Tom Ravenscroft's music blog

Drunk pirates or sombre storytellers? Listen here to Australia's most enchanting new band.

Over the past few years there has been a steady and rather welcome increase in good music coming from Australia, a country that previously was either failing to make much of note -- or, as I suspect, was just not bothering to tell us about it or send it overseas.

Recently the likes of C W Stoneking, The Drones, the Middle East, Circle Pit, Civil Civic and Fabulous Diamonds have been filling my ears with joy. But until now I have never heard Australian folk. And I have yet to experience anything else that sounds so very Australian as the Doomed Bird of Providence.

The voice is slightly startling at first. I think this might just be that I've never heard an Australian group that retains their accent; I wish it would happen more, there is nothing more annoying than groups that adopt ye olde English folk voice, a voice that only a small number of people in the West Country and people that name ales still actually speak.

Their album is called Will Ever Prey and recalls tragic, dark tales from Australian history with a strange sort of snarled beauty. It does at times sound like the work of drunk pirates and I won't lie: not all of you will like it. Here's a track from the album:

The Doomed Bird of Providence - Fedicia Exine by frontandfollow  

There are long periods in which the music on the album sounds very traditionally folk, but the dramatic periods of awkward, slightly out of tune, bowed strings are what I was so enchanted by. At times it's a little frightening and I don't get to say that often. More Australian music, please.

Tom Ravenscroft's radio show is on BBC 6 Music at 9pm every Friday. He writes a monthly music column for the New Statesman and blogs here every Wednesday

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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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