Slouching out of the office on a Friday afternoon in August there’s only one thing on your mind: the sheer amount of good vibes that you, Seb, Olly, and Mikey are about to unleash all over Paignton come Saturday afternoon!
Having delighted the packed train from Paddington with your sparkling repartee, you and the boys proceed to knock back between three and five bottles of fruity cider on the seashore, each tasting sweeter than the last. You eat chips, gamble with two pence pieces, and accidentally lob a frisbee right in a labrador’s face. What, you wonder, could possibly make this magical day better? Just as you’re on the verge of falling headfirst into a silent and smiling reverie, Mikey pops up with an idea.
“Lads,” he squawks, “who fancies an ice cream? My treat!” Of course! Ice cream was what you were missing!
Maybe he’s coming back with a Magnum, you think, allowing yourself a quick double raspberry dipped daydream.
“Give us a hand, mate,” he shouts. You stumble up to the van, positively overjoyed with the prospect of all that could potentially be yours to unwrap and devour. But Mikey’s not holding any Magnums. Mikey’s bought you lot 99s. With Flakes.
Outside of sex and the music of Bob Dylan, few things in life are as perennially disappointing as a 99 Flake. And like sex and the music of Bob Dylan, there is promise there; if anything in this world could deliver us from mundanity and escort us into pure paradise – whether we’re in Portsmouth, Porthmadog or Plockton – it’s a grizzly stick of cheap chocolate plunged into already-melting faux-vanilla ice cream which has been machine-gunned into a thin wooden cornet by a hairy-handed miscreant, right?
But no, just like a night in with John Wesley Harding and three minutes of missionary, the 99’ll leaving you roiling with ennui. What, then, is so disappointing about one of the symbolic touchstones of the Great British Summer Holiday?
You’ve got the Flake itself, for starters. There’s a reason why no one ever ambles into the cornershop of a Sunday morning and walks out with a carton of Rubicon, some alarmingly cheap bacon, and a Flake, Too crumbly, always bone-dry, a veritable bedding and trouser stain disaster waiting to happen, with all its inevitable flecks, the Flake is more of a chore than a treat.
Then there’s the ice cream itself. Obviously the creamy undulations of Mr Whippy are preferable to a baleful ball of Cornish cream, but even then it’s hardly up there with Häagen-Dazs. It doesn’t even hold a candle to Carte d'or, which is saying something.
Anyway, after filling your innards with rapidly decomposing sugar and cream, and watching most of the fallen chocolate being sucked off the pavement by a passing flock of gulls, what’re you left with? The cone. The tasteless, terrible, totally unnecessary cone. No one in the history of daytrips to the seaside has ever actually enjoyed a bog-standard cornet. A crisp, decadent, deviant waffle cone? Give me a dozen. Feed me them till my tongue’s torn to shreds and my Superdry polo’s fit to burst. But don’t you dare hand over a “Mr Coney” and expect me to enjoy it.
My issue with the 99 goes beyond the product itself. I don't particularly care that they now cost closer to a fiver than the single pound the name promises—that’s life under late capitalism folks—nor am I an ice cream snob who only scoffs gelato freshly wrenched from the udders of well-fed Sicilian stunners.
The problem with the 99 is simple: it is an edible reminder of the quiet misery that is summer in Britain. Every year until you die, you’ll wake up on a mild morning in May and begin planning The Best Summer Ever. The season opens out in front of you, a glorious parade of footballs and tennis racquets, hummus and olives, sunburn and lost contact lenses.
You’re going to swim in every lido going, drink Pimms in as many parks as is physically possible. Hell, you might even hire a campervan and do Cornwall, properly this time.
Except it won’t happen like that. It’ll be sunny for approximately four days, you’ll spend more time moaning about sleeping being “difficult” than doing anything fun, and at most you’ll find yourself huffing on fumes in London Fields, attending a Young Labour voters BBQ, a piping hot and grassy sausage like ashes in your mouth.
Sweaty and irritable, you’ll make a move to go home, stuffing the remnants of a clingfilmed tub of coleslaw into your totebag before “accidentally” knocking over the bluetooth speaker blaring out a Will Smith song. There’s a hitch: just as you’re about to drop a quick, “Well, see ya,” to the group, the unmistakable tinkle of the ice cream van roars into the foreground, parping out the intoxicating Pied Piper strains of ‘Nessum Dorma’. Like the Pavlovian sadsack you are, you’ll immediately find yourself handing over a few quid for a 99 with a Flake. As ever, it is a bland drip of near-nothingness, a simulation of summer satisfaction. You try and smile through the pain but disappointment this potent can’t be masked, however hard you try.
And then it rains. It rains and rains and rains. The summer, yet again, has slunk into teenage despondency, ruining picnics and french cricket tournaments. Rather than accepting defeat and staying in with the collected works of Saul Bellow, you’ll end up in some godforsaken, half-forgotten seaside town, watching the rain lash down over the pier, each silver strand pelting your soul, the air heavy with chip fat and resignation, joylessly chowing down on the unfilled bottom end of a cornet. Fucked it again, haven’t you?
Advice from a young man who’s been burned one time too many by the promises of nostalgia: get your mum to buy you anything but a 99 next time you’re visiting home.
Have a screwball or a strawberry split, a Solero or a cider Mivvi. Do it for yourself. Do it for summer. Do it to ensure that the small slither of treat you’ve allowed yourself during the course of another dismal day doesn’t remind you that you’ll never, ever have the summer you want. Ever.
Mine’s a Twix, please. Cheers Mikey.