an England in which technology has been obliterated and it’s reverted to a tribal setting.”

I tell him I love the protagonist’s misplaced, rose-tinted nostalgia about the London of the past (our present). “He thought it was a wonderful world of palaces, whereas today is a dog-eat-dog Hobbesian world of grubbing about in the ruins.” There is a sense for Kunzru that it was ever thus, that we’ve always rubbished the present and remembered some previous, imaginary past. Something like the hyper-idealised Downton Abbey? “I’ve been thinking a lot about Downton Abbey recently and I think it’s definitely a symptom of the End Times. It’s true! But yes there is always this sense that perhaps we live after the great times, whether that’s the Sixties, the Empire or the Battle of Agincourt. That suspicion you’ve come after the party.”

This fear about the fragility of civilisation permeates the project, I suggest, because of our over-reliance on technology, and it wouldn’t take much for us to slip backwards. Kunzru compares it to no one remembering phone numbers any more; if you’re arrested and have one call, who do you call if you know no numbers. “We’ve outsourced a lot of our memory to devices.”

In Kunzru’s vision, with the death of the digital world, we are plunged back into a dark age. As he says, “I’d love to imagine we’d all discover our love for each other but I suspect that there’s some pretty nasty shit.” He compares his experience of the recent hurricane in New York: “When you take the power away, what happens is that a lot of people freak out. During a false alarm hurricane a few years ago, people were losing their minds: candles ran out so someone in my building just panic-bought Diptyque!”

The exhibition is a triumph for the collaborators’ collective vision. Some of the practitioners have interpreted Kunzru’s text two-dimensionally, others in vivid sculptural form. It’s as if the pages of the book have burst open, magically scattering words and illustrations into the gallery’s rooms.

The story ends in a viewer-participatory space, symbolising the prisoner’s cache of memories that are, as Kunzru puts it, “going to dissolve into this larger body of memories the group was going to hold.

“The question is: if someone asked you if you were able to transmit one of your memories, what would it be? It’s about what persists of us after we die. And that’s a religious, a scientific and a literary question.

“Memory Palace” runs until 20 October

Thomas Calvocoressi is Chief Sub (Digital) at the New Statesman and writes about visual arts for the magazine.

This article first appeared in the 24 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Mr Scotland

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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.