The Worst of Times: Up to my elbows in ice-cream: Chris Rea talks to Danny Danziger

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Indy Lifestyle Online
There were nine of us, lots of screaming, crisis after crisis, somebody would be in the bathroom when someone else had an important date. Every meal would be a time bomb, rows breaking out from one side of the table or another, every single dinner there would be an eruption, seconds after sitting down.

Dad was a distant figure, autonomous, a cross between the Pope and Mussolini. He was very Italian, as were all of my uncles, although they were second generation. My grandfather had come from Italy via New York and Panama: how he finished up in Middlesbrough is beyond me.

Every other summer we would go to Italy for three whole months, where there were wonderful comings and soulful goings, music, warmth, inspiring light, great smells, passionate but non-violent life . . . and then I was suddenly dropped back in Middlesbrough, into cold back streets, where no one was Italian. And that was very disorientating.

I remember my first day at grammar school, being the only person who was me. Everybody else was like everybody else, and there I was, tanned, in a freezing cold playground in the middle of Middlesbrough, wondering what on earth I was doing there.

There was a strong work ethic that went with the Italian connection. The family business was an ice-cream factory and coffee bar. There was an ice-cream committee, a very serious affair. It was like the United Nations. Once a month, everyone in the business would meet at a country club outside town. They would have lunch, then go into a conference room and thrash out all their different grievances, and settle territorial differences concerning ice- cream vans.

My father used to control the wholesale of many ice-cream items in Middlesbrough, he was central distributor for most of the region. If you fell out with him or the committee, you could find it difficult to get hold of cones.

The shop itself was classic Fifties, big Italian coffee machines, Formica everywhere, and a jukebox in the corner. I had to work in the coffee bar on weekends. I started at 12, as a table clearer. I wore a white Bri-Nylon coat with Mr Really Good written on it.

Nothing was ever clean enough for my father. You could never clean as good as he could, you could never clean as fast and as thorough as he could.

I would listen to the waitresses in the coffee bar, endlessly talking about their drunken husbands, bad backs and heart attacks, and that made me incredibly depressed.

In my teenage years I was involved in making the ice-cream. Great big hundredweight bags of sugar would arrive at our factory, and 60lb blocks of hard, white vegetable fat. Cutting up the fat was a horrible job. You plunged in long knives to prise it into smaller pieces, and these would be put into a 100-gallon vat, which you would then fill up with hot water. The vat was sleeve heated, so the walls became red hot, and your arms were constantly burnt and blistered.

When you had emptied the sugar and the milk powder into the mix, then you had the horrible job of mixing and de-lumping, which made your hands go red and purple.

You then added the secret ingredients, the family secret ingredients that had been prepared either by my father or a trusted member of the family. That was a very serious procedure, because this was the actual flavour of the ice-cream: it was that blend which dictated what this white mass was going to become.

I became very strong from the ice-cream factory, but it gave me a weight problem for life, because it developed me physically far beyond my body frame - my chest and shoulders are massive.

Going into the business drove my father and me a lot further apart. I wanted us to get out of the ice-cream business; I would have levelled the lot, and moved into restaurants or fast food.

My ideas always earned a rebuke: 'Just get on with your work, Chris, we have no time for these crazy dreams.'

We never did agree. We never agreed on anything.

In the beginning, I had an intense desire to know everything about the business. Over a period of years, there was a long, inevitable waning of interest. And when I left the business, one of my brothers took my place.

About six years ago, the shop was sold, and my father retired.

He and I don't really talk now. He's remarried, he has his new family, and I've got mine; our lives are very different. I suppose once upon a time he was my father, and I was his son, now we're just a pair of adults.

I went through a long period where I never once thought about ice-cream, I actually forgot what I did. One day, I was with my own family in a restaurant, and we all had an ice-cream. And as we were eating this ice-cream, I began explaining why there are two different types of vanilla. Words were coming out, involuntarily, completely separate from myself - they say that's what happens when you're about to go mad - and I heard these words coming out of my mouth, 'I used to be an ice-cream man.' It was quite, quite frightening.

I then became interested in that part of my past again, but it was as if it had happened to somebody else.

Chris Rea's latest album, 'Espresso Logic', is released by East West Records.

(Photograph omitted)