Barbara Demick wins the 2010 BBC Samuel Johnson Prize

The judges commend her account of ordinary lives in North Korea.

Barbara Demick has won this year's 2010 BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction. Her book, Nothing to Envy, is an account of ordinary life under North Korea's authoritarian regime.

Evan Davis, chair of the judging panel and a BBC radio presenter, said: "It is the personal detail in Nothing to Envy that makes it both gripping and moving. Nowhere will you find a better account of real life in North Korea, a society that is all too easily comically typecast by massive parades of co-ordinated flag-wavers."

The book was reviewed by Charlotte Middlehurst for the New Statesman in February:

The award-winning journalist Barbara Demick tells the stories of six North Koreans and their journeys away from Kim Jong-il's totalitarian communist regime. These are tales of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, accounts of their struggle to reconcile the mantra of their beloved leader - "Father is here, there is nothing to envy" - with the fear, famine and repression engulfing them. The description by Mi-ran, a young teacher of a kindergarten class in 1994, is typical: "They looked like they were growing younger . . . their big heads lolled on top of their scrawny necks; their delicate ribcages protruded over waists so small you could encircle them with your hand."

Demick, who became the first Los Angeles Times bureau chief in Korea in 2001, weaves such stories, derived from interviews and conversations conducted over a number of years, into a compelling narrative. Her book is a reminder that oral history is one of our greatest resources. Its use in Nothing to Envy makes for a valuable contribution to the literature on North Korea.

Nothing to Envy
Barbara Demick
Granta Books, 272pp, £14.99

 

Photo: Hunter Skipworth / Moment
Show Hide image

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

0800 7318496