In an earlier blog entry I mentioned my interest in John Pudney and having come across references to his autobiography Thank Goodness for Cake (TGFC), I ordered it sight unseen. It was published in 1978 the year after he died. I anticipated finding out more about his wartime service in the RAF, his writing, his marriage, his children and his poems. Well as I discovered TGFC is an altogether different book from the ‘I did this and then I did that’ memoir. He dismisses his previous autobiographical gambit – Home and Away in the opening paragraph as a ‘well mannered, urbane account of the accepted and acceptable. No offence, no compelling interest’. So instead TGFC deals with the reality of his life. That is what he means by cake – cake is the reality and drink is the illusion. Drink blurs; Cake substantiates.
He was an alcoholic and the book deals with his decision to give up alcohol and all that entailed – ‘I was never recklessly drunk, I was never sober. The intake had been craftily and disastrously spread out over twenty-four hours – with such organised items as the brandy miniature in the pyjama pocket for shaving time.’
But he doesn’t just write about alcohol. TGFC is a beguiling book with glimpses of his childhood, his parents and their respective families, growing up, work, relationships and his poetry. It is all characterised by honesty. He must have been dying from cancer as he wrote it and so there was no need to pretend anymore.
It is also a celebratory account of the people and places that were important to him whilst being unsparing in its analysis of his owns shortcomings. I found myself liking him more and more as I read on.
And his wartime experience? At the start of the seventh chapter, The Square peg he writes “I have no wish now to recall or write about the war. I can only remember episodes and have to search my diaries to see if they existed or if there are bits of personal embroidery…. In my later life I’ve taken to constructive amnesia, deliberately de-memorising events and the people that went with them. This is not the same as forgetting. It is rather clearing the past into a limbo nearly out of mind, in order to leave more room and capacity for the present”. So instead of the war he writes about the poems that came out of it and a discussion with Benjamin Britten at the Albert Hall. Was I disappointed? Not at all – I was entranced with the book by this stage.