by Bill Drummond
Birmingham is definitely the best place in the world to give a stranger a freshly baked cake. Or at least better than Liverpool or London, or any of the other cities I have tried it in.
My mother never baked enough cakes. Other boys’ mothers always seemed to be baking cakes. At the age of 13 I decided to take matters into my own hands and learnt to bake cakes myself. It started with the Christmas cake.
But then moved onto sponges - Victoria, chocolate, lemon and coffee (handy hint - always use Camp Coffee).
As a father I have failed in many areas, but I have not only attempted to keep up a steady supply of freshly baked cakes for my children, I have tried to involve them in the process from the age they could hold a wooden spoon.
When two of my daughters were respectively six and seven, they made it known to me that they liked the look on someone’s face when you gave them a cake.
Then one of them suggested that we should bake more cakes to give to more people.
Although I suspected this was just an excuse so there would be more mixing bowls for them to scrape out, it triggered some thoughts.
Now, when my mother was not baking enough cakes, I also had a growing desire for maps.
I could never get enough of them. Maps of anything and anywhere. Why read The Famous Five when you could be poring over an Ordnance Survey map of the locality planning your next adventure?
My favourite subject at school was always geography, because we got to draw maps. My appetite for maps continued to evolve un-abated, as has my habit of writing and drawing additional information on these maps.
It seemed obvious to me that we (my daughters and myself) should take a local map, draw a circle on it, with our home at the centre and start baking cakes. The plan was to take three or four freshly baked cakes, then drive out to the edge of the circle on the map and knock on a door.
If the door was answered we say: “We have baked you a cake, here it is”.
And wait to see the look on their face.
Now there are flaws in my parenting skills and it was soon pointed out that I might be exposing my daughters to all sorts of things by dragging them along on this particular escapade.
So sadly it never happened.
But this basic idea did not fade in my imagination. A few years later I decided to create my own Cake Circle without the help of my now teenage daughters.
The excuse that I give myself is that it was something to do with me being an artist.
But the reality is I just like baking cakes and then going up to strangers and offering the cake to them to see that look on their face.
Last Thursday and Friday I baked 40 cakes in the Eastside Projects gallery in Digbeth.
I baked 20 Victoria sponges, and 20 chocolate cakes. Then I took a map of Birmingham drew a circle on it.
The centre of the circle was Eastside Projects. The radius of the circle was defined by the distance between Eastside Projects and Spaghetti Junction.
On Saturday morning I loaded up my white Transit with the 40 freshly baked cakes. Then with my map of Birmingham for guidance, I drove down the Stratford Road until I reached the edge of the circle.
I had already made a decision that I would not knock on doors belonging to private houses, but just go into shops, cafes, hairdresser etc. Basically public spaces where no one is going to feel too threatened by a strange man offering them a cake.
My first pitch was to a family chatting around the open door of a corner shop.
They eagerly accepted it and, as a couple of the women were wearing hijabs, I reassured them all ingredients were totally Halal.
They laughed in a good-natured way at my concern. I explained some of the background and told them about the exhibition, but I think they were more concerned with finding a knife to cut a slice of the cake there and then.
This was down the bottom end of Sparkhill. I then began to make my way around the circle in a clockwise direction via Wake Green, Selly Park and up towards the uni.
Then it was up through Chad Valley to Winson Green. By the time I got to Handsworth, things were getting pretty lively.
People were wanting to ask more questions, even insisting on having their photograph taken on their phones while holding their prized cake. This I didn’t have a problem with as I hoped it might capture the look on their faces.
Some of the shop owners wanted to know if I could publicise their business at the exhibition or on my website. Others wanted the recipe. Or told me about the cakes they make in their culture.
It seemed to open up all sorts of random conversations, none of which got bogged down by what is and what is not art and all that stuff.
Although there were a few people that turned down my offer it was all done in good humour. Or they explained they suffered from diabetes and I should not be putting temptation in their way.
There was little of the cynicism or suspicion I have come across in Liverpool and London when doing the same thing.
I’m afraid the last of the 40 cakes was given away by the time I got to Gravelly Hill near Spaghetti Junction. This was to a mechanic working in ATS in Slade Road. This also meant there was an arc of the circle between there and where I started in Sparkhill that never got supplied.
This week I will be making the first of the four beds out of wood in Birmingham.
This I will be doing on a pavement in the open air over in Small Heath. If you see me chiseling rather fine looking mortise and tenon joints, stop and buy a raffle ticket from me to win the bed.
On Saturday you can join me on my knit and natter session between 3pm and 4pm. If you can’t already knit I will show you the basics.
The subject of this week’s natter is: Are art galleries pointless?
- Bill Drummond is writing a weekly column for The Birmingham Post as part of his three-month residency at Eastside Projects, in Heath Mill Lane, Digbeth.