Incoming: Aleksander Hemon, James Salter and Emily Berry at the Southbank Centre

Preview: London Literature Festival.

Aleksandar Hemon

Sophie Elmhirst: Not long ago, I met Aleksandar Hemon for lunch in St Pancras station. We spoke mostly about his new memoir, The Book of My Lives, which recounts chapters of Hemon’s life both sides of its central event, when he left Bosnia as a young man just before the siege of Sarajevo (I reviewed the memoir here). In conversation, Hemon roamed widely – from European football to how to teach creative writing. He was most poignantly open on the subject of the final essay in his book, his daughter Isabel. She died as a baby from a rare form of cancer and if you haven’t read it, Hemon’s account – in "The Aquarium" (originally published in the New Yorker) is an almost impossibly frank account of the trauma of losing his daughter. Aleksander will speak on 25 May. Here are four other events well worth checking out.

James Salter

The 87-year-old has just published his first novel for more than 30 years. All That Is is an elegant journey through the life of one man in Salter’s distinct, sensuous prose. He is often cited as the most unsung of the great American writers of the 20th century, or a writer’s writer (Richard Ford is a devoted admirer). 25 May.

John Burnside

Our very own nature columnist will be speaking about bees (a theme which will recurs across the festival - remember Einstein: "If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live") and reading from his poems. 27 May.

Heather Philippson and Emily Berry

Two exciting young poets (Berry’s work has been published in the New Statesman here) will read from their work. 28 May.

Tracey Thorn

The singer, one half of Everything But The Girl, talks about her memoir, Bedsit Disco Queen. A fine writer (read her in the New Statesman here), Thorn’s account is witty and personal. 2 Jun.

The London Literature Festival will run until 8 September at the Southbank Centre. You can read the full programme of events here.

Book talk from the New Statesman culture desk.

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