James Morton plants a mug on the desk and produces a hardback book from his schoolboy satchel. On the surface of a Starbucks table on Byres Road, a miniature James peers skywards in Fair Isle tank top, moulding a piece of dough.
The same bespectacled eyes look back from above a steaming coffee. If it wasn’t for the tome bearing his name beside him, the 22-year-old would pass for an orthodox West Ender. Arriving on his vintage bike — “I built it myself” — in a dark blazer and crisp shirt, he blends almost unnoticed into the hub of students he inhabits.
If not for the loyal Great British Bake Off fans, his anonymity would be guaranteed. Yet this sudden ‘fame’, the heights of which James labels “ridiculous”, has presented opportunities that the young Scot was not about to dissuade.
His first book, Brilliant Bread, is an innocent literary offering for those who “are inexperienced, impatient and busy, giving beginners the understanding needed to make delicious bread on a whim.” The beautifully-designed hardback falls off the Bake Off bandwagon, driven by the TV show’s judges, Paul “bit of a lad” Hollywood and Mary “Gran” Berry, with a passenger-load of amateur bakers.
After being persuaded to apply by his friends because he had “the best chance, being the most TV attractive,” he undertook months of interviews, screen tests and recipe creations before he appeared on screen in the show’s third series in 2012. Coupled with his medical degree, James soon found his stress levels rising.
“As the weeks wore on, I couldn’t be bothered any more,” he says. “I had exams at uni, I was stressed, and I didn’t practice for the challenges.”
James underlines that public opinion of him was moulded by the production editing. “Every week I moaned and said I wanted to go home,” he recalls. “Nobody saw that though.” Eventually he admits that his concentrated schedule of examinations, filming and travel almost forced him to quit the show. “If I’d failed in my studies, I would have left the Bake Off. Luckily it didn’t go that far.”
Yeast, sponge, gingerbread, unionist icing and a puff of flour: the medic from Shetland awoke to the final stages of the competition. “I had never planned to win, so I wasn’t upset when I came second,” he says. “As soon as filming was complete, my girlfriend and I were on a ferry to France with our bikes. I actually missed the wrap party.”
The loss of his fellow bakers and the 50-strong crew were sad removals from daily life, but the conclusion of the competition meant a permanent return to Glasgow.
When the city is mentioned, James lights up. This is the town of his parents (pre-island hopping); of his friends and girlfriend; and crucially of his favourite places.
“There’s a great feeling in Glasgow,” he enthuses. “I love the coffee, beer and the people. Hospital patients have humour here. Though it’s easy to think the city’s wealthy if you stay in the West End, but there are huge levels of deprivation.”
James’s medical degree is altruistic by definition, and this same principal applies to his popularity, which he exploits for charity work, notably with an appearance at last month’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe with his show James Morton Kneads to Raise Dough with historian and comedian Susan Morrison.
Though James has over 40,000 followers on social media, his determination to blend back into the city stresses that he is still a student with a degree to attain. “My goal is to be a good doctor. That comes first.”
Naturally, a studious temperament is no hindrance to a night out. “An ideal evening would be relaxing in the flat with good food and a sour beer,” he muses. “Maybe after we’d go to Brewdog or Stravaigan. I’m a bit past clubbing, but if I was forced to go, I’d take Mary [Berry] and Sue [Perkins] as wingmen. They’d deflect the attention from me!”
Crucially, James’s appearance on the nation’s screens collided with the public’s refreshed addiction to home baking. He refutes the media’s diagnosis of recession ripples and cash crunching, and blames the “pre-packaged world” and its lack of individuality. “It’s quirky and fashionable now to make everything yourself.”
And so James leaves us with loaves; his recipes devised as a stylish stepping stone for the most daunted bakers. “Total beginners can do this. Some basic breads don’t even require kneading. If a problem pops up,Brilliant Bread will give you the answer. And if not… well, I’m always on Twitter.”
Brilliant Bread by James Morton is published by Ebury Press.
This article was first published in The Journal on 4 September 2013.