In the critics this week

Catch-22, the arms race in medieval relics and the action film with only one punch.

The "Critic at Large" this week is Daniel Swift, writing on the enduring relevance of Joseph Heller's novel Catch-22. "One recurring joke," Swift writes, "is about army canteen food. For lunch one day, the airmen have roast lamb with 'Iranian rice and asparagus tips Parmesan, followed by cherries jubilee for desert and then steaming cups of fresh coffee with Benedictine and brandy', all served by kidnapped Italian waiters at tables dressed with damask. The joke is surely that army food is so bad. Pause, however, and scroll forward to other wars in later times, to now. During the Iraq war, American soldiers stationed at al-Asad Airbase, west of Baghdad, could choose their dinner from Burger King, Pizza Hut or Kentucky Fried Chicken... Now, the joke changes; now, the novel points at us."

In this week's lead book review, Stefan Collini examines Thomas Docherty's For the University: Democracy and the future of the Institution:"Docherty fears that the university is now being treated as a 'menial service-provider for this vague world of business.' The whole agenda of 'transferable skills', for instance, 'diverts attention away from the specifics of academic or intellectual content' towards capabilities thought to appeal to employers."

The Books Interview this week is with Chris Adrian, who has reworked Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream in his latest novel, and speaks about his experience as a paediatric oncologist.

Mehdi Hasan and James Macintyre's book Ed: the Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader is reviewed by Roy Hattersley, who judges that the authors "skim the surface of almost everything in what is less a book than an exercise in sustained journalism, with all the strengths and weaknesses of that genre."

Helen Lewis-Hasteley reviews Caitlin Moran's feminist autobiography, finding that "while How to be a Woman might not have the anger or urgency of The Female Eunuch, it certainly has more jokes. And perhaps that's what modern feminism needs."

Elsewhere, Jonathan Derbyshire reports on the "Treasures of Heaven" exhibition of medieval relics at the British Museum, Antonia Quirke listens to Aung San Suu Kyi's Reith Lectures on Radio 4, and Tom Ravenscroft reorganises his podcasts, having acquired a new computer.

Film critic Ryan Gilbey examines A Separation, a film in which "only a single punch is thrown," despite being billed as "the year's most explosive action movie", and Rachel Cooke has an olfactory reminiscence occasioned by the BBC4 documentary Perfume.

Finally, lead fiction reviewer Leo Robson gives Alan Hollinghurst's latest novel the once over, noting that it has a striking resemblance, in the early chapters at least, to Ian McEwan's Atonement. "The difference is that Atonement turns out to be a parody of a novel by Elizabeth Bowen, whereas The Stranger's Child turns out to be a parody of a novel by Alan Hollinghurst."

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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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