Blinded by the night

Stephen Pennell goes on a tour around Digbeth.

I was going to start by saying that I’m in Digbeth that often I might as well move there, but I found out last night that it’s actually Deritend where I spend most of my nights out. Know the difference? Me neither, but this was just one of many facts I discovered on the Peaky Blinders tour, booked for me as a Father’s Day gift by my lovely wife Kerri and coinciding with her dad Trevor’s birthday, so it’s a real family occasion.

The starting point is the Old Crown on the high street at seven o’clock and I make it just in time after entering into the spirit of things by not paying on the train to town. If you like the TV show, you’ll love this tour, but it covers so much more than the blurred lines of fact mixed with fiction of the popular BBC period drama.

Convivial as ever, our host, tour guide, author, historian, professor and raconteur Carl Chinn takes us on a journey that begins in 1880’s Birmingham and meanders between two world wars, back to the origins of the city and forward to the infamous 2002 face-off between the Aston Villa Hardcore hooligan gang and their Birmingham City counterparts the Zulus. Known to modern-day weekend offenders as the Battle of Rocky Lane, from now on I’ll always think of it as Rocky Lane II, as we also learned that a previous massive gang fight took place on the very same spot around a century earlier. Sadly, only the more recent tear-up is available on YouTube and a dodgy DVD.

After a splendid introduction from his assistant Lizzie Halpin, who’s uncle (and my mate) John has been known to keep the odd Peaky Blinder tradition going in the 21st century, Carl delivers a sparkling prelude in which he goes from guest to guest giving them historical chapter and verse on wherever it is they come from. Tonight’s party includes people from Switzerland, Worcester, Yorkshire, Rhode Island, Evesham, Lebanon, Tipton and my lot from Handsworth, and Carl’s encyclopaedic knowledge bats away questions on each and every location with the ease of Arthur Shelby dealing with a stroppy bookmaker. With considerably more charm and grace, obviously.

Pre-amble over, we start on the actual amble – the walking tour. This is fascinating, taking in the site of some long-gone back-to-back houses and courtyards, a beautiful Italianate monastery (now home to rave club Void), Brum’s first free library, and legendary pub the Rainbow, where an incident in 1890 led to the first mention of the Peaky Blinders in the newspapers of the day.

Carl paints such a vivid picture of this “murderous assault” that the sudden appearance of a couple of Peakied-up gangsters round the corner in Lower Trinity Street might make you check the inside pocket of your Crombie to make sure your cosh is handy. Or was that just me? Anyway, the presence of the menacing hard-men under the magnificent Staffordshire blue-brick railway arches is an ideal photo opportunity and many of the tourists take full advantage.

As Carl shares his extensive knowledge of the lives and times of our gangster predecessors, it’s very much a two-way exchange, and he is always open to questions and comments from his enrapt charges. One amusing moment occurs when a young Swiss girl asks my mother-in-law Carmen, who is of West-Indian descent, how she knows so much about Birmingham, and seems rather confused when Carmen explains that she was born and bred in the city.

The moral of this story is: never presume to know what a native Brummie looks like. Start from the premise of the old joke on how to tell a true Brummie – he always wears a shamrock in his turban – and you won’t go far wrong. (Yes, I know that originally it was a racist joke and a dig at Birmingham rolled into one, but we who celebrate our unrivalled diversity own it now, so there).

As someone who spends lots of weekend nights on these streets, it’s striking how different the vibe is on a Tuesday evening. An unusually sober view of the architecture and graffiti and especially the absence of revellers, bouncers and taxi headlights make it seem a lot moodier, and I would love to do this tour again when the nights start to draw in, to feel the full effect of the darkness. I imagine it would be quite haunting and oppressive – but in a good way, given the subject matter.

With an affectionate glance towards the Night Owl Northern Soul club as we pass, it’s time to head back to the Old Crown, where pre-ordered drinks await us at our tables – mine’s a pint of Peaky Blinder, cheers! – and we settle down again to listen to Carl’s wonderful storytelling and insight. I won’t spoil it for you with details, but this is where the eminent historian really comes into his own.

Speaking from painstaking research, hand-me-down anecdotes and first-hand experience, Carl’s passion and love for ‘Brummagem’ and, most of all, its people, comes shining through. It’s eloquent, entertaining and, at times, quite emotional and rounds off a cracking night perfectly. I can’t recommend it highly enough so book yourself a place on the tour – by order of the Peaky Blinders!