Diversions #3: On the Dialectics of a Victoria Sponge

As might be expected from a blog post entitled “Diversions”, written for an online journal aimed primarily at PhD students, this one starts by stirring up images of articles left half-finished and monographs lying shut upon a desk, their unturned pages crying softly through their unbent spines to be read. Pressing as it may be for the contents of these no doubt worthy sources to be imbibed by their, you guessed it, distracted reader, he has far more diverting things with which to occupy his time than concerning himself with reading a Marxist critique of this, a Freudian analysis of that. From a dust jacket, a certain pessimistic German theorist from the last century stares out towards the unoccupied chair in which a diligent young researcher should be sitting, his disapproving gaze threatening to burn a hole in the upholstery. But enough context, it’s time to come to the point of this post.

What is it that has drawn the subject away from their work? What could possibly be so important as to have created this inertia, which has subverted an otherwise productive late afternoon? The answer lies, funnily enough, on the TV screen, on which images play of a slightly over-enthusiastic elderly woman proffering a rather impressive Victoria sponge towards the camera. At her oh-so-practical kitchen island sit her (again) slightly over-enthusiastic family, complimenting her on her creation, rattling off phrases which, in their “what-ho!” gusto, would have made Enid Blyton blush with shame at her own lack of imagination in the exclamation department.

You might have guessed by now that the diversion in question here is, in fact, the medium of cookery programmes, and those of one culprit in particular: none other than Mary Berry herself. Once, she was content merely to remain part of the Holy Trinity of cookery writers with whom I grew up in the late 1990s and early 2000s, reigning in joint supremacy in the culinary heavens alongside Delia and Nigella (to those in the know, last names are simply a superfluity), with Jamie Oliver buffeting against them in a role similar to that of Jack Nicholson in The Witches of Eastwick. However, Delia never quite seems to have recovered from her infamously diabolical fish pie recipe, which provided the opportunity for a large part of the Waitrose-going public to become significantly better acquainted with the insides of their toilet-bowls than they perhaps would have chosen to willingly. Nigella, likewise, has become increasingly superficial in her concoctions, to the point that she appears now to consider the “novel” idea of spreading an avocado on toast to be a recipe. Sainted Mary, on the other hand, spurred by the surge in her popularity brought about by a once charming, now vapid and morally bankrupt amateur baking programme, has risen above her peers with her jingoistic images of Little English idyllic perfection to become the dominant presence in aspirational cooking programmes of a certain type.

Do we, as her worshipful viewership, actually cook any of the tub-thumpingly British classics she conjures up before our transfixed gazes? Of course not! Few of us could honestly concede to watching her for this reason. No, we watch her ever-more-numerous programmes so as to bask in the artificially warm glow of a modern day Merrie England, in which the sun always shines, families exist in a constant state of mutual conviviality, and there’s always a fresh pot of tea and a slice of something, Victoria sponge or otherwise, readily to hand. Don’t ask me what my above-mentioned curmudgeonly German reading companion would have to say; I’m afraid I already know! That tempting baked good, that fittingly imperially-named sponge, is deceitfully enticing us over a precipice into a paradoxically rosy black hole. Here, difference and the Other are crushed under the Joules-branded jackboot® of a fundamental Narcissism touted to us by aspirational Capitalism.

And yet, it is rather pleasant to languish in this sun-dappled land, in which those impossibly blue, twinkling, grandmotherly eyes are inviting us to tarry just slightly longer. This is, after all, the great snare in which Mary and her production team have caught us; I know that the bucolic paradise laid-out before me is an illusion, and I would no doubt cringe to hear her views on contemporary social and political issues, but there is nevertheless something about it which makes me want to put my work to the side for half an hour in order to drink in the potent, nostalgia-laden cocktail oozing out of my screen. After all, it’s just a diversion, what harm can it do…? And anyway, that really is a jolly wizard Victoria sponge!

Alasdair Cameron is a first-year PhD Musicology student in the Department of Music at King’s College London. His research focuses on cultural memory and national identity in postwar East- and West-German art music. He is currently preparing to go on a year-long exchange at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin, starting in October, to conduct further research into these issues in the German Democratic Republic during the years 1949-1961.

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