Sunday, 5 June 2011

"The ice cream is just a cover"

Matt O’Connor was once labelled a political extremist. Now he makes a living selling ice cream. But after his headline-grabbing launch of Baby Gaga – an ice cream made from human breast milk – Matthew Lee wonders whether anything in O’Connor’s world has actually changed…


Westminster Council is digging up the road in front of The Icecreamists. It’s perfect ice cream weather, a beautiful spring day in Covent Garden, but the air out front is loaded with dust and the growl of drills. Matt O’Connor isn’t impressed. It’s bad for business and no one, he says, will inform him when the work will end. We retreat to the far corner of the shop – essentially Häagen-Dazs reimagined by Peter Stringfellow – and he recounts the events of a few weeks ago, his “storm in a D-cup”. Baby Gaga, the Icecreamists’ human breast milk ice cream, went on sale on 24th February, only to be confiscated by the local council five days later. After a week of tests the authorities declared it perfectly safe for human consumption.

Matt O’Connor and the authorities in Westminster have history. Before the dramatic seizing of Baby Gaga, this spiky-haired agitator was a constant thorn in the council’s side. As the founder and leader of Fathers 4 Justice, he saw members of his group throw condoms filled with purple flour at then-PM Tony Blair in the House of Commons and climb Buckingham Palace dressed as Batman and Robin, coming close to getting shot by police. The attention-grabbing stunts may have been more Jeremy Beadle than Jeremy Bentham, but they got him noticed. A man denied access to his sons was getting his powerful message – that family courts are biased against fathers – on to the front page of every newspaper in Britain.

He talks about the Baby Gaga saga with relish. This crusader may have long hung up his cape, but I find it hard to believe he didn’t expect a stranger’s mammary glands to land him in another spot of bother. If O’Connor was seeking publicity, he succeeded spectacularly. After the launch (“Sick shop sells breast milk ices”), the confiscation (“Ice cream causes hepatitis fears”) and the test results (“We boobed – council chiefs admit it’s safe”), there was a more worrying headline: “Lady Gaga puts the squeeze on breast milk ice cream”. The pop star is threatening to sue for alleged damage to her reputation.

The fun started, as all controversies do these days, on Mumsnet, with a post calling for donors. Initially, O’Connor used the milk of 15 mothers but now he’s overwhelmed by willing suppliers. “We could turn this place into a milking parlour,” he jokes, and as if to prove his point, an email pings into his inbox from a willing supplier. She’d like to earn some extra money, she writes. She’s just the latest in a long line of lactating ladies who are ready to join the catering industry. Victoria Hiley was at the front of the queue. The Leeds mother and “qualified breastfeeding helper” provided enough milk for the first 50 servings of “Baby Gaga” and wrote an eloquent opinion piece about it for The Guardian.

“The idea for breast milk ice cream isn’t that original,” admits O’Connor, showing me a letter he’s drafting in response to the pop star’s lawyers that references both the Oxford English Dictionary and the traditions of pastiche and mockery in British satire. “But the concept and mix of ideas is original. Look, Lady Gaga borrows from everywhere, and then she turns round and says she wants to own the utterances of our firstborn: ‘ga ga ga ga’.”

O’Connor doesn’t miss a trick. Lady Gaga’s team, he tells me, has described his ice cream as “nausea-inducing”. He points out that this comes from a woman who has appeared in public wearing cow’s flesh, and claims he’s ready for a fight. But surely, I suggest, he saw the lawyers coming? He doesn’t disagree. “If you put out the bait somebody will come along and take it.” O’Connor, quite clearly, is a man with a whole warehouse of bait. His Fathers 4 Justice stunts were often dismissed as irresponsible, careless and dangerous, but they succeeded in getting people talking about a possible maternal bias in the UK’s child custody laws. Back in the heady days of the mid-’90s, he was using his experience in marketing and his uncanny knack for creating controversy to fight for something worth risking everything for: his children. But surely this is different. Surely it’s just a publicity stunt?

“This is entirely political,” he replies. “The ice cream is just a cover. It’s to challenge how we view food. The food industry in this country is a disgrace. The supermarkets are a disgrace. They’re killing innovation. We need to get back to local farming and reduce travel costs. This is meant to make us think about where our food comes from.”

“I wasn’t going to do it,” he continues. “But then I read about Defra [the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] saying they’ve approved milk from cloned cows. I don’t want to be part of this experiment, this fucking around with things; it’s like with nuclear power, they said nothing could ever go wrong. People say breast milk’s designed for babies, but cows’ milk is designed for calves. We are force-fed a diet of indoctrination and stupidity.”

You can draw a straight line from Fathers 4 Justice to the Icecreamists. The message has changed but the methodology remains the same. The personal, the political and now the commercial are fused and frozen together, to be scooped up and served with half a snarl and half a smile. O’Connor clicks off his screensaver, a photo of his three beaming children, and opens the plans for his new shop on the edge of Covent Garden Market. He shows me illustrations of Adolf Hitler and Colonel Gaddafi eating ice cream. It’s called “The Dictators of Cool”. It’s about financial and nuclear meltdown, he says, and it’s partly inspired by the time as a child he dropped his ice cream on the promenade at Margate. He cried but his father laughed, and at that moment he realised ice cream – much like Batman and Robin risking their lives to tell the police and camera crews gathered below that they desperately, urgently wanted to be fathers to their children – could be both funny and sad at the same time. “It’s about shock and awe,” he says. “We want to start a debate, not a David Cameron-style big wank conversation.”

