Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma by Kerry Hudson (A Review by Kirsty Logan)[admin / August 6th, 2012 / Reviews ]
The first line of Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice-Cream Float contains four swear-words, which sets the tone perfectly for what’s to come. This is the story of a Scottish childhood: the women all struggling, screeching fishwives; the men all feckless alcoholics. Dinner is fish and chips on benefits day, and bread and marge sandwiches the rest of the time. Into this world is born Janie Ryan, who â€“ Tristram Shandy-style â€“ tells us of her birth and early years in measured, adult tones from the point of view of her own newborn self. We follow Janie through her childhood of violent father-figures, to her delinquent adolescence, to her eventual escape from this claustrophobic world.
Although I’ve lived in Scotland for fifteen years, I’ve never been to the Scotland of Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice-Cream Float: decrepit council estates lousy with graffiti and junkies, curfewed B&Bs; street corners where the only entertainment is cheap cider and sloppy-kissing boys. It’s all so gloriously vivid that now, having read this book, I feel I really have visited these places. This vividness is my favourite thing about the book, and it’s clear that author Kerry Hudson intimately knows the world she describes.
The cheery cover might suggest a light-hearted story about childhood, but it’s very far from that. Although it’s clear that Janie loves her mother, their life together is overwhelmingly violent and difficult. Every time they move house, Janie’s mother is sure that this council estate, this B&B, is the one where everything will work out for them. Of course, that is never the case, as happens when they move to Craigneuk, a town near Motherwell:
Ma could never admit she’d been wrong about Craigneuk so let me run around shouting that Proddies could eat shite until one morning, when my pals had gone to Mass and I was bent over a rusty bike that Doug had ‘found’ for me, getting my fingers blackened with chain oil trying to get it back on, a boy, maybe fourteen or so, picked up half a paving slab and dropped it on my head.
Part of the novel’s fascination lies in the exoticism of this world: it’s there, right under our noses, but most of us never see it. As a child I was often told about the misfortunes of those in other countries (‘Eat your dinner, there’s starving children in Africa’), but never heard about the starving children just up the road in Aberdeen. This blinkered view is suggested in this description of the social (ie. government benefits office) in Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight:
The social reminded me of the squat, blocky buildings filled with bullet holes that they showed on Blue Peter when they were doing Bring and Buy sales for Romanian Orphans. They probably didn’t even go out there for the footage, just sent a film crew to stand outside the Yarmouth library, waited until one of the snotty-nosed, blank-eyed kids threw themselves down on the pavement having a paddy and zoomed the camera in close.
For those who knew up in more fortunate surroundings, Janie’s story can feel like an uncomfortable â€“ though important â€“ read.
Janie is an imaginative, intelligent child, and often loses herself in her imagination. When her mother in is the grip of depression, Janie must look after herself and her little sister Tiny:
We’d go to the boiler cupboard and play ‘The Germans are Coming’. It was an easy game, we just sat there in the dark and then I’d try to surprise them and whisper, ‘The Germans are coming, the Germans are coming!’ then I’d stay as quiet as I could, barely breathing with the hot hand of terror clenching at my throat and my heart beating circles in my chest.
All these hints seem to suggest that Janie’s imagination and intelligence will save her: she finds a sort of salvation in the local library, but this never comes to anything and Janie drops out of school.
Stories of hardship can go two ways: further on the downward spiral to utter destruction; or the eventual loser-makes-good triumph. This novel is neither, and the reader never really gets a payoff. We follow Janie through her struggles, waiting for her to climb out of the gutter, but she never really does. Though Janie escapes to London (exactly as her mother did decades before), this happens quickly and without fanfare at the very end of the novel. It seems to be a setup for a sequel, but it’s a shame that we don’t get to celebrate Janie’s triumph â€“ because without that, the novel is grim indeed, and we’re not entirely sure whether Janie will manage to do well or will end up broken and battered like her mother. Perhaps, though, this is a conscious decision on the author’s part: in real life things are not black and white, so Janie’s ambivalence is more in keeping with the tone of realism.
Despite the slight sense of dissatisfaction by the novel’s rushed ending, I highly recommend Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice-Cream Float. It’s vividly written and bleakly beautiful, and its characters and events will linger in your mind long after you close the book.