Books Magazine

From Cakes to Books: a Snatch of Memoir

By Chris Mills @landing_tales
celebration cake

An edible report card…

At the end of the last school term I put my cake decorator’s hat on and made a cake to celebrate the end of primary school for my daughter’s class. My cake decorating past goes back a few years, since long before my bookselling days, and I have tried to put together a short piece about how it began.

Here it is (though no doubt this isn’t the final version!).  I have been working on bits and pieces of memoir for a while; basically tinkering with the same few episodes over and over again. I hope that I will soon feel inspired to move on with my project. I might even manage to connect all of the episodes together into a more or less coherent version of my life at some point.

The Cake Lady: birthdays, weddings and yet more birthdays


Browsing through photos of the celebration cakes that I created during the 1980s brings back memories of another life; when I became known to my regular customers as ‘The Cake Lady’. It made me sound rather like an eccentric Alan Bennett character. By way of contrast I was also dubbed ‘the modern one with the ear-rings’ by an elderly customer, which may or may not have been a compliment.

My enterprising daughter has had the lovely idea of making a cake decorating album. She assembled several years’ worth that had been quietly languishing in a jiffy bag. The album was my Mother’s Day present, labelled Mummy’s Cake Album and prettily decorated with chicks and eggs. I am undecided whether I am more proud of her efforts or my own.

I became a self-employed cake decorator more by accident than design and I never made any money at it. In fact, after dutifully maintaining accounts my turnover was non-existent. I don’t think that’s what people normally mean by tax-free status. No Swiss bank account for me. I was rather dampened to discover that I had actually had a loss making operation. And so the photographs are all that remain of my would-be business empire. Mr Kipling and his ‘exceedingly good cakes’ had nothing to fear from me.

I trained in Birmingham in the late 1970s at what was then known as the Birmingham College of Food and Domestic Arts. It didn’t occur to me then to wonder what those ‘domestic arts’ were but sadly it’s too late to find out now. It felt incredibly grown up to be at college and learning a trade. No more bells; and school uniform was exchanged for bakery whites purchased from the Army and Navy Store. I also bought a splendid set of knives, thermometers and icing tubes, some of which I still have. 

A few years down the line, I was, as they say resting between engagements when I first began to make cakes from home. There was never a grand plan as initially it was something to do while unemployed. In theory, working from home is a fantastic idea: no boss, no commuting, etc. In practice, I found that it often meant that I iced cakes at midnight. I also lived in a flat almost permanently festooned with half decorated cakes and finished cakes awaiting either collection or delivery. Delivering was a bit tricky since I hadn’t passed my driving test. Fortunately, most customers were happy to collect.

Birthday cakes were my ‘bread and butter’ trade but I also made several wedding cakes including a four tier hexagonal of which I was particularly proud. I loved making kids’ birthday cakes, but did become mildly exasperated by traditional ‘pink/girl and blue/boy mentalities. Someone once requested ‘Thomas Tank engine’ for a girl and I felt like cheering. ‘My Little Pony’ cakes were nowhere near as much fun as smoke breathing dragons or even rabbits in hats. But Winnie the Pooh (the EH Shepard version) was always my favorite subject

I began to build a photograph album for prospective customers and even produced a price list. Well, when I say ’I’ actually a friend typed and photocopied it while my sister did the artwork. The tedious part was mine and that was doing the costing; my main problem was judging profit margins. But it helped to have a proper list as I always felt squeamish about asking for money, though I think my prices were reasonable.

While working as a cake decorator I also worked at a delicatessen which also sold my cakes and later I ran my own market stall for a time. A regular customer base for celebration cakes gradually built up. At one point I even went leaflet dropping around the well healed leafy suburbs of Birmingham to drum up business. Another outlet for my cakes was acquired when an American acquaintance put me in touch with the owner of a cookie shop in the city center.

The major snag with retail outlets was that I had to discount prices. There was also much more enjoyment in dealing with my personal customers and discussing their requirements. It was nice to chat to customers about their order and get some feedback too. My pinnacle of achievement was a child liking her cake too much to cut it on the big day (a duck in a mob-cap and apron).

Literally ‘success on a plate’!  

My next post will be a return to books and the Landing Reading Challenge, I promise. Meanwhile, if anyone has any memoir writing tips, I’d be glad to hear them.

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