Let Me Eat Cake, by Paul Arnott

In thrall to sticky Prozac
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The Independent Culture

There are books that make you think: heavens, how am I going to review this? Let Me Eat Cake is one such. Paul Arnott's memoir of a life lingering around the sweet shop tests a couple of my more persistent preconceptions. The first is a suspicion of themed memoirs. Yes, there have been some winners, such as Antony Woodward's Propellerhead (a great argument for learning to fly) and Arrigo Cipriani's Harry's Bar, joyously detailing a life in service at Venice's most famous Bellini establishment. But there has also been a lot of gimmicky dross. The other reservation is that, as a salt junky, how would I ever bond with a tale of one man's love affair with custard? I needn't have worried. By chapter two I was wondering if my local newsagents had a quarter of sherbert Dib Dabs in stock.

Arnott, the adopted son of London suburbanites, discovers his propensity for larder-raiding at an early age. His childhood is a pick 'n' mix of confectionery-guzzling, curiosity and sharp wit in zone five. His writing has an easy flow, suiting a man adept at covering his tracks after pocketing a jammy dodger. He can throw in the odd classical allusion: "The Athenians constructed a cake in the shape of a proud penis and testes combination," he informs us. "There wasn't much call for this kind of thing in Bromley, although the Sponge Kitchens bakery could do a Formula One racing car or a Tower of London to match anyone."

Arnott takes us through his adolescence in the 1970s, flitting between the tuck shop and the school drama club, to his undergraduate days in Devon, chasing girls between second helpings in the refectory. All the while his horizons and waistband broaden in equal measure. Before becoming a "shape shifter", Arnott was the second fastest under-16-year-old in London. This allows for a great comic set piece in which his not entirely svelte frame is pitched against Seb Coe at the 1980 student athletics championship. "He was a good five or six years older than me," seethes Arnott. "What kind of student was that? What was the degree, Seb? Metalwork?"

Periods as a producer, actor, professional Santa and city broker pave the way to a stint as a jobbing theatre critic. Each stage is peppered with the pleasures of Rowntree, Cadbury's, Trebor and Bassett. Through all of this there are two constants: a tendency to date actresses (bad news) and drown his sorrows in Marks & Spencer custard tarts (good news). However, when Arnott falls for a fellow cake-friendly hack, his romantic life finally sets like a jelly and they become the Bogey and Bacall of the bonbon counter. Marriage and fatherhood beckon.

Occasionally, Arnott over-eggs the pudding. It's absurd to equate the discovery of Golden Syrup with that of penicillin. But he is a fine historian. The union of cake and communal identity is perfectly illustrated in the chapter on Sachertorte, the mighty Viennese treat. The Kaffeehaus scene, and in turn the city's intellectual heart, has for over a century been fuelled on this concoction of chocolate sponge, apricot jam and cocoa icing. Such is its significance that it has been the subject of a fierce legal fight and helped rebuild a struggling post-war economy. What's amazing is that there were so many depressives in fin-de-siècle Vienna. Why didn't Egon Schiele, Stefan Zweig and their bourgeois patrons just head out for a slice of the local, sticky equivalent of Prozac? How many fat, happy heiresses do you see peering out of a Klimt canvas?

Arnott reserves his personal adulation for the entrepreneur Milton Hershey, founder of the eponymous bar and kisses. In 1923, this all-American candyman signed over his entire fortune to a school for orphans. That trust is now estimated at $8bn. Twelve years earlier, Hershey had tickets for the maiden voyage of the Titanic. He never stepped on board. "The greatest act of educational philanthropy in the history of the world" had almost gone down with the ship. Arnott is adept at telling such wonderful stories, but more importantly it's his warm, affectionate take on growing up, and out, that makes this such a lovely book. Like the author when he bit into the improbable-sounding Refresher Cup Cake, I was won over by the sweetness of it all.

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