Part fiction, part fact, part history and all Birmingham, Gangsters, Geezers & Mods by Stephen Pennell intertwines one man’s story with a host of astonishingly colourful characters and an equally evocative setting.
It takes our dubious hero, with a steadfast reluctance to demean himself with proper work, from the back streets of Aston, to the heights (or depths) of the criminal underworld, via the Caribbean and back to B6. He is helped and hindered in his ascent by a cast of ne’er-do-wells, never hads and naughty lads, and one woman who changed his life forever.
Starting from a dark place – the death of an infant – Pennell takes the reader on a family’s journey from Edwardian slums to council house luxury, and then through the youngest boy’s religions of the Villa, Weller and dishonest crust-earning.
Accompanying him, sometimes happily, through the not unpleasurable distractions of hooliganism, youth culture and police ID parades, are a one-legged beggar girl and a violently inept burglar who are, at various times, his salvation and the cause of so much pain. No matter what happens to them though, their success and sadness are nearly always accidental and comically ill-thought through.
The characters, from heroin-addled hostel-dwellers to criminal kingpins, are never celebrated but by God you can’t help sympathising and, against better judgement, liking them. Whether describing the mythical tales of the seemingly prodigiously psychopathic Roots The Chemist, or the back streets of 1970s Aston, Pennell has a rare gift for saying an awful lot in very few words.
He puts that ability to great use, leaving the reader space to picture their own scenes. You can see the locations, you can feel the menace and mayhem, yet there’s a calmness to the story-telling thanks to a welcome lack of hyperbole. This isn’t a manifesto, it’s a life and one that someone should film: It’d be a crime to miss the chance of bringing to life the bible-referencing bingo-calling vicar doling out prizes of Benson & Hedges.
Unlike many tales from the edges of society (with the notable exception of Trainspotting which also believably details accidental “heroes”) the fictional elements are so realistic, or maybe the fact requires credulity.
Either way, they are impossible to identify with any certainty. This means it can be read as fact or fiction. Or both. It could happen, it could’ve happened, it doesn’t much matter because you’ll lose yourself in it anyway. On top of that, this is a celebration of a great city, as evinced by the “longest sentence in a book, ever” detailing just a relative few of Birmingham’s gifts to the world.
This book is another, although as you’ll find out by reading it, Pennell really needs to work on his chat-up lines.
Words by Sam Lambeth
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