Page 45 Review by Stephen
Every significant moment of Howards life had happened in Dobbiston.
This we learn as an ice-cream van sails through the stars at the beginning of Howards 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.
Im 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 familys 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 Im 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 theres even a bit of Ted McKeever in an elderly ladys loose-toothed mouth. She should probably have a quick floss.
The central cast consists of Howard, his wife, his best mate Jasper and Jaspers new employee, Alex.
Like this father before him, Howard is an ice-cream van man. Thats 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, Howards finances are dwindling and this summer theres been a bit of a downturn which Howard at first dismissed as one of the vagaries of his inherited trade. Its 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 Barrys 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 aint 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: its 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 theres a reason why he wants Howards more than anyone elses...
If Howard is FLAKEs naif, then his best mate Jasper is the storys 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, youd 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!
Jaspers 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 hes averse neither to direct confrontation nor overt vandalism, which may well come in handy during the imminent North-West English Ice Cream Wars. (It doesnt.)
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. Theyre not actually wearing veils, but theyre 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 dont be deceived, for these ladies do pay attention and have acquired much local knowledge over the years. Youll be pleased that you listened, though you wont have to strain your ears, for they are not backwards in coming forwards with their mid-service pronouncements.
People these days dont have the common decency to be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.