Burnt out by the present, I’m self-soothing with Bake Off and old novels

Emma Brockes
·4-min read

For a long time in the spring, I found I couldn’t read. My concentration was shot from too much scrolling, and I was thoroughly hooked on the adrenalin of bad news. The consolations of fiction seemed, by comparison, very weak and uninviting. Besides which, any spare time – and there was no spare time, during those first weeks and months after the schools chucked out – was, I knew, supposed to be spent on rigorous plans for self-improvement.

Nine months later, and here we are, dragging ourselves towards the end of the year, various types of burnout raging. With the number of hospitalisations in the US at almost double the spring peak, the appeal of listlessly absorbing one dire headline after another has, for many of us, waned. These days, I don’t want to stay up past midnight immersed in the latest developments from the pandemic. In fact, I don’t want to spend time in the contemporary world at all. For me, the only reliable escape right now is to be found in two locations: painfully slow novels that are at least 40 years old, or the equally out-of-time-and-place space of the tent in Bake Off.

The escapism of the minutely observed past can, we know, be more outlandish a journey than ostensibly much wilder departures. Every few years, an overlooked literary masterpiece is rediscovered, illuminating some aspect of life a generation or two ago and taken up with wild enthusiasm by those born after it. A few years back, it was Desperate Characters, the 1970 novel by Paula Fox, all but forgotten until Jonathan Franzen took it up as a cause, and for a while it seemed to be all anyone was reading.

The lockdown equivalent has been Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, a novel written in 1971 by Elizabeth Taylor, a writer I associate so exclusively with the 1940s that it came as a shock to discover she was still writing in the decade I was born. In both of these novels, there is that vertiginous sense of looking back at a world disappeared – in the Fox novel, a late 60s version of Brooklyn, full of gloom and foreboding, in which a couple’s malaise is expressed through the lens of a random bite by a cat; in Mrs Palfrey, a depiction of a frayed, genteel London of the same period, saturated in alienation and loneliness.

I’m not sure why I found Mrs Palfrey so consoling, but it sent me down a rabbit hole of mid- to late-20th-century novels that, in the past few weeks, has had me rabidly reserving from the library all the Penelope Lively and Elizabeth Jane Howards I can find. The crises in these novels of the very recent past remind one simultaneously that everything, even the worst things, will pass, while reassuring us that no matter what happens or how wildly alien the world is, human preoccupations remain broadly the same.

Which brings us to Bake Off. In America, large numbers of friends have clung to the British baking show – that, and 12 seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race – as the only way to self-soothe over the past few months, and I can see why. A couple of weeks ago I dropped into the most recent series, after emerging, blinking, from a period of only wanting to watch horror. I didn’t intend to stay. I like Bake Off, but I couldn’t imagine the mild drama of the tent would match my mood. And yet half way through the first episode, something like a riptide effect took hold, and now I’m hours in and hungry for more.

It’s a new phase, not unconnected to my enjoyment of the novels, those acutely observed pieces that turn not on wild plot twists but, more often than not, on small acts of unkindness. For so long, the news has been neon and exclamatory. All I want, now, is to be reminded that most lives don’t unfold in this way; that our most intense pleasures hit at the level of a cake coming out of the oven, or the warmth of Noel Fielding gently teasing a contestant. I want a reminder, I suppose, that the drama of our lives exists for the most part separately from what’s going on out there; that it’s in here, with these people, inside the tent, that it happens; and that these small fluctuations, captured in the best novels and least dramatic TV shows, are where we live and what we will remember.

• Emma Brockes is a Guardian columnist