Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Stop me and buy one!

99 please ...
It seems so long since I last blogged.  This has been partly through idleness and partly through a lack of inspiration, but over the recent August bank holiday I heard a sound which took me back 30 years.  It was the sound of an ice cream van, and I realise that while I’ve often subjected you to tales of the various jobs I’ve done, I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned that I was once Mister Softee.

During the summer holiday from university I heard through a friend about a job going with a local company selling ice cream.  I called the man who ran the family business and after a short interview I was given a van, a white smock, a round with some fairly exact timings and the promise of no basic pay but a 20% commission on all sales.  The round took a bit of getting used to; if you got it slightly wrong there was a risk of bumping into the ‘opposition’ which could have some fairly unpleasant consequences, albeit mostly verbal abuse and only the threat of physical violence.

The soft ice cream was made in a machine into which large cans of what looked like evaporated milk were poured.  The machines filled the liquid with air and froze it.  Mister Softee was the Lyons Maid brand.  It tasted identical to the Walls ‘Mr Whippy’ as far as I could tell, but the name wasn’t as titillating.  So when girls in the pub said “Ooh, are you Mr Whippy then?”, I had to respond sheepishly that I was Mister Softee, inevitably the cue for becoming the butt of impotency jokes.

I became a dab hand at pulling a soft cone (no smut please) and with practise was able to hold half a dozen in one hand, no mean feat I can tell you.  Apart from cleaning out the ice cream maker and avoiding the competition it was an easy enough job and I managed to earn a few quid to keep the bank manager from writing nasty letters about my overdraft.  However there were two things which were a source of annoyance: trying to stop the chocolate flakes for the ‘99s’ from melting (I wasn’t allowed to keep them in the freezer compartment because it discoloured the chocolate), and the immensely irritating jingle that I had to play at every stop.

The jingle was ‘Greensleeves’ and I challenge anyone to hear it, even in snippets, 50 times a day for weeks on end without wanting to scream.  For a few days I tried to vary it by allowing the clockwork thing that played the tune to wind down to produce a painful dirge that’s right up there with our national anthem for making you want to eat your own flesh.  I had to stop of course; not only was the ultra slow version even more horrific, but its distinctly downbeat tone had a negative impact on sales.  The fact is that kids want their ice cream van jingles to be happy tunes, and let me tell you, the customer is always right when you’re living off commission.

I only had the round for that first summer.  The boss was branching out and winning concessions to sell ice cream and eventually hot dogs and burgers at county shows, flower shows, race meetings and so on.  I spent the next two summers travelling around the UK.  It was surprisingly hard work because of the hours.  I remember working at a show one incredibly hot day and the queue never seemed to have less than 30 customers in it.  We were selling the ice cream faster than the machine could make it, pulling cones which had only just frozen enough to hold the cream together.

At first the boss paid for us to stay in B&Bs, but it must have cost him a fortune because before long he bought a very old caravan for us workers to sleep in while we were away from home.  To be fair it didn’t matter too much where we slept; we got pretty hammered down the pub after work each night, which took up virtually all the money we earned.  At the end of each summer I had little to show for it except a knackered liver and a desire never to see or smell another ice cream again.

Anyway, back to the ice cream van which jogged my memory the other day.  No prizes for guessing which tune it was playing, and even after all these years it made me want to run after it, not to buy anything but to beg him to turn off the music.  That Henry VIII has a lot to answer for.
Greensleeves was not my delight ...

No comments:

Post a Comment