Bonfire of the vanities: Russell Brand joins protesters in London during the Million Mask March on 5 November. Photo: Getty
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Tom Wolfe always cuts through modish nonsense. I wonder what he’d make of Russell Brand?

Ed Smith’s Left Field. 

The idea that writing should primarily entertain – the pleasure principle – is the bane of all literary theorists. As Philip Larkin put it, “Life and literature is a question of what one thrills to and further than that no man shall ever go without putting his foot in a turd.”

We all know the difference between a worthy book and one that makes you almost grimace with delight. Listen to your body. The way you lean forward in your chair, your back suddenly straighter, your toes tapping on the floor. The sleepy, dutiful weight of earnest texts that ought to be read, the measuring out of the morning in coffee cups and errands, the glancing at your watch, wondering if it’s too early for lunch – all forgotten. Your expression tells the story: the half-smile of expectation at hearing a mischievous and authentic voice, the heady oxygenation of eager anticipation, like an animal following a scent. You are sure, quite sure, that you are about to be entertained.

What had done this to me? Beginning research on a new project, I noticed, listed in a bibliography of minor relevance, a reference to Tom Wolfe’s essay “Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine”. An excuse! A legitimate excuse! If I could find my copy, I could reread his essays. Furnished with my self-justification, I settled in for the morning, reacquainting myself with Wolfe. Only it lasted for days, not hours.

I had a ball. So I feel obliged, especially as his reputation has suffered a decline recently, to describe what exactly made my toes tap and my back straighten and my mouth turn up at the corners.

Wolfe’s gift, his satirist’s sensibility, is the combination of sublime confidence and raw courage. He makes you confront modish nonsense, snapping you back to your senses. More simply, he has an unfailing nose for bullshit. I find myself yearning to know what he would make of Russell Brand.

Here is Wolfe on the 1970s fad of “anti-fashion”, from his essay “Funky Chic”: “Terrific. Right away anti-fashion itself became the most raving fashion imaginable . . . also known as Funky Chic. Everybody had sworn off fashion, but somehow nobody moved to Cincinnati to work among the poor. Instead, everyone stayed put and imported the poor to the fashion pages.”

But should a serious writer “descend” to the level of describing fashion at all? “Writers seem to find the courage to write about society, in the sense of fashionable society, only from a great distance – either from across an ocean or across a gulf of a century or more in time, and preferably both.” Stop holding your nose, Wolfe is saying. Status – who’s up, who’s down; am I rising or drowning? – is central to the human condition.

He never expressed that argument better than in “My Three Stooges”, a retort to critics of A Man in Full. With the novel a success, Norman Mailer, John Updike and John Irving joined forces to denounce it as mere attention-seeking. “Does that make you feel bad?” an interviewer asked Wolfe. “Bad? Why should I feel bad? Now I’ve got all three . . . Larry, Curly and Moe. Updike, Mailer and Irving. My three stooges.”

Given Updike’s reputation as the great man of American letters, it was an attack of thrilling bravery. Wolfe is contemptuous of Updike’s suggestion that there aren’t enough intelligent readers to sustain “literary” writing. “The novel is dying,” Wolfe replied, “not of obsolescence, but of anorexia. It needs . . . food . . . The revolution of the 21st century, if the arts are to survive, will have a name to which no ism can be easily attached. It will be called ‘content’.”

But how good are the novels? I greatly enjoyed The Bonfire of the Vanities, though something about it made me feel uncomfortable – was Wolfe beginning to be too dazzled by the extravagant worldly success he once satirised? That strand, an ageing man’s obsession with Nietzschean power, expands to fill the still marvellously entertaining A Man in Full.

I abandoned the 2004 novel I Am Charlotte Simmons, bludgeoned and bored by the relentless, detailed descriptions of loveless humping by college sports stars at frat parties, the “rutrutrutrutrutrutrutrut” (I think that is roughly the right amount of rutting; I haven’t counted the syllables) of “two-backed beats herkyjerky humping bang-bangbang”. Instead of the authentic voice of the locker room – which I know better than Wolfe – I was hearing the fantasies of an old man, lived through two-dimensional “studs”. And I have scrupulously avoided 2012’s Back to Blood, lest it contaminate my affection for Wolfe’s early work.

Instead of begrudging a career that trails off, however, we should give thanks for the good times. (Even Evelyn Waugh’s reputation collapsed in the last decade of his life.) Wolfe’s central insight was to distrust what intellectuals said about taste.

Writers should not speak only to themselves, in self-congratulatory riddles. A lifetime of reading, Nick Hornby once said, made him trust “readers’ books” over “writers’ books”.

Wolfe’s attacks on the liberal elite explain why admiring him has always carried some reputational risk. Once, staying in New York as a house guest of friends who possess modernist tastes, I made the mistake of reading out a mischievous passage in From Bauhaus to Our House, Wolfe’s attack on brutalist architecture. For a while, it was touch and go: would I be tipped out on to the street?

Fifteen years later, for all my awareness of his flaws, I’m still at it, on the phone, reading out Wolfe to my friends, smiling at the guts and the gusto, wishing he was on top form now, poking his stick at hypocrisies waved through on the nod of fashion, stirring the hornet’s nest. 

Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Nigel Farage: The Arsonist

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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