Tuesday, 25 November 2014

My Great-Grandfather: the Real Peaky Blinder

It’s not often that a TV advertisement for new drama series triggers childhood trauma, but the TV advert for the first series of Peaky Blinders almost did just that. I was around ten years old when I first heard my grandfather mention the words ‘peaky blinder’ and it was my father who, after much enquiring on my part, reluctantly explained the meaning of those words to me. I wasn’t a delicate-natured child by any means, but the thought of someone’s eyes being slashed with razor blades would have kept me awake for more than a few nights had it not been for the warm affection that my grandfather had for these individuals and his reassurance that I wouldn’t have come to any harm had I encountered one of these suspicious characters on the street.

I stumbled across mention of the peaky blinders purely by chance. At the age of six I expressed an overwhelming desire to learn to play the piano and my parents were unsure where this aspiration had come from, since my grand-parents, parents and most of my family were musically illiterate and they had no interest whatsoever in playing a musical instrument. Four years and many piano lessons later, I overhead my father mention in conversation with a neighbour that my great-grandfather, James Aloysious (known as Curly), was very musical and he played the piano and the mandolin, so my father mused that perhaps an idle musical family gene had sparked within me. I questioned him about this comment and when he showed me a photograph of my great-grandfather I was surprised to see that James Aloysious was the absolute spitting image of my father.

I felt a close connection with James and pestered my father to hear more about James’ life. And the more that I discovered about him, the more I found him to be a fascinating individual. James lived in Harborne, he was ex-army (WW1) and he was a bare knuckle fighter at Smethwick market. Every Sunday morning he would walk from Harborne to Smethwick to fight and when he returned home he would give his wife Florie all the silver from the win money that he had earned and the copper was his beer money. He seemed to make a fair living out of it. My auntie still recalls sitting on his lap and putting her tiny hands over his large hands while he played the piano and seeing how beaten up his hands were from the fights.

The stories that my father told me about James had a significant impact on me and I remember them to this day. Many of these stories involved shadowy characters such as the mysterious Mr Mansini who found my grandfather a job when he came out of the army ‘because he was Curly’s son’. It seemed that James and his family were well looked after because they were ‘in with the right crowd’ and ‘knew the right people’, although the company that James kept seemed to be very dubious indeed. For instance, James played the mandolin in the Green Man pub in Harborne and one evening there was a huge fight between his friends and the police. It seemed to have been some kind of sting operation targeting them all. James took out three policemen, he smashed his mandolin over the head of one policeman (thus ending his musical career) and he threw another policeman through the front window of the pub into the horse road. The police took him to Steel House Lane police station where he ‘fell down the steps of the police station’ (was beaten) and my great-grandmother claimed that he was never right again afterwards.

James certainly seemed to have lived a violent life, but the most memorable – and disturbing - thing that my grandfather told me about him was this; if James was going to the pub or out for the day with family then he would wear his ‘ordinary cap’, but if went out of the house wearing his ‘working cap’ then my great-grandmother would stay awake and wait all night in the front window until he came home because she knew that there was going to be trouble. When I asked about the significance of the caps, my father explained that the ‘working cap’ had razor blades in the rim which came in handy if there was ever a fight. I remember this conversation well because I was not only shocked by the thought of slashing someone with razor blades, but my father is a very gentle man and not predisposed to glorifying violence so this was something that he would not normally have discussed with me at that age. But although James’ friends and their activities were both very violent, it was somehow acceptable to talk about them because they had ‘principals’- they had a strong family-like bond, they would ‘watch out for each other and each other’s families’ and they were very firmly ‘on our side’. I took some comfort in knowing that, due to my surname, I would have enjoyed the same protection as my great-grandfather and grandfather and I would have been accepted into this extended family. (Interestingly, my auntie tells me that James’ death was quite a talking point. The story goes that a gypsy came into the Green Man pub and started reading palms. James paid her to read his palm, but she took one look at his hand, refused and left the pub straight away.  James died only days afterwards).

