When Edmund Burke said ‘all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing’, I like to assume that he was peering into a crystal ball and seeing something Mogg-shaped out there in the gloom of 21st century Britain, and someone like me trying to do something about it.
What he probably didn’t foresee was that I would try to bake a Christmas cake as a representative intention of a ‘good man doing something’. I mean, who the hell bakes a cake as their contribution to a national crisis?
Actually, lots of people. It turns out that cake interrupts history all the time. Alfred the Great, the Vikings, Marie Antoinette, Adolf Hitler, even Mary Berry. Every time something happens, a cake seems to interpose itself between people and their crises.
And so it was with me. My contribution to our national humiliation was to come home one day last week and bake a Christmas cake. I didn’t mean it to be, but it just happened. I think it was a metaphor for disinfecting myself from the aural mixture of Nigel Farage and John MacDonnell on the same radio programme in the car earlier on, and I just found myself needing to do something transformative. It was either that or be sick.
I’ve done it before, and it has worked. Many years ago, I made a Christmas cake for my (then) young children, and iced it with a road traffic accident scene where a clearly inebriated Father Christmas had crashed his sleigh into a pine tree and was lying asleep on the snow, a bottle of red wine leaching its way into the snow. ‘Why’s he drunk?’ asked one the boys delightedly. ‘He’s not,’ said my father-in-law gravely; ‘Your father’s just being a bit silly.’ Succeeding years produced better and better cakes until I judged myself getting close to professional, and that scourge of my cookery over the decades (cockiness) floated in on the breeze. ‘Bake Off next year, I think,’ I suggested to Caroline. ‘Of course,’ she replied, heaving the tool box upstairs to fix the leaking tap in our bathroom.
But baking is a precision task, and the one thing you cannot expect from an attention-deficit fifty something is precision. Intoxicated, as a refugee from the unremittingly depressing news on Radio 4, with my first experience of Classic FM, I cheerfully threw everything in the same bowl in vaguely the same quantities that Nigella Lawson suggested. Where there wasn’t a required ingredient, I quickly found a substitute. Grand Marnier for brandy; cinnamon for nutmeg; Lurpak for butter. Where there wasn’t the right equipment, I improvised. But it was in our respective interpretations of time that Nigella and I parted most poignantly. Where she said ‘steep in the brandy overnight’, I just added three times the alcohol and steeped for ten minutes. When she implied that eggs should be beaten in slowly and deliberately one at a time, I just threw them all in and told them to be grateful that I had taken the shells off. When she suggested leaving the cake for three weeks before applying the marzipan…..well, hell, there wasn’t even three weeks left until Christmas.
An hour or so into the process, I switched over, via the Archers to Smooth Extra, letting Lionel Ritchie and Nina Simone croon me into the zone of near-perfection. Anything but the news. Anything but the Mogg. And it was here that my fatal misinterpretation of Nigella’s sumptuous, doe-eyed, spoon-sucking, sex-in-a-studio recipe caught me in its backlash. When she suggested that I lined my 23cm round cake tin with two or three layers of parchment or, better still, a newspaper, I just lined half of it with one scrap of parchment and lobbed the thing in the oven for three hours or so. I had cards to write, emails to construct and dogs to entertain, and I didn’t have the time for small details. I was a strategy man, and the cake would prove it.
In the event, it didn’t. What it proved was that I wasn’t as clever as I thought. What emerged out of the oven was not so much’ the Dog that barked in the night’ as ‘the cake that died of shame’. Every currant, every raisin, every glace cherry, every last bit of mixed peel that was within an inch of the surface has undergone a process of total thermal shock. In a world where fruit cakes tend to be an appealing brown, mine was anthracite black; where the aroma is redolent of childhood Christmases and small town bakeries, mine was redolent of the fires of a landfill site. There are things that can be rescued, and things that just need to be consigned to the wheely bin. ‘Lucky old bin,’ as Basil Fawlty would have said, only I doubt that my bin would have agreed.
And what hurt, beyond the sheer financial cost of those wasted ingredients was the thought of the Rees-Mogg’s Christmas cake, servant-baked and classically trained as it almost certainly was, sitting perfectly in some corner of the manor where the smell wouldn’t affect his ironed pyjamas.
As Boris Johnson said all those years ago: ‘My policy on cake is pro having it, and pro eating it’, which is kind of ironic when you see where that particular strain of thought has led us.