Party people: clubbers in Birmingham in 2012. Photo: Getty
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The nine-year bender: Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth

For a good 50 pages, I thought the promise of “Withnail with girls” might actually be realised. But when it comes to partying, in art as in life, a little goes a long way.

Emma Jane Unsworth
Canongate, 256pp, £12.99

One should never judge a book by the celebrity quotes on its cover but it was hard to resist Emma Jane Unsworth’s second novel once I saw that Caitlin Moran had called it “Withnail with girls”. I love Caitlin Moran! I love Withnail! I love girls! Sold, sold, sold.

Sure enough, I rattled through the first three chapters, chortling merrily at the wisecracks of Laura, our heroine (or anti-heroine, if you consider a heavy-duty drink-and-drug habit unsuitable for a positive role model), and her best friend, Tyler. We meet them in the aftermath of a big night on the town: “fizzy wine, flat wine, city streets, cubicles, highly experimental burlesque moves on bar stools . . .” Tyler, the Withnail of the piece, is still awake and smoking, dressed in a ratty old kimono emblazoned with her motto, “Death before defeat”.

These girls – despite being in their late twenties (Tyler) or thirties (Laura), they are definitely still girls – have spent the past nine years living together, tearing up the town, working dead-end jobs and, in Laura’s case, trying to see through the fug of stimulants in order to write a novel. Now change is looming in the form of Jim, Laura’s new fiancé, a concert pianist who has recently, to her great consternation, given up booze. Will Laura, like Withnail’s “I”, opt for a drier, more conventional life? Will she – shock, horror – go over to the “dark side” (child-rearing)? Or will Tyler convince her to carry on the party, even if it drives her into an early grave?

All the essential ingredients of a fine bohemian romp are in place: the cheerful squalor of the flat, with its grimy array of bathroom products and soiled banknotes hanging out to dry; the smart and sassy protagonists, who make you want to be in their gang (I loved Tyler baiting the local vegan hipsters who tell her off for having honey on her toast: “Bees LIKE MAKING IT. No one forces them to. Where will the madness end?”); the sexy and talented Jim, who doesn’t mind Laura’s drunkenness, incontinence or thread veins. For a good 50 pages, I thought the promise of “Withnail with girls” might actually be realised.

For the next 50, I gnashed my teeth as it all fell apart. Unsworth’s problem is that, rather like Tyler, she doesn’t know when to stop. The drunken exploits keep coming, relentlessly, and with ever-diminishing returns. There’s the night Laura wakes up with a roast chicken in her bed and the night Tyler draws on her eyebrows in permanent marker and the night they are held hostage by a drug dealer . . . All the nights blur into one long, repetitive, eventually nauseating boozeathon. By page 100, I wanted nothing more than to curl up in bed with a soothing Horlicks and for Laura and Tyler to do the same.

When it comes to recreational drugs, in art as in life, a little goes a long way. It’s fun to go on a weekend bender with Withnail – and we might even try to match him drink for drink – but we don’t want to be stuck with him or, sadly, with Tyler for nine years. That is more than long enough for a reader to see past the “fun” and through to a harder truth: drugs make people self-centred and, ultimately, pretty boring.

The thing I couldn’t quite fathom about this book is why Unsworth, who I think recognises this, just doesn’t let it stop her. She includes various strands of plot that could have given the novel more depth and range – Laura’s dad is dying of cancer, Tyler’s sister has a baby, there are hints at Laura’s burgeoning spirituality – but she skates quickly over them and on to the next night out. Cynically, perhaps, I felt that she, or her publisher, had decided that the “Girls do drugs, too!” concept would be enough to get people reading.

I don’t want to be cynical, though, because Unsworth is a bright talent. Perhaps all she needs is to find an editor who knows when to call time.

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The elites vs the people

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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