This is how he speaks – freewheeling and unfiltered, with swearwords and puns tumbling out with dizzying speed. You can see why he says he’s inspired by Spike Milligan and ‘Monty Python’. From the prime minister (“a wanker, a lying gobshite”) to the hypocrisy of the Catholic church to Mumsnet (“Guardianistas, up their own arses”), he’s never short of an opinion, a joke or a delightfully filthy turn of phrase. While he’s occasionally prone to laughable self-aggrandisement, telling somebody who suggested “Baby Gaga” was anti-feminist that “It’s the most pro-feminist thing of the past 30 years and it’s taken a man with meat and two veg to do it”, he’s persuasive and consistent. From his uninhibited speech, it’s clear he’s an impulsive decision-maker, not letting fear of prosecution get in the way of a spectacular stunt and another round of tabloid headlines.

“Risk assessment!” he laughs, when I ask a question about planning. “Fucking hell, mate. It’s instinctive assessment. We don’t speak to lawyers unless we really have to. I try to avoid them.” I suggest that some of his stunts came close to breaking the law and he gets a little prickly. “Seven jury trials out of seven we won,” he says, twice. “We were never convicted of anything and even if we were I wouldn’t give a flying fuck. I’ve refused to sign a census form. I don’t trust the government with my information. The government’s tried to finish me off a couple of times, directly or indirectly, and it doesn’t recognise me as a father. You know what? It doesn’t recognise me as a citizen. I don’t vote, I don’t have anything to do with the state. I won’t sign a census form: a “nonsense-sus form”, that’s what I call it. It’s fucking nonsense. I will not sign it. Over my dead body.”

It may come as a surprise that O’Connor was briefly a politician himself. In 2008 he stood as an English Democrat candidate in London’s mayoral elections. He withdrew from the race a week before polling. “I must have been at a vulnerable point in my life where my ego needed feeding,” he recalls. “It was an interesting exercise but I learned that British politics is as fucked at the bottom as it is at the top. And I’m not really cut out for politics.” But then he reveals he’s working on “the most serious thing I’ve done in my life”, something tied to Fathers 4 Justice, which is now managed by his wife. We can safely assume it’s not the Fathers 4 Justice stage musical, another work in progress.

In January 2006, O’Connor disbanded Fathers 4 Justice after press reports revealed that fringe elements of the group were planning to kidnap Tony Blair’s five-year-old son, Leo. He announced that extremists had infiltrated the group and that despite his best efforts to expel the hardliners he was unable to control them and no longer wanted to be associated with an organisation whose legitimacy and credibility had been undermined. A few months later, he announced a reformation with trademark O’Connor panache, invading the stage during the National Lottery show on live television. But he’s no longer at the forefront of the group’s activities. “I had to get out,” he says. “I was getting depressed. It was a labour of love and it cost me a fortune. I’ve worked in ice cream for over 20 years and needed to make some money. I need to keep my soul intact by keeping it edgy, but at the same time I hope it’s commercially successful without compromising my politics.”

Although he insists he’s dropped Spider-Man, Superman and Batman from his act, I wonder if that’s how O’Connor has always seen himself: a superhero. An ordinary bloke battling for justice against institutions that have too much power and are out of control. His critics may call him a rabble-rouser and an attention-seeking merchant of talk radio bluster, and they may question how much he’s actually changed child custody laws in this country. But there’s no questioning his passion and talent for ice cream.

We’ve barely discussed the stuff. We talk about whether breast milk ice cream appeals to people with very specific sexual fetishes (“I don’t know, I’m more an M&S than an S&M kind of guy”) and then he expresses his concern that the quality of his other ice creams will be overshadowed by the controversy.

He’s worked in marketing for ice cream brands over the past 20 years and it’s long been an obsession. He trained in Bologna and travelled around Italy comparing gelaterias. He launched the Icecreamists as a pop-up shop at Selfridges (that infamous hub of anti-establishment activity) and has been working over the years on hundreds of flavours. He’s promising something in the near future involving nudity, which has made his Covent Garden landlords nervous, as well as the most fattening ice cream ever made. “We’re full fat and getting fatter,” he explains. “We’re size maximalists, not size-zero.”

Disappointingly, they’re not serving “Baby Gaga” until new supplies of milk arrive, so I request a portion of the chilli, ginger and lemongrass flavour. It’s the perfect Icecreamists specimen, sweet and smooth until the generously-speckled chilli subjects to me an almighty kicking. I’m loving it, but as I walk out of the shop, a sudden gust of wind sprays dust from the roadworks towards my ice cream. I’m caught in the crossfire of a long-running battle. O’Connor walks me to the new branch, soon to be home to a cone-licking cartoon colonel from Tripoli. Hostilities are unlikely to end any time soon.