No one in their right mind would find any sympathy for the character of Miss Trunchbull from Roald Dahl’s Matilda (1988), that terrifying, violent and cruel headmistress of Crunchem Hall Primary School who frightens her pupils and punishes them for ‘misdemeanours’ – like the wearing of pigtails or the eating of liquorice during lessons. For the last few months I’ve been thinking about that chapter on the student Bruce Bogtrotter. Bruce is caught stealing a slice of Trunchbull’s ‘personal’ chocolate cake from the kitchen, and when he denies it he is forced to either eat the rest of the 18-inch cake in front of the entire school – or be locked in the Iron Maiden-style cupboard known as ‘The Chokey’; he steadily scoffs it down mouthful after mouthful as his peers watch with a mixture of horror and awe, cheering him on till the last bite.
That picture of simultaneous gluttony and punishment keeps popping into my head while I try to digest the socioeconomic events that have been unfolding in the UK since the last quarter of 2021: Brexit-related supply issues, welfare cuts, increases to the National Insurance tax, the upward spike in fuel and energy costs, the war in Ukraine and how that’s affecting global food security, rates of inflation at 7 percent and rising. All of which will threaten the already precarious living standards of the UK’s poorest households. That image of Bruce doggedly stuffing his face with chocolate gateau keeps swimming into focus and then warping out of its original context, his hair a straw-coloured mop in my mind’s eye. Because it all seems to have something to do with cake. From the recent ‘Partygate’ scandal – the numerous in-person celebrations that took place at and around 10 Downing Street while the UK was in lockdown and such activities were prohibited, and one non-work-related gathering Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s supporters were defending on the basis that he had been ‘ambushed by a cake’ – all the way back to the cake-related metaphors for implementing Brexit (“My policy on cake is pro-having it and pro-eating it,” Bru… Boris, has said numerous times). Both that metaphorical European cake and its literal manifestation as a birthday ‘surprise’ have come to symbolise a culture of denial, lies, greed, disrespect and contempt.
Immediately after that ‘ambush’ defence was given, Ian Blackford (the Scottish National Party’s House of Commons leader) said during Prime Minister’s Questions, “Tory cuts, Brexit and the soaring cost of living have pushed millions of families into poverty. The impending National Insurance tax hike hangs like a guillotine, while [the Tories] eat cake”. Boris, naturally, tried to deflect this statement by suggesting that Blackford had been eating all the cake. Which sort of worked because the PM was then accused of fat-shaming his colleague. But let’s take a moment to unpack that part about poverty: households supported by Universal Credit payments rose from 3 million at the start of 2020 to 5.6 million in January 2022. Just before the COVID-19 pandemic struck the UK, it was predicted that of the 14.5 million people earning a low income (less than 60 percent of the median UK household income), 11.7 million households were living in absolute poverty (meaning one or more essentials, such as food, heating or a home, falls outside a person’s budget). The Resolution Foundation, a living-standards thinktank, predicts that a further 1.3 million people (including 500,000 children) will be pushed into these conditions by rising cost-of-living prices. According to The Trussell Trust, an NGO that operates a network of over 1,300 foodbanks across the UK, reliance on the community-run charity has increased by 75 percent in the last six years. Now, recent government policies such as cuts to Universal Credit, coupled with the inflated cost of living, mean that many more people on the lowest incomes will have to choose between heating and eating. Even if some people manage to access foodbanks, there are reports that certain foods (like root vegetables) are being turned down because they take too long, and therefore too much fuel, to cook. But who cares about statist… err, people, when there’s cake to be had and eaten?
Blackford’s reference to Marie Antoinette isn’t exactly original (though it’s curious that he never explicitly stated over whom today’s guillotine hangs): it recalls the story that upon being told France’s starving peasants were unable to buy bread, the French queen responded with the infamous retort, ‘Let them eat cake’. (Or rather, ‘Qu’ils mangent de la brioche’, which doesn’t translate to cake, but describes a bread enriched with butter and eggs.) Whether or not the queen did indeed say this – and many historians contest the attribution – the phrase has nevertheless come to symbolise the ruling class’s disregard and ignorance of how the real cost of living affects society’s poorest. And we all know what happened in the end.
Little Bruce Bogtrotter seemed to be able to consume an unending amount of cake, in part because he had the support of his mates. But Boris is looking at the largest drop in public confidence since taking up the role and increasing hostility from his own party. For how long will he be able to scoff his way through his (for which read ‘our’) problems? Boris might be having and eating all the cake for now, but at some point he might get his just desserts. In the meantime, what we’re really facing is a big fucking Eton Mess.
From the May 2022 issue of ArtReview