Monday, 27 July 2015

Ding dong, ding dong…

…or the confessions of a 1950s ice-cream van salesman.

Written by Paul Barnes
IceCream-Jul24-02-176One of D.Di Mascio's red-and-cream vans It was the end of the 1950s and I was in my fourth year as an art student, making a pound or two of an evening as a barman. My friend Blackers reckoned I could do better ‘on the cream’. He’d been working an ice-cream round since coming ashore from National Service in the navy, marking time before going up to read English at Cambridge.

He said the firm he drove for was looking for part-time driver/salesmen. This was D. Di Mascio, which everybody referred to as Dee Dye. He knew I could handle the driving well enough because he actually taught me in a 1933 Austin Seven. I’d passed the test a few weeks earlier, first time. If you could drive an Austin Seven, they used to say, you could drive anything. The Morris vans in Dee Dye’s fleet should be a piece of cake, and they were. I got the job.

Before going solo on the cream you had to learn the round and all the best stopping places, a certain lamppost, a particular telegraph pole, a pillar box or a special tree where customers knew you would be at certain times, but just to make sure you gave a burst of the chimes. Depending on the van you were given there was a cheerful Italian folk song, or a plain old dingdong, ding-dong that came with a mild electric shock each time it was switched on.

The pilot on these training sorties was Spanner. He was a portly, dark-haired youth of few words who had been known to smile now and then, but only fleetingly. Very little seemed to move or impress him.

Early mornings the yard was loud with sluicing and whistling as the red-and-cream vans were washed. ‘Cleana yah carrrr, lov.’ That would be the Chief, old Dionisio himself, a small man in a grey suit, his native Italian accent marinated in purest Glaswegian, a relic of the days when he sold passing Scots his home made ice cream from a hand cart. His recipe was still the same, rich and mellow, and came in five-gallon containers. ‘Cinque gallone di gelato.’ It was the only bit of Italian I ever learned, but at least I was fluent in it.

There were ingenious gadgets for serving the perfect ice cream, a rectangular mould for wafers and a scoop for cornets, each of them with a sort of ejector mechanism in the handle. They were never used. We preferred a shallow stainless-steel spoon with a wooden handle. With practice you could hold a cluster of four or five cornets in one hand and fill them in seconds, vital in coping with the after-school stampede.

You could easily adjust the size of the helping. Loutish kids who pushed the smaller ones out of the way got a little less; polite people, smiling girls, sweet old ladies and young mums with liquid eyes got more, and there was always a free cornet for the child with no money.

Some days Blackers and I would work adjacent rounds, like Kenilworth and Leamington, meeting at lunchtime in a quiet pub. Sitting beneath the yellow sign that forbade the passing of betting slips we checked the form of that day’s nags and handed our modest stake to a little man in a flat cap who was always there. On lucky days, and we had a few, the winnings were kept for us behind the bar.

Scorching summer days with warm, light evenings saw the stuff sold by the ton. We often had to find a phone box and summon fresh supplies. Even in winter there was ice cream to sell, and people to buy it. On Christmas Day there were ice-cream cakes to deliver, with fancy icing, to houses where trees twinkled and hallways were knee-deep in festive wrapping paper. There was always a tip.

Ding-dong, ding-dong, ding… February. It’s a freezing and foggy Sunday afternoon in Bedworth, a mining village near Coventry. Front-room windows are curtained in condensation, blue with the glow of the television. There’s a pause before doors open and women in overcoats and carpet slippers shuffle out from behind the dewy privet. They carry bowls and basins for half-a-crown’s worth of vanilla. With a tin of peaches, that was Sunday tea taken care of.

Di Mascio’s was the most popular of all the local ice-cream firms, but then some alien vans turned up to decant whipped white stuff in sculpted Alpine whorls. Mister Whippy and Mister Softee. It was the ice-cream equivalent of espresso coffee, smart and chic. The kids were cruelly disloyal. They hung on to their pennies and taunted us while waiting for the interlopers to show. The Chief had to change. He launched a new van fleet with fancy freezers. He became Mister D. Di. But by that time Blackers and I were off the cream, moving on.

Him to publishing, me eventually to my perch on Radio Norfolk. But we never forgot our days ‘on the cream’ or the chimes. Who can forget the chimes?

The Late Paul Barnes programme is on BBC Radio Norfolk, Saturdays at 11pm.

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