Frank Kermode

The last great literary critic.

My interview with Sir Frank Kermode, which appears in this week's New Statesman, is now available to read online.

I didn't get the chance to talk to Sir Frank about his recent book on E M Forster, which Leo Robson reviewed for the NS last month. Instead, we spoke about the lost prestige of literary criticism (Kermode talked, with a certain wistfulness, about a time when "there were literary critics with immense reputations"), his role in the importing of literary theory into this country and his admiration for Philip Roth (tempered by his recognition that Roth is "writing some pretty bad books at the moment").

Dinah Birch has reviewed both the book on Forster and Kermode's collected literary journalism, Bury Place Papers, in this week's TLS. Birch makes an acute observation about the tenor, or, rather, the temperature, of Kermode's interventions in the theory wars:

He played a vigorous part in the convulsions of the early 1980s, when the Faculty of English at Cambridge tore itself apart over the merits of literary theory. Kermode was a defender of Colin McCabe, at that time a beleaguered young theorist denied promotion by traditionalists. Nevertheless, he refused to be identified with a theoretical approach to literature, either in general or in particular. He is an interpreter, not an evangelist.

I think this gets things just right, and it's in fact corroborated by something Kermode said to me about how he sees his role in all this:

It wasn't a planned campaign or anything like that. These ideas were abroad, I had this seminar and I thought we should discuss them.

I was very interested in Roland Barthes, in particular -- as was this random group of people who came to my seminar. We weren't addicts; we weren't people who were committed a priori to the new theory, or anything of that sort . . .

It didn't last very long, but it was a notable airing for a different way of thinking about literature.

The slightly deflating humility of that remiscence is echt-Kermode.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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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