“I’m just as British as anyone else, and I hope I have proved that.” So said Nadiya Hussain, a woman of whom I’d not been aware until today. If you, like me, are one of the very few people in Britain who is not enraptured by a TV show in which contestants have to make scones, or if you’ve avoided every news outlet over the past 24 hours, you may not know that Mrs Hussain has ascended to the position of national treasure as a result of winning The Great British Bake Off.
Alongside various other aspects of popular culture that I have eschewed – I’ve never seen an episode of EastEnders and I have not once set foot in a McDonalds – I haven’t watched a minute of “Bake Off”. It’s not that I’ve got anything against reality TV, or indeed baking. It’s just that it’s passed me by, and I’ve not been motivated to peer in the tent to see what’s going on.
I’ve been bemused by the way it’s captured the country’s attention, snootily thinking that it’s symptomatic of how we’ve become obsessed by triviality. So you can bake a jam sponge? Big deal.
And now I wish I had paid more attention, because it clearly is a big deal. The final show attracted Britain’s biggest TV audience of the year, a massive 14.5 million, and given that it was a woman wearing a hijab - in her own words, a “Muslim in a headscarf” - who took the first prize, it is hardly surprising that this show is more culturally significant than just a baking competition.
The Great British Bake Off is popular because it represents aspects of Britain that make people feel safe: tradition, homeliness, cosy familiarity. But the victory of Mrs Hussain throws up some altogether less comfortable issues: multiculturalism, racial integration, identity. And when Mrs Hussain claims, while presenting a Union Jack-theme wedding cake wrapped in a sari, that she’s as British as anyone else, she invites us to consider the delicate topic of nationality alongside an assessment of whether her millefeuille is successful or not.
In terms of her outlook, attitude and values, Mrs Hussain may well be as British as anyone else (whatever that means). But, more than that, she is a representative of our polyglot nation, and should be celebrated as such – a living retort to the this week’s xenophobic rhetoric from the Home Secretary.
She was born in Luton, the daughter of immigrants who had fled Bangladesh in the 1970s to escape war, poverty and natural disasters and and to seek a better life running a restaurant in Britain.
Now 30, she lives in Leeds with her husband, and epitomises Britain’s generations of immigrants who have overcome all sorts of adversity and institutionalised prejudice to make a contribution to wider society. Britain’s champion amateur baker grew up in a house without an oven.
According to the President of Muslim Association of Britain, Mrs Hussain has “demonstrated the inclusivity of British Muslims in society” and certainly the juxtaposition of the hijab and the hot cross bun is a very powerful one. She may well be a trailblazer for racial tolerance and integration, but, sadly, Theresa May illustrated this week how much work still needs to be done on that front.
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