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Photo: Netflix
The Great British Baking Show

There’s a television show in the UK that has become such a part of American culture that Saturday Night Live regularly spoofs it. In fact it’s from SLN that I even know about the show. Today’s article helps me understand why people love it so.

Eliot A. Cohen writes at the Atlantic, “For my physical health, there is a rowing machine, but for my peace of mind, I have learned this past year, nothing beats old episodes of The Great British Baking Show, which one can binge-watch to satiety on Netflix.

“This trick of seeking temporary refuge from the realities of a grim world by indulging in fantasies of the simple pleasures situated in some lovely part of rural England is nothing new. During the Blitz, Londoners rediscovered the joys of the 19th-century novelist Anthony Trollope. …

“Trollope is still very much worth the reading. But in our fraught times—so much easier, to be sure, than the dark days of 1940—many people like me have sought refuge in a different idyllic England of our dreams. Hence the entirely deserved popularity of The Great British Baking Show — devotees were ecstatic when, the coronavirus notwithstanding, a new season began a few weeks ago.

“Every summer for the past decade, a dozen amateur bakers have trooped into a cheerful, white party tent supplied with counters, ovens, refrigerators, and all the basic paraphernalia they need. Each week is themed — breads, pastry, biscuits. …

“The setting is the lawn of a magnificent bucolic estate in Somerset or Berkshire. Most often the sun shines, but when it does not, we know somehow that the rain is more a gentle and fructifying moisture than a miserable downpour.

“The contestants are supervised by Paul Hollywood, an experienced baker (and race-car driver), and, in later seasons, Prue Leith, the chancellor of Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh and a restaurateur, an author, and a journalist. … They have two sidekicks, in the current version of the show: Matt Lucas, an actor and a comedian, and Noel Fielding, a comic who is weird but amiable, if you like Goth.

“A decent-tasting cake is not enough. … Prue is intimidating enough in her Professor McGonagall way: ‘This is rather a mess, isn’t it?’ and ‘Hmmm. Claggy. What a pity.’ But the hard man of the show is Paul Hollywood. …

“In the days of the empire, he would have been a regimental sergeant major, looking an unhappy private in the eye three inches from his face, pointing at a fleck of lint on an otherwise impeccable uniform, and saying, ‘Your uniform is filthy, you horrible little man.’ … He is one heck of a baker.

“In The Great British Baking Show, there are standards. If it looks a mess, the judges will say so, and the bakers swallow hard and acknowledge their failures. … The vaguely obscene puns — which never seem to grow tired — about flabby buns and the dreaded ‘soggy bottom’ allow no sympathy for the vagaries of fate. Results, not good intentions or effort, are what matter.

“And yet, the show is animated by the warmth of humanity. … There are college students and grandmothers; carpenters and lawyers; soldiers, sailors, and personal trainers; immigrants (or their descendants) of varying hue from Hong Kong and Jamaica and Mumbai. They are remarkably nice to one another.

“When one of the bakers is having a crisis — a cake separating in the middle, a collapsing gluten-enhanced edifice, cracked biscuits — the others rush to help out. … They even hold hands, some of them, in that agonizing wait as the sidekicks menacingly intone, ‘The bakers now await the judgment of Prue and Paul.’ In the face of a really serious meltdown, even Hollywood can be heard to murmur, ‘It’s just a bake, mate.’

“To watch The Great British Baking Show is to believe that the average guy and gal can do remarkable things, that good nature is compatible with excellence, that high achievement will be recognized, that honest feedback can lead to improvement, that there are things to life beyond work. …

“To watch it is to know that, Brexit or no Brexit, and despite royal scandals, political cock-ups, and the occasional omnishambles, there will always be an England. And that is a comforting if possibly delusional thought.

“In short, as the Brits would say, The Great British Baking Show is brilliant, thoroughly joined up, and fit for purpose. To watch it is to feel refreshed, inspired, and confident, ready to return to work with a strong heart and a clean conscience, knowing that somewhere in rural Wiltshire or Somerset, Noel and Matt will say every week in voices of varying and unmodulated creepiness, ‘Bakers! On your marks, get set, bake!’ ”

More at the Atlantic, here.