On the flip side of my family coin was my great-grandfather on my mother’s side: Sam Richards. Sam’s portrait hung in my grandparent’s front room for many years and he looked like a lovely man wearing a sharp business suit and a kindly smile. Sam was a boxer, book maker and freemason who owned a boxing ring in Selly Oak.  Although he was deep in dodgy book-making dealings, he presented a more business-like front to his activities and he clearly had the police under his influence. The police would often tip him off before a raid and when passing on their regular beat they would bang on the wall of the house whenever he needed to clear the house (which most often involved sending my grandmother down to the bottom of the garden with the betting slips in her dolls pram). Sam made a great deal of money, he bought a lot of local property and he contributed to the community by buying shoes for the poor. He certainly didn’t hide the fact that business was very lucrative and he once caused a stir by buying my grandmother a silver handled umbrella (which she subsequently left on a bus).

Sam Richards (centre)
My mother recalls that the words ‘peaky blinders’ were banded around the household and she was aware that Sam mixed with other well-heeled groups and individuals who looked out for his business, but I had the feeling that the James Aloysiouses of that world were on Sam Richard’s payroll rather than sat drinking with him in the pub. In fact it is a running family joke that my father’s family were on the rough-and-ready side of the Birmingham gangs, whereas my mother’s family were much more discreet with their dealings and ‘higher up the chain of command’.

I watched the first episode of Peaky Blinders with mixed emotions and expectations. I have portraits and photographs of James and Sam, I have general paraphernalia and memories from their lives and I grew up in a community in Birmingham that could be a violent place to live at times but it also valued strong historical links forged between gang-like families that looked out for each other. Things haven’t really changed much in that respect. Individuals come and go, but family ties and family names still carry a great deal of weight around here. And seeing my physical likeness in the photographs of James, things haven’t really changed that much within my own family either. So hearing about a TV series focusing on the blinders felt as though someone was making a documentary about a close friend or relative, which, in effect, I suppose was the case. A writer who was unfamiliar with the true spirit of these individuals could be tempted to ridicule the blinders and/or cast them as heartless gangsters. However I wasn’t disappointed, in fact a great deal of content made me smile because it cut very close to home. Pretty bang-on in some cases. I’m pleased that the series not only highlighted the brutal, frenetic violence that these men were predisposed towards, but it also addressed the strong allegiances between the gang members – particularly in the case of family ties - and by portraying the central characters as both hero and villain it gave the viewer the uneasy experience of both fearing and admiring them, which was the exact same uncomfortable feeling that I grappled with upon learning about the blinders as a child. Perhaps my – and my family’s - fondness for James, Sam and their friends is borne out of this realisation that although they were violent men who sailed on the wrong side of the law, they also had strong family values, they were loyal to those who were loyal to them and they would protect their friends and loved ones at all costs - values that most modern-day, law-abiding people would do well to heed.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Building the Future, Burying the Past? The Modernisation of a University Library

Last week I was informed that a redbrick University here in the UK will be demolishing its main library and building a new one. As a former student of the University, I have been aware of a furore surrounding the demolishing of the grand redbrick building in favour of a modern alternative for a while as I was invited to sign an online petition set up in opposition to its demise. The plans for the development look very interesting and I look forward to seeing how they are executed, however there appears to be dissent among the ranks about the message that accompanies this move.

When it was pointed out that the new library looks smaller than the present one on the plans, the justification for any downsizing was ‘because students don’t really use books these days’. Ouch. Chicken and egg, anyone? Was that the death knell for the written word I just heard? Libraries and book shops across the country should take heed.

There appear to be two issues that are raising concern: the library building and the books within...

The Books

Hopefully the redevelopment will take place without the loss of any books and with the addition of extra facilities. But as a former student I worry that the redevelopment will be an excuse to lose one or two volumes that are considered outdated, given that apparently students ‘don’t really use books these days’. Please please please, University developers, don’t throw out the books and replace them with huge computer screens and online resources. I agree that technology is essential for futureproofing, but holding onto these dusty books is futureproofing in itself, if not a step further.

