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Does London have a musical soul? The sprawling city has inspired countless songs, but its identity h

London, according to the late Tony Wilson, has no musical soul. Wilson, a Mancunian, was the boss of Factory Records and so it was probably in his best interests to keep all the local talent away from the bright lights and the money men down south. Manchester has a musical lineage that you can hear in the nasal harmonies of the Hollies and the Stone Roses, as well as a love of leftfield dance music that stretches from Twisted Wheel to the Haçienda to Andy Votel's various clubs and record labels. London has Marie Lloyd. The Flamingo Jazz Club. Carter USM. The Libertines. It makes for more of a pre-school scribble than a straight line. You can imagine Wilson smiling at the prospect of anyone trying to make sense of it.

Still, no one would deny New York's musical soul. It is doo-wop, the sweet sound of street-corner harmony, echoing from Frankie Lymon's block through the Holland Tunnel to wherever Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons were dreaming of their rag doll. It is also the CBGB's blank generation - Television, Patti Smith, Blondie, the Ramones - defining attitude with a gormless stare and art-school irony. And it is Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Gerry Goffin and Carole King; all are valid and true.

Like New York, London is vast, with a fluid population and an ever-shifting demographic. And like New York, the sound of London shifts with time and place: Muswell Hill 1968, Notting Hill 1977, Clapton 1991, Dalston 2005. Go back to the late 19th century and things were more united - music hall ruled. While New York was wrestling for an identity with Irish and Italian balladry, Hoxton-born Marie Lloyd was flirting with double entendres to the point of being banned from entering America and spending a week on Ellis Island. When she was shunted from a Royal Command Performance bill in 1912 lest she offend Queen Mary with a knowing wink, Marie performed a couple of hundred yards down Shaftesbury Avenue with posters outside declaring "Every performance by Marie Lloyd is a command performance - by order of the British public". Royal-baiting pop did not begin with the Sex Pistols. What's more, Marie lay down a canvas of cheek ("When You Wink the Other Eye") and romanticism ("The Boy I Love Is Up In the Gallery") for the Small Faces, Squeeze, Madness and Dizzee Rascal to work on.

Meanwhile, Florrie Forde sang the definitive London singalong, "Down at the Old Bull and Bush", which celebrated a pub on the Golders Green side of Hampstead Heath. Florrie, though, was born in Australia, and her signature tune was a bowdlerised American advert for Anheuser-Busch, or Budweiser. The sound of London is as much about imported cultures and itinerant talents as it is about the East End born-and-bred. The city's size and network of communities are such that it often needs an outsider to get it in perspective.

Nick Drake arrived from Warwickshire, Bert Jansch from Glasgow and Roy Harper from Blackpool. All three made for Soho and its Les Cousins folk club in the mid-1960s. When it came to songs about London, they all struck on a similar mix of 6am dusty sunrise and uplifting melancholia, and wrote "Mayfair", "Soho" and "Freak Sweet" (Greek Street), respectively. This pervasive atmosphere is captured definitively in perhaps the most famous musical tribute to London, the Kinks' "Waterloo Sunset" - warming and beautiful, but hardly joyful. Donovan gave a similar smoky feel to "Hampstead Incident" ("the heath was hung in magic mists") and "Sunny Goodge Street", while Al Stewart sang of dalliances with a teenage girl in "Swiss Cottage Manoeuvres".

Swiss Cottage! It is hard to imagine a born Londoner singing about such a mediocre stretch of north London. The Small Faces sang "Itchycoo Park", but were careful not to mention in the lyric that it was their nickname for the obscure, suburban Little Ilford Park. Like the strangeness of Camille Pissarro dedicating his talents to a snowbound Upper Norwood, people moving to London do not have the supposed nous to work out which areas they are meant to write about. And the whole city benefits as a result.

Soho-born Cat Stevens nailed the pleasure of drifting through London's illogical street patterns on Portobello Road, the late-1960s centre of cool. The Rolling Stones were sussed enough to sing sniffily, in "Play With Fire", about a slumming heiress from "a block in St John's Wood" who "gets her kicks in Stepney/Not in Knightsbridge any more". But Mott the Hoople sang about another of the lesser-known London parks without Steve Marriott's wink or Mick Jagger's sneer. "Waterlow" has a dark, baroque sound similar to "Play With Fire". The singer Ian Hunter, who hailed from Shropshire, wrote it during a divorce, after lonesomely wheeling a pushchair around Waterlow Park, Highgate, circa 1970. A E Housman had written A Shropshire Lad just five minutes' walk away in a house on North Road, 74 years earlier.

What the Stones also brought to the fore in "Play With Fire" is central to London's shifting musical base. No-go areas for the moneyed or hip can become adventure playgrounds for the next generation. For the teenage Marc Bolan, a move from happening Hackney to tedious Tooting, where he was no longer a face, was written up in the wry "Over the Flats", part glam demo, part music-hall moan.

Tooting still awaits hipness several decades on. In the case of Hoxton, Dalston and Whitechapel, however, things have come full circle musically, with the heartland of music hall now the centre of all things modish and underground. For places like once-grimy Battersea and Clapham - celebrated in Nell Dunn's book Up the Junction in the mid-1960s and on Manfred Mann's excellent soundtrack to the 1968 film version - the change has been from solidly working class to something approaching chichi. A quick nod here to Chris Barber, the jazzman responsible for bringing legends like Muddy Waters and Big Bill Broonzy over to London for the first time, so influencing the Stones, the Yardbirds and the East End blues melancholians Fleetwood Mac. Barber wrote a piece called "Battersea Rain Dance" that captures damp market-day bustle with tipping-down brass and driving bass.

Granted, this is all a little subjective, and most of the names I have mentioned cover a specific time frame. But whether we are talking about 1910, 1970 or 2009, people have moved to London from all over the world and ended up immersed in the city's wistful humour and up-against-it spirit, whereas a group like Fleetwood Mac can grow up in London, move to the States and end up sounding like, well, Fleetwood Mac.

Take a look on YouTube at a clip of Nico singing "I'm Not Sayin'". Here, wandering around an unrecognisable Docklands in 1965, is a German model singing a song written by a Canadian and produced by Andrew Loog Oldham, a Hampstead public school boy, yet it has the authentic feel - with its chutzpah, its minor chords, its refusenik lyric and foggy air - of something essentially, perfectly London.

The CD/DVD boxed set "London Conversations: the Best of Saint Etienne" is out on Universal

Bob Stanley is a writer and a member of the pop group Saint Etienne. His book, Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop is published by Faber & Faber.

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Citizen Ken

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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.