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Flake h/c

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Flake h/c back

Matthew Dooley


Page 45 Review by Stephen

“Every significant moment of Howard’s life had happened in Dobbiston.”

This we learn as an ice-cream van sails through the stars at the beginning of ‘Howard’s Cosmos’, otherwise known as Chapter 2.

“All the forgettable ones had too.”

FLAKE is as smart as it is delicious, as it is very, very British.

I’m going to bring out the big guns immediately and reference both Raymond Briggs and Alan Bennett when it comes to the quality, the cast, their outlook, their environment, and their quotidian observations about their parochial environment: pride in your local history, the surprising complexities in your family’s history, and the strength of absurdities which can come to dominate any life; the traps therein.

The lateral thinking and succinct wit of Tom Gauld flow freely too. I hope I’m successfully selling this to you.

Visually, there remain stylistic influences from Chris Ware (the facial forms and rendering, the colouring, the occasional boxed layout, and the odd “AND SO...) and there’s even a bit of Ted McKeever in an elderly lady’s loose-toothed mouth. She should probably have a quick floss.

The central cast consists of Howard, his wife, his best mate Jasper and Jasper’s new employee, Alex.

Like this father before him, Howard is an ice-cream van man. That’s what we used to call them. A veritable local landmark like the lollipop lady, neither were permanent fixtures, more roaming delights. Both were enormously treasured but I own that the sudden appearance of one – preceded by their iconic jingle-jangle eliciting an inevitable Pavlovian drool – was a little bit more thrilling than the other.

Howard has become a master of his craft, with all the local knowledge necessary and subtle skills:

“Identifying the best places to stop. Sensing the optimum moment to switch on his signature tune.
“His ears were acutely attuned to the sound of children laughing.
“And, more importantly, the sound of children crying.”

Unfortunately, Howard’s finances are dwindling and this summer there’s been a bit of a downturn which Howard at first dismissed as one of the vagaries of his inherited trade. It’s not.

It heralds the Coastal North-West English Ice Cream Wars: like Sicily-on-Sea.

Ice cream vans which had for generations been peacefully patrolling their claim-staked family territories range from the familiar and more mundane Mr Creamy and Barry’s Ices to Good Golly Miss Lolly and – my favourite - Walt Whipman. But now one sly Tony Augustus has emerged, seemingly from nowhere, and his entente ain’t so cordiale.

Tony was born of one of the Families, but not into it, and this has given him quite the chip on his fishy shoulder: it’s made him far more ambitious. His multiple vans have begun encroaching on others’ routes, swallowing them whole like some Great White Shark of the suburban seas. And there’s a reason why he wants Howard’s more than anyone else’s...

If Howard is FLAKE’s naif, then his best mate Jasper is the story’s idiosyncratic buffoon. Jasper works in the local museum, selling both tickets and – for an extra 50p – museum maps. For fear of confusing those easily overwhelmed with detail, the maps are very clear and extremely concise, boldly noting the most salient features: “museum”, “car park, “gift shop” and “entrance”. In order to acquire a copy, you’d have to have successfully navigated at least two of those already.

Like Howard (and, it transpires, Alex), Jasper enjoys his daily crossword. They both have plenty of time on their hands and their daily routine includes an 11am exchange of answers. They also like local quizzes.

“Jasper had mixed experiences with quizzes and game shows.
“This included a catastrophic appearance on Countdown.
“Jasper boldly opened with a nine letter word...

That has to be one of the funniest jokes of all time!

Jasper’s overriding priorities, however, are his pet peeves or causes, each as irrelevant to any sane human being as they are uncompromisingly and passionately pursued.

“Jasper had worked in the museum for the last twenty years. Aside from a six month stay in a French prison... for trying to convert continental road signs from metric to imperial.”

... Then painting his results on their signposts.

So he’s averse neither to direct confrontation nor overt vandalism, which may well come in handy during the imminent North-West English Ice Cream Wars. (It doesn’t.)

All of which is but the tip of the iceberg which finds our protagonist, right at the beginning, standing silently and solitarily on top of his own ice cream van, buffeted by the waves and submerged in the sea.

There are so many set pieces to enjoy on your journey, including the local quiz night, a saunter to the seaside, and particularly the three old ladies of ‘The Black Veil Club’, Maud, Jean and Frances. They’re not actually wearing veils, but they’re dressed for the part; nor are they surrounded by flies, though they could be.

Their hobby – their calling, their vocation...? – is to attend funerals, not to mourn the deceased, but to gossip about them, while rating each occasion on score cards according to turnout, eulogy and music.

“A funeral is a fine barometer of a life well lead.”
“And this is the turnout of a womanising drunk.”

But don’t be deceived, for these ladies do pay attention and have acquired much local knowledge over the years. You’ll be pleased that you listened, though you won’t have to strain your ears, for they are not backwards in coming forwards with their mid-service pronouncements.

“People these days don’t have the common decency to be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.”

True, actually.