What developers need to realise is that we might be in the age of digital downloads but all the cool kids collect vinyl. How many teenagers do you see in the street wearing huge earphones? Why are China selling mobile phones to teenagers that *just* make phone calls? It’s handy to have books on my Kindle but I prefer to display them on my bookshelves. I store all my music on iTunes but I still buy CDs because I like the artwork. However you feel about the intrinsic value of the written word, if the University wants to futureproof its business then it must keep its books for people like me who will always prefer a balance and to guard against a turn in the popularity tide back to hard-copy resources. Besides, technology can all too easily go the way of the minidisc player...

The Building

Faux modernisation is happening a lot these days and I hope that the University is not setting itself up for a cataclysmic fall if it chooses to follow suit. Many institutions have recently sought to ‘modernise’ their business by ripping out anything that smells dusty, painting everything white and scattering some uncomfortable funky chairs around at the expense of unique and irreplaceable historical aspects that makes them distinctive from their competitors. Take the Church of England, for example. It is continually falling over itself to update and modernise and as a result we have three kinds of churches: the dusty old churches and mighty cathedrals that have survived redevelopment, the dated retro churches from the first exploratory steps into redevelopment and the ultramodern futuristic churches currently in redevelopment. Now put yourself in the position of a bride-to-be. The ultramodern churches are very pretty to look at and would look nice in the wedding album photos, the retro churches would make you look like you’re getting married in the 70s with their tacky kitsch interiors, but the absolute make-your-friends-insanely-jealous setting would be in an old, untouched, crumbly church or cathedral. I was a wedding organist for 15 years and let me tell you with authority...*everyone* wants to get married in old churches and cathedrals. Ultramodern is second best, but bear in mind that the retro churches were once the ultramodern churches. New developments date very quickly, hence it can only really be termed ‘faux modernisation’...

The added problem for a University is that the average student, to whom these funky modernisations are ultimately aimed at, encounters this kind of environment on a daily basis. They see it everywhere. It’s nothing new. The older professors might be impressed by the changes but I doubt your average 19/20 year old will even stop to pop his earphones out. And the danger with modernisation is that if it’s not absolute top-end spec then it invariably becomes tacky and dated very quickly, just like the retro churches. Ill-advised ‘cool architecture’ can be as cringe-inducing as watching your dad dance.

But the base-line here is that ‘funky architecture’ is not what you expect of a redbrick University. A newly-labelled Comprehensive perhaps, but not a redbrick sitting on top of a goldmine of history. Thinking back to my expectations on my first day at University, I expected to walk onto the set of Harry Potter when I stepped inside the University gates. And it didn’t disappoint! Walking into the main hall of the University was like walking into a big cathedral, it certainly had the ‘wow factor’. I expected Hogwarts and how massively disappointed would I have been if it had resembled an Apple store?! There was a real sense of history and belonging, which was fostered in part by the visual history evident around campus - predominately the buildings, such as the library. I fell hook-line-and-sinker for this sense of history, so the University should be ensnaring other prospective students using the same method, not trying to suppress it at every turn! And there is an important business aspect to this too; any member of a group will tell you that group cohesion is better achieved when there is a unique, unifying element that is specific to the group and separates the group members from outsiders, whether that be what they wear, how they speak or what they believe. This is how armies and gangs are united. This is the way that human nature works. Each University has its own history, its own ‘unique element’ that students expect to buy into. By removing this ‘unique element’ and replacing it with a ‘ten-a-penny McDonalds element’ the group will quickly lose its sense of belonging. And that, as it has been pointed out to me, is corporate suicide...

This might all be a panic over nothing and the old library will segue painlessly into the new with no bother whatsoever. I have every confidence that this will be the case. But for other Universities planning similar redevelopments the concerns raised must be addressed. Decisions made within Universities with regard to the future of the written word should not be taken lightly as they will influence generational waves of students and thereby send ripples out into the wider society. And there is no system backup, once these hard-copy resources are lost we may never recover them again...

