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The holy bun that crossed the centuries

When it comes to hot cross buns, I love nibbling round the chewy cross on top like an ill-mannered five-year-old.

If you have just turned the page with buttery fingers, if your nostrils are filled with sweet spice and your tongue is at this very moment engaged in gently prising a gritty currant from your molars, then spare a thought and a hot cross bun for me. The moment I saw these Easter treats cheek by jowl with discounted mince pies in December, I resolved that not a single crumb would pass my lips until Good Friday.

Even writing about the merits of hot cross buns tests my resolve. I love their fluffy texture, the contrast between savoury bread and sweet, plump fruit, the heat of ginger and nutmeg tamed by the obligatory creamy wodge of butter. Best of all, I love nibbling round the chewy cross on top like an ill-mannered five-year-old. The only thing keeping me going is the thought of the glorious weekend of gorging ahead of me, before I forsake their pleasures for the next 51 Fridays, as nature surely intended.

Sweet buns have always been festive food: a Tudor by-law presumably aimed at stamping out naughty, popish decadence outlawed their sale in the City of London, “except it be at burials, or on Friday before Easter, or at Christmas, upon pain of forfeiture of all such spiced bread to the poor”. The Easter cross is a more recent introduction, first recorded in the late 18th century. (Collectors of literary trivia may be interested to learn that James Boswell and Samuel Johnson breakfasted on “cross buns” on Good Friday in 1773; whether they were hot or cold is not recorded.)

Until relatively recently, the mark was slashed rather than piped on, using a tool known as a “bun docker”, though common sense suggests that this practice, common to many such denser breads, was as much to allow heat into the buns as it was to let the devil out. So powerful is this particular cross, however, that tradition has it that any buns baked on Good Friday will never go off. Indeed, one example in Colchester, described by its owner as “like a ball of concrete”, celebrates its 210th birthday next year.

This fortitude is fortunate, given the once common practice of suspending a Good Friday bun from the ceiling as a kind of cinnamon-flavoured household protection insurance. Crumbs were carefully hoarded for their healing powers and sailors carried them as good luck charms, all of which leaves me in no doubt that the hot cross bun is a magical thing: no mere bauble of a Creme Egg (which could be discontinued for all I care), but a special treat that deserves a bit of ceremony.

And ceremony is what it gets at the Widow’s Son pub in Bow, east London, which throws a bun-hanging party, complete with sailors, every Good Friday – but the bun has friends in higher places, too. The Church of England would probably support my usual stance, given the Very Rev Jeffrey John’s worry that the ubiquity of the cross has led to Britain losing touch “with the significance of the bun and its link to Holy Week”. Members of the English Defence League (EDL) are fans; one of its London branches was fooled and outraged by a spoof story suggesting that a baker in Southend had removed the cross from his buns to avoid causing offence. (A “hot cross bun without a cross”, it fulminated, is “just a bun”.)

Now I come to think of it, perhaps that is the perfect way to dent our voracious, year-round appetite for these seasonal treats – put the word out that they’re endorsed by the EDL. Nothing like a bit of right-wing extremism to put you off your breakfast . . . which should mean all the more buns for me, come Friday. Happy Easter, folks.

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 17 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Spring double issue

PHOTO: URSZULA SOLTYS
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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist