The Emperor of Ice-Cream was recommended to me by an author on Twitter whose book, Source, I very much enjoyed. Having heard Brian Moore mentioned by other authors I rate highly, receiving the recently released new edition of this book offered me a chance to find out what I made of his work. The tale being told is set in Belfast during the early years of the Second World War and culminates in the blitz that killed around 1000 people, hitting half the houses in the city and leaving 100,000 people homeless. My parents lived through this event, my father being of similar age at the time to the protagonist in the story.
Gavin Burke is seventeen years old and has just failed his Schools Leaving Certificate, much to the disgust of his solicitor father who had planned for Gavin to join his older brother at Queen’s University. Gavin is straining at the leash his family hold him by. He has lost faith in the god they worship yet fears he is being punished for his impure thoughts and actions, especially his sexual desires. Fond as he is of his girlfriend, Sally, her unwillingness to step outside the constraints of her religious upbringing cause frustration and a questioning of how suited they are.
While he prepares to sit the London Matric, an alternative and supposedly easier route to university, Gavin joins the Air Raid Precautions unit – a chance to earn some money and step beyond the bubble he has been raised within. His nationalist father is appalled that any son of his would be willing to don such a uniform. It is his view that Hitler offers a chance to defeat the British colonisers and return the North to a United Ireland. Gavin has little time for his father’s opinions, although he still struggles with ingrained shame at the route he has chosen.
“Gavin, watching him, decided that his father read the newspaper as other men played cards, shuffling through a page of stories until he found one which would confirm him in his prejudice.”
The ARP trains recruits in first aid, their role being to provide a first response to casualties of air raids and bear the stretchers that will take them to the local hospital. Gavin is assigned to a unit run by an unhinged and power hungry Post Officer. He quickly discovers that most of the men and women he will work with are misfits from a variety of walks in life. Nevertheless, he makes friends and joins them in outings to pubs and dance halls. He tries to hide his drinking from family and Sally – drunkenness being regarded by them with disgust. He longs to escape the confines of expectation but then dislikes how he acts when offered the chance to break out.
“The grown-up world was no different from school, it was a world where bullies came out best, where excuses satisfied no one, least of all one’s self”
There is humour within these pages, such as when the literature loving Gavin encounters a group of arty types and it is revealed they are homosexuals. Suddenly he is questioning his own prejudices. Like his view of Sally, he had considered himself tolerant and interesting until forced to make choices.
The ARP training comes to appear pointless as the war continues to be waged only on distant shores. Unsure of the direction he now wishes his life to take, Gavin struggles when his father states he is washing his hands of his failed son after another refusal to follow the line set out for him and go to work for a wealthy uncle. Neither Sally nor his father can understand why Gavin won’t conform to this future, especially when he can offer no acceptable alternative.
When the war finally arrives in Belfast, it shakes things up both physically and emotionally.
“Now, for the first time, his father would have to put his principles to the test. Would Hitler still be a great fellow, if Hitler bombed one’s house?”
I was fascinated by this historical setting and the attitudes portrayed. I had no idea people in Liverpool took to the streets in protest against the government continuing with the war after the terrible bombing they endured. I had no idea there were those who admired the fascists, who would do almost anything to see the British government and their pay lords stripped of power. We are taught only the glory and heroism of the victors, the ‘blitz spirit’, rather than the looting. In this story there are men pushing women and children off overloaded vehicles attempting to escape the city. There are men refusing to help casualties as their condition is too sickening to stomach. The heroes are not the brave but rather those who, in the moment, can distance themselves and recognise the personal benefits of being regarded heroic.
The writing skilfully captures the insularity of family life alongside the frustrations of children on the cusp of adulthood. Gavin wants to break away from the religious and political ideologies inculcated by the parents he no longer respects yet cannot help but care about what they think of him. His encounters with a wider variety of cultures proves thought-provoking – portrayed here with understated nuance.
I pondered if the prejudices portrayed, although obviously realistic for the time, could be written of so openly today without bite-back, especially the anti-Semitism. Gavin’s thinking and development around these issues are allowed to be irresolute as he experiences his own reactions in settings where, in his head, he would have acted admirably. His inflated disdain of others’ actions and intolerances is pricked by his disappointment in himself when tested.
His final test is both tense and evocative, his actions and reactions offering a powerful elucidation of how young men function in the moment. I sped through these pages, desperate to know what the outcome would be. The author takes the reader into the heart of the blitz with stunning clarity.
An engaging but never sanitised portrayal of the apathy and horror of the war years. It is also a story of family and community – how these can both stifle and anchor those seeking to spread their wings, only to find the sun can burn.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Turnpike Books.