Friday, 12 November 2010

Something for Dave

On Friday afternoon I was set with the challenge of writing some song lyrics by Dave Stewart on Twitter. Having been encouraged by Dave to take up song-writing in an earlier episode, I decided that it was time that I took his encouragement seriously and tried my hand once again at putting pen to paper (or finger to keyboard). So somewhere amidst the chaos of that afternoon I found a few minutes to sit and write something meaningful that I hoped would inspire Dave to write a melody pulling my hastily scribbled words together. I was in a particularly reflective mood on Friday afternoon so I decided to write something inspired by my good friend Kerry, who died suddenly and unexpectedly recently at the age of 31, leaving behind a one-year old daughter and a lot of shocked family and friends. Kerry was a huge music fan and music played a large part in her life, so it seemed fitting to write a song filled with my memories of her.

I woke up this morning to the start of another working week and a cold, frosty, dreary Monday morning and when I checked my emails I made the staggering discovery that Dave had not only written a melody to my lyrics but that he had recorded a rough outline of the track and sent it to me! Wow, that’ll teach me to never go to sleep again! Needless to say, I have been listening to the recording throughout the day and I’ve had a fixed grin on my face for the past 12 hours. It’s an excellent tune – mellow and soulful, yet full of optimism and guaranteed to make you smile - and I’d love to hear the finished result when it has been moulded by the hands of such an accomplished and gifted musician. I’m extremely flattered, delighted by Dave’s interpretation of my sentiments and now very motivated to take this song-writing lark seriously from hereon out!

Here are the lyrics that I submitted. Every line has a story behind it and the last verse in particular really chokes me up each time I reread it. Kerry was the eternal optimist and, as the last chorus implies, I finally took her advice on the last day I spent with her...

Cold hands
Are warm
In the heat of a winter’s day
And I trust
Your faith
When you turn to me and say

Put your best dress on ‘cos it’s never gonna rain,
It’s never gonna rain again on New Year’s Day.
Wear your hair up high ‘cos it’s never gonna rain,
It’s never gonna rain again on New Year’s Day.
Put your best shoes on ‘cos it’s never gonna rain,
It’s never gonna rain again on New Year’s Day
And if the dark clouds come
Then we’ll blow them all away

You hate it when I play the clown
But I saw
Your smile
The day the circus came to town

Put your best dress on ‘cos it’s never gonna rain,
It’s never gonna rain again on New Year’s Day.
Wear your hair up high ‘cos it’s never gonna rain,
It’s never gonna rain again on New Year’s Day.
Put your best shoes on ‘cos it’s never gonna rain,
It’s never gonna rain again on New Year’s Day
And though we’re miles apart
I am never far away

High chair
The night the party died at nine
And I heard
You call,
But your voice wasn’t on the line

I’ll put my best suit on ‘cos it’s never gonna rain,
It’s never gonna rain again on New Year’s Day.
I’ll wear my hair up high ‘cos it’s never gonna rain,
It’s never gonna rain again on New Year’s Day.
I’ll put my best shoes on ‘cos it’s never gonna rain,
It’s never gonna rain again on New Year’s Day
And I won’t cry no tears
Because we’ll dance again someday…

Friday, 8 October 2010

And Vinyly: Live On From Beyond The Groove

If you ever worry about how to continue the legacy of your awesomeness after you have shuffled off this mortal coil, then I may well have found the perfect send-off for you.

UK-based company And Vinyly will press your cremated ashes into a vinyl recording playing a track of your choice, a vocal message or simply your own silent pops and crackles for your friends and family to remember you by.

The basic package (£3000) includes a 30 disc pressing of your record, plus an 'R.I.V.' artwork record cover with your name, date of birth and date of death. There are additional services available including backing tracks, ‘bespook’ music, the opportunity to have your record distributed worldwide and FUNerals: a musical send-off led by a team of event organisers. And if you still want to be buried after you cough, And Vinyly accepts cremated body parts in addition to whole cremated bodies.