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Sometimes I wish I lived closer to where the migrants are pouring into Europe. When I read, for example, about all that Germany is doing, how organized the country is about getting people acclimated, helping with housing and language, it makes me want to sign up. In Samos, Greece, Suzanne’s friend’s family spent weeks buying and distributing food, diapers, and other necessities.

Mark Turner writes at UNHCR Tracks about a chef who acted on his impulse to do his bit. He “packed his knives, drove to Croatia and started cooking.

“After serving up 6,000 piping-hot meals for refugees, the Swedish chef’s big wooden spoon is looking worse for wear.

“ ‘It wasn’t broken when I began,’ says Victor Ullman, a 27-year-old from Lund, displaying a large wedge-shaped hole as he pulls it from a simmering pot.

“But long days and nights serving stew to thousands of Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis and many others have taken their toll. ‘As long as I am awake, I am cooking,’ he says. …

“We’re in Bapska, Croatia, a few hundred metres from the border with Serbia, where tens of thousands of refugees have [crossed], seeking safety in Europe.

“They arrive by foot, in baby strollers, in wheelchairs, hour after hour, day after day, wet, hungry, exhausted, on an epic trek towards the unknown.

“And all along the way they are met by an army of volunteers from across Europe, drawn by an overwhelming desire to help.

“There’s Florian, the small farmer from Austria; Ghais, a Syrian who made it to Europe last year; Livija, a trainee pizza maker from Berlin; Stefan, a long-distance walker (‘3,200 kilometres in 82 days!”’); Danjella, a former refugee from Bosnia.

“There are activists and BMW workers, students, sociologists and physiotherapists, sporting fluorescent yellow waistcoats marked with their name and spoken languages, reassuring the crowds, united by a sense of shared humanity.”

Victor “also feeds the aid workers and the Croatian police, who he says are good guys doing their best. ‘They call me the crazy Swede,’ he adds.

“Victor shows me a pair of boots given to him by one policeman, after he’d given his own shoes away to a refugee. ‘I love these shoes,’ he says. ‘They’re like a memory from here – one of them. Spread the love!’ ” More here.

(Jane D: thanks for the lead on twitter.)

Photo: Igor Pavicevic

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When I got my current job, I went through the human resources “onboarding” with a young man from Mali. Even though he went back to Africa a couple years ago, we keep in touch. Naturally, I was worried when radicals took over Timbuktu, Mali, for a while. Fortunately, Mamoudou wasn’t living in Mali at the time, although he says Guinea is not that much safer.

Because of Mamoudou, I continue to follow the Mali news, and was especially interested in a link at the Arts Journal blog today: “Mali’s Underground Railroad: How Timbuktu’s Ancient Manuscripts Were Smuggled To Safety.”

Writes Sudarsan Raghavan of the Washington Post, “It was 7 o’clock on a hot night in August, and Hassine Traore was nervous. Behind him were 10 donkeys, each strapped with two large rice bags filled with ancient manuscripts. The bags were covered in plastic to shield them from a light rain.”

Radicals had taken over Timbuktu four months earlier and “had demolished the tombs of Sufi saints. They had beaten up women for not covering their faces and flogged men for smoking or drinking. They most certainly would have burned the manuscripts — nearly 300,000 pages on a variety of subjects, including the teachings of Islam, law, medicine, mathematics and astronomy — housed in public and private libraries across the city.”The scholarly documents depicted Islam as a historically moderate and intellectual religion and were considered cultural treasures  …

“A secret operation had been set in motion … It included donkeys, safe houses and smugglers, all deployed to protect the manuscripts by sneaking them out of town.

“This is the story of how nearly all the documents were saved, based on interviews with an unlikely cast of characters who detailed their roles for the first time. They included Traore, a 30-year-old part-time janitor, and his grandfather, a guard. …

“The New York-based Ford Foundation, the German and Dutch governments, and an Islamic center in Dubai provided most of the funds for the operation, which cost about $1 million.

“ ‘We took a big risk to save our heritage,’ said Abdel Kader Haidara, a prominent preservationist who once loaned 16th- and 18th-century manuscripts from his family’s private collection to the Library of Congress. ‘This is not only the city’s heritage, it is the heritage of all humanity.’ ”

There are heroes everywhere, keeping a low profile. And I am also pretty impressed with the funders, springing into action like that.

More here.
Map: National Geographic

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