Dave Woodhall looks at the debut novel from our own Stephen Pennell.
It’s a bit strange to read and then try to review a book written by someone you’ve known for many years, particularly when some of the stories it contains bring back a few memories, but I’ve tried to be as objective as I can about this particular tome.
Part-fiction, part-fact and all worth your time, Gangsters, Geezers & Mods tells the story of one man growing up on the streets of Birmingham in an era often overlooked when social history is being written. The seventies was a watershed period in the evolution of the city, when the failings of the post-war ‘improvements’ were starting to become known and the seeds of the post-industrial, multi-cultural metropolis we now inhabit were being sewn. The early eighties were a grim, grey time when the region was being destroyed in the name of de-industrialisation and the entrepreneurial culture encouraged by the Thatcher government certainly didn’t include the sort of opportunities that came the way of Pennell and his business associates.
The opening pages dealing with the death, and implied murder, of a small child indicate that this is no rose-tinted look back, and neither is it the comic book gangsterism of similar works. With that vivid and scene-setting episode hinting at darkness throughout, the narrator’s journey begins. Starting from the Victorian slums of what became known as the inner city, through the more comfortable but still mean streets of the expanding suburbs and finally what seems a life of ease out in the Caribbean, the reader can’t help but draw parallels with the development of Birmingham itself – life may seem better, but it gets no easier.
The story is more a series of incidents that lend themselves to a TV series and if that were to happen, the characters contained herein would live long in the memory. There are criminally inept petty criminals, a laughably well-meaning vicar, crustacea-loving football hooligans, racist anti-shoplifting strategies, psychopathic gangsters and an anti-hero who strays between trying to stay on the straight and narrow while finding lapsing back into villainy to be more rewarding and a lot more enjoyable.
Pennell’s talent lies in being able to pick up on the smallest detail that lifts the mundane into the memorable. Whether a place, a person or an evocative happening, they are brought to life in detail with enough unsaid to allow the reader to draw their own conclusion and to remember similar in their own past.
There are inevitable comparisons, the most obvious being with Peaky Blinders, set in some of the same places half a century earlier but a cartoon where this book is film noir. Or Trainspotting, itself even darker in tone and as a result infinitely less accessible. Gangsters, Geezers & Mods can be read twice, the first time as a semi-autobiographical crime thriller, the second as a dark comedy. Both will have you walking these streets, meeting these characters, yourself. You won’t want to, and you can’t wait.
You can buy Gangsters, Geezers & Mods here.