Judging the Mercury Prize, David Bowie, and Eminem’s mother

Having previously turned down a Kit Kat ad campaign, David Bowie is now fronting one for Louis Vuitton. But how does one get him out the house?

The pop quote of the month comes from Eminem, who, asked which part of his new album he was most “excited about”, said none of it: he was just glad it was over. I tried to get an advance listen of The Marshall Mathers LP 2 without resorting to illegal downloads but the label refused to send any review copies out, presumably because he’d already given it such a massive kicking himself.

Sometimes I think we’re due a return to the music writing of the 1960s, when the first pop critics, sitting on a record company sofa in Hush Puppies, simply listened to a record and narrated what was on it, instead of providing comment. The Beatles’ “Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite!” is “fairground music brought up to date and quite fascinating to hear,” according to Allen Evans in the New Musical Express in 1967. A year earlier, the Kinks’ Ray Davies had said, of “Eleanor Rigby”, “I bought a Haydn LP the other day and this sounds just like it.” “Tomorrow Never Knows,” he observed, “will be popular in the discotheques.”

Ground control to Major Vuitton

Anyway, I thought of the recalcitrant Eminem when, red-carpeted at the Mercury Awards, the 19-year-old Jake Bugg was asked about how he felt being nominated for the gong and said he wasn’t that bothered. To be fair, through Bugg’s eyes there is no need for industry recognition – his debut album sold 450,000 copies and life for him is a vast, flapping duvet of 14-year old girls, stretched out across a festival field.

I was a Mercury judge for the first time this year: the task of getting 200 records down to one may have been enormous but the 90- minute ceremony passed smoothly apart from Lauren Laverne’s much-celebrated Blunt/Blake spoonerism. James Blake, this year’s winner, is the son of the one-time Colosseum guitarist James Litherland, though you don’t hear much jazz rock in his strain of pastoral dubstep. Way back in the summer before voting began, I wondered if David Bowie would win the award because people wanted to force him to come out of the house and collect it, but no. On the night, he is beamed in via a new video (a remix of his song “Love Is Lost” by James “LCD Soundsystem” Murphy), featuring props from his archives: a few years back someone had been charged with the task of carving the face of the dame on to a piece of wood and turning him into a marionette. On our table someone trawls their phone for visual proof that Bowie is appearing in a Louis Vuitton ad campaign, having previously turned down one for Kit Kat. As it turns out, he is.

1001 lists to read before you die

The workers of Britain were provided with a 375-hour Spotify soundtrack for their offices last week when the NME unveiled its megapoll, “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time”. The Smiths’ “The Queen is Dead” (1986) was No 1. I thought the music press had got the listings thing out of its system about five years ago, around the time of Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Singers of All Time” (I can’t think of 100 singers) and coffee-table publications such as 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die, but just this morning, a new book came through the door that took the music/death/planning equation to a cosmic new level: 1001 Guitars to Dream of Playing Before You Die (Octopus Books, £20).

NME should have had a country-wide poll open only to the public vote. Robbie Williams and One Direction would be at the top followed closely by the guy off The X Factor who sings gospel music; INXS and Dire Straits would be in the top 20. Most of what ordinary people listen to behind closed doors is seldom talked about by music journalists. They’ve started to acknowledge this on Radio 2’s Jo Whiley show, in which I participate once a month or so. I am made to review albums that have already been in the public domain for a week, so that the guy driving the van down the A47 can tweet the programme and tell us that what I’m saying about Alison Moyet is completely untrue. It’s a challenge and quite exhilarating.

The even realer Slim Shady

And so to the Eminem album, for which, as we go to press, there is sadly no time for anything more than a narration review. In the opening track, “Bad Guy”, Eminem sounds very angry and frustrated with his female friend and says he has been driving around her neighbourhood for nine hours and 45 minutes now with his mouth full of saliva. He appears to be breaking and entering her house. This song is a slower pace than Eminem’s usual jog-beat and his voice is quite manly and robust. In the album’s third song, “Rhyme or Reason”, the rapper explains that he has no father but that this is OK because his mother reproduced like a komodo dragon.

James Blake poses with the 2013 Mercury Prize winners trophy for his second album Overgrown during the awards ceremony in central London. Image: Getty

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Are cities getting too big?

Photo: Hunter Skipworth / Moment
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Cones and cocaine: the ice cream van's links with organised crime

A cold war is brewing to the tinkling of "Greensleeves".

Anyone who has spent a summer in this country will be familiar with the Pavlovian thrill the first tinny notes of “Greensleeves” stir within the stolid British breast.

The arrival of the ice cream van – usually at least two decades older than any other vehicle on the road, often painted with crude approximations of long-forgotten cartoon characters and always, without fail, exhorting fellow motorists to “Mind that child!” – still feels like a simple pleasure of the most innocent kind.

The mobile ice cream trade, though, has historical links with organised crime.

Not only have the best routes been the subject of many, often violent turf wars, but more than once lollies have served as cover for goods of a more illicit nature, most notoriously during the Glasgow “Ice Cream Wars” of the early 1980s, in which vans were used as a front for fencing stolen goods and dealing drugs, culminating in an arson attack that left six people dead.

Although the task force set up to tackle the problem was jokingly nicknamed the “Serious Chimes Squad” by the press, the reality was somewhat less amusing. According to Thomas “T C” Campbell, who served almost 20 years for the 1984 murders before having his conviction overturned in 2004, “A lot of my friends were killed . . . I’ve been caught with axes, I’ve been caught with swords, open razors, every conceivable weapon . . . meat cleavers . . . and it was all for nothing, no gain, nothing to it, just absolute madness.”

Tales of vans being robbed at gunpoint and smashed up with rocks abounded in the local media of the time and continue to pop up – a search for “ice cream van” on Google News throws up the story of a Limerick man convicted last month of supplying “wholesale quantities” of cocaine along with ice cream. There are also reports of the Mob shifting more than 40,000 oxycodone pills through a Lickety Split ice cream van on Staten Island between 2009 and 2010.

Even for those pushing nothing more sinister than a Strawberry Split, the ice cream business isn’t always light-hearted. BBC Radio 4 devoted an entire programme last year to the battle for supremacy between a local man who had been selling ice creams in Newbiggin-by-the-Sea since 1969 and an immigrant couple – variously described in the tabloids as Polish and Iraqi but who turned out to be Greek – who outbid him when the council put the contract out to tender. The word “outsiders” cropped up more than once.

This being Britain, the hostilities in Northumberland centred around some rather passive-aggressive parking – unlike in Salem, Oregon, where the rivalry from 2009 between an established local business and a new arrival from Mexico ended in a highish-speed chase (for an ice cream van) and a showdown in a car park next to a children’s playground. (“There’s no room for hate in ice cream,” one of the protagonists claimed after the event.) A Hollywood production company has since picked up the rights to the story – which, aptly, will be co-produced by the man behind American Sniper.

Thanks to competition from supermarkets (which effortlessly undercut Mister Softee and friends), stricter emission laws in big cities that have hit the UK’s ageing fleet particularly hard, and tighter regulations aimed at combating childhood obesity, the trade isn’t what it used to be. With margins under pressure and a customer base in decline, could this summer mark the start of a new cold war?

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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