Distant voices

A Double Thread: a childhood memoir in Mile End - and beyond

John Gross <em>Chatto & Windus, 220pp

John Gross's memoir of a wartime London childhood can be read as an elegy for the vanished world of East End Jewry, and, more unconventionally, for that of the literary essay - because, at its best, A Double Thread is less a book than an extended essay of the kind that has all but disappeared from English letters (though it flourishes in America). Nowadays, any newspaper columnist who can sustain an argument of more than a thousand words is recognised as an essayist. But the success of the newspaper column is no more than an example of the cheap popularisation of the essay in a degraded culture. Dr Johnson called the essay an "irregular, undigested piece". And that is right. The newspaper column is too finished, too regular; it is an easily digested piece. But the essay - as perfected by Montaigne, Charles Lamb, George Orwell, E B White and Lewis Lapham - strives for literary permanence and concerns the search for a personal voice, of the kind that animates Gross's reflections on memory, childhood and Jewishness.

For Montaigne, the essay was a philosophical form, amorphous, reflective, digressive and informed by self-revelation. Gross's book has all of these attributes. Above all, for Montaigne - who ought to be reread by anyone interested in the evolution of western thought so as to be liberated from Alain de Botton's cynical appropriation - it was personal and confidential. In this sense, the best essayists are those, like Gross, who have the gift of digression, those who surprise the reader and themselves, who are able to luxuriate in language and to elaborate and inflate any chosen subject.

One of the frustrations for the contemporary British writer is that there are very few places where one can publish essays that are not extended book reviews, which perhaps explains why so many of our best cultural critics - James Wood, Anthony Lane, Christopher Hitchens, Ian Buruma - have either moved to the US, where brevity is not celebrated as the highest virtue, or write almost exclusively for American publications.

John Gross's father was a doctor, working among the urban poor. He grew up in what he calls a residual Orthodox household - "traditional without being fundamentalist, observant but not too much". The Jewish East End - which today is the Bengali East End - had something of the flavour of the shtetl life of the Pale of Settlement, from where most of the Jews had arrived in London at the end of the 19th century in search of a new life, if not in America, then far away from persecution. Gross's text is studded with the Yiddish words and phrases that enlivened family conversations, locutions which were "echoes of an already vanishing past".

It is informative to compare A Double Thread with two other recent memoirs by distinguished Jewish writers, the American historian Peter Gay's My German Question and Dan Jacobson's Heshel's Kingdom. What is common to all three books, apart from the precision of their prose, is an ineradicable undertone of mourning. These writers are all, it seems, haunted by a shadow life - Gay by the alternative life, the very Germanness, that was wrenched from him when his family belatedly escaped from Berlin in 1939, never to return; Jacobson by the story of his grandfather, a rabbi in Lithuania, who, thinking of emigrating, visited America, only to be appalled by the secular excesses of that country. In the end, he decided to stay in Lithuania, where he died suddenly from a heart attack, thus liberating his family to move to South Africa. Those of Jacobson's family who remained in Lithuania were murdered by the Nazis, and the writer cannot escape the thought that he would never have existed but for his grandfather's unexpected death.

The hauntedness of A Double Thread is at once different but the same. It is the hauntedness of the migrant: of the individual who feels English and yet other; who grapples with a certain doubleness or dual identity; who has one language, yet hears his father and grandfathers speaking another; who can never stop wondering about the life that was left behind, which he never had the chance fully to know or share.

The old Jewish East End is long gone now - and yet traces of it remain, not simply in the occasional bagel shop or clothes factory on Brick Lane, or in the memories of those such as Gross who grew up in Stepney, but in a kind of psychic energy. London is so huge and complex, so much of its growth has been haphazard and serendipitous, that its ever-changing streets are like a palimpsest - with successive generations failing quite to erase the influence of those who have gone before. Gross's memoir is, similarly, a kind of palimpsest, with its ghost traces of past times, its half-remembered conversations and spectral presences.

In his introduction to The New English Prose, John Gross, a former literary editor of this magazine, wrote that good prose was unquestionably more common than good poetry. "It is something you can come across every day: in a letter, in a newspaper, almost anywhere." It is something you can come across in this book, too.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Trapped in the human zoo

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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.