Feeling a bit peaky? More details here: http://www.andvinyly.com/

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Reasons to Study Theology and Religion at University

University Theology and Religion Departments. Ok, ok, I’ll give you a second to snigger to yourselves and imagine lots of strange-looking, tweed clad men smoking pipes in the corner of a lecture room. But surprisingly Theology and Religious Studies has become pretty cool of late. I suppose we have Dan Brown and the conspiracy theorists to thank for that. Just try going into your local pub and starting a conversation with the locals about God, heaven, what happens to bad guys when they die, how the universe began etc and before long you will have folk standing on the tables and ranting at each other. I’ve seen close ‘theology is booooring’ friends come to blows during these discussions and loved-up married couples at each others throats. It’s great sport if you’re bored one evening...

Besides, anyone who says that Theology and Religion is uncool has me to answer to. I have a BA and PhD in Theology from The University of Birmingham and I’m far from a weirdo! And, horror of horrors, I’m not at all religious. I have an interest in the area, but that doesn’t mean that I subscribe to everything that I study in the same way that studying World War II doesn’t make you a Nazi SS officer. But the academic study of theology and religion has taken a bullet recently as cuts in higher education have led to reports of staff reductions and the planned closure of some Religious Studies departments. Recently my colleagues and I were (willingly) forced to rally round and attempt to save Sheffield University staff from losing their Biblical Studies department. The support on the Internet for Sheffield BS Department was overwhelming; a Facebook group was started, many BS bloggers blogged their disgust on the matter and a number of emails were sent to the Vice Chancellor. Thankfully, in this case, the department was saved.

Biblical Studies appears to be a soft target for cost cutting and yes, while it’s not exactly carrying out cutting-edge research into cancer fighting treatments, it is a real, tangible subject area with a dynamic publication rate and a huge scholarly base. Besides, I worry that if we keep beating the beast long enough, it’s going to die. Biblical Studies, and maybe Theology in general at this rate, will cease to be taught and it will become one of those weird and arcane sounding subject areas that were taught in the Universities of the Italian Renaissance. So why should we continue to promote the teaching of Theology and Religion in Universities? To begin with, let’s address some misnomers about the subject...

Is the study of theology boring? 

No. Not all theologians are dusty professors or geeky, nose-in-bible students. Yes, there are one or two stereotypes haunting the corridors, but by and large things are far from what you might expect. The modern theology student is indistinguishable from his/her fellow student studying in other academic disciplines and Theology lecturers are as friendly and approachable as the next professor. I graduated with a PhD in Theology three years ago, so do I consider myself to be dusty and outdated? Hell no. Would I spend six years studying a subject that I found boring? Hell no. Did I enjoy my studies at The University of Birmingham and explore University life to the full as much as I would have experienced it in any other department? Hell yes!

Is the study of theology relevant? 

Could it *be* any more relevant?! Switch on a prime-time news programme and count how many times the words ‘faith’, ‘culture’ or ‘religion’ are mentioned. It is an in-your-face-daily hot topic. And it’s not just a local issue, it’s a global issue. A basic understanding of religion and religions is indispensable knowledge for anyone functioning within a contemporary, multicultural society and an awareness of cultural sensitivities is an essential tool, particularly for the modern businessman or businesswoman who may communicate with unfamiliar cultures and needs to avoid making any offensive, deal-breaking gaffs.

Should theology still be taught within Universities? 

Yes! Why would any academic institution that prides itself on training the next generation of serious thinkers and intellectuals bloody its own nose by eliminating one of its most cerebral subject areas? And particularly now that there is a monster on the horizon that is threatening academia in general...

Any self-respecting cultural commentator will agree that teenagers are becoming increasingly brainwashed by the Glee-factor. ‘Making it’ isn’t about being the best in your field or making headway in research anymore. It’s not even about switching on your brain in the morning. It’s about getting that big break in showbiz, belting out a ballad for Simon Cowell or street dancing on reality TV. Or when academic study is absolutely unavoidable, teens are attracted to subjects that might - *might*- lead on to a big break in the TV, movie, fashion or beauty industry. No matter how you feel about Theology and Religion as a research area, you must admit that the rise of new, numbskull, ‘leave your brain at the door’ degrees (especially the ‘Heath and Beauty’–esque/new media degrees) give you an urge to scratch out your own eyes....

In a society where our kids are being encouraged to shun traditional academic study and instead ‘follow their dreams’ (most often blindly down the drain) surely any academic subject – regardless of its specific content – should be encouraged and supported to the hilt rather than having its wings clipped?! Being a student of Theology says to the world 'hello, I have a brain and I know how to use it. And not just for storing information and learning patterns, but for thinking critically and creatively too'. We need to keep our kids brains ticking over…at all costs!

There is so much more to say. I could go on to sing the praises (excuse the pun) of the interdisciplinary aspect of theological research, or expound on the benefits of true critical thinking, or reminisce on how lovely the folk at Birmingham were to me during my studies, but I’ll stop here before I get ranty (and for the record, I don't belong to any religious faith so I do not have an axe to grind in that sense). But don’t just take my word for it…

This blog post is a shout-out to all the theologians out there. A show of unity between academics and students alike contributed to the survival of the University of Sheffield’s Biblical Studies department when it was threatened with closure. It was a warning shot over the bow, if you like, for any predatory cost-cutters swinging the axe over other theology departments within the UK. Since the vultures are once again circulating over theology departments across the country, now is your opportunity to tell the blogosphere - and any budding theology students out there - why the study of theology is a worthwhile exercise and why it should remain firmly within the Academy. Please scroll down and post below your reasoning, observations, anecdotes, links and pithy sales patter that you reel out at open days (!) explaining why you feel that theology is a valuable academic subject. You can be a serious academic, a student or a keen amateur in the field. Submissions can be anonymous or please add your name if you would like to be credited. Hopefully a united discussion will provide the rationale for return fire the next time an academic institution hovers precariously over the ‘delete theology’ button…

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Last Female Rhino in South African Park Killed by Poachers

The Guardian reported this morning that the last female rhinoceros in a game reserve near Johannesburg in South Africa has been killed by poachers who hacked off her horn and left her to bleed to death. Now without sounding too hippy about it, killing an animal to eat it is one thing, but killing an animal to use parts of it in traditional medicine is just retarded. Yes, I admit that I’m the biggest self-confessed misanthrope around, but slaughtering any endangered animal just to keep granddad alive for a few extra months or give him a better erection seems such a waste. Stop being cheap and invest in some penicillin, you hut-dwelling knuckle-dragging Neanderthals!

According to the report there have been a growing number of poaching incidents recently and police believe that organised criminal groups are responsible. Wanda Mkutshulwa, a spokeswoman for South African National Parks, said ‘police need to help game reserves because they are not at all equipped to handle crime on such an organised level’.

How much does a huge f**k-off size rifle for a South African game reserve keeper cost? 

Because I’ll buy him a dozen…

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Westboro Baptist Church vs Geeks of the World

The most frustrating thing in the world is the overzealous Christian. I’m not talking about little old Doris who does the flowers every Sunday morning, I mean the full on ‘you’re all gonna burn in hell’ redneck with the fixed, creepy grin and the glassy eyed stare. You know the kind I mean. Holding a basic conversations with these people is a struggle to keep their feet in reality and trying to conduct a theological debate with them is like attempting to hold a debate about nuclear science with a scientist who constantly refer to nuclear fission as ‘dancing, sparkly stuff’. Facepalm and leave the room.

Now I’m pretty live-and-let-live when it comes to them walking amongst us and I count some of them as my close friends, but I can’t help but feel a small degree of deep satisfaction when they get their wheels stuck in the mud. It warms my heart in a twisted way. So imagine my delight when I heard about this…

Fred Phelps and his followers from the Westboro Baptist Church have cornered the market when it comes to shouty religious nuts standing on street corners with huge placards telling everyone that they will burn in hell. Their website didn’t exactly endear the group to me when it greeted me as a ‘depraved daughter of Adam’. But when they set up camp outside Comic-Con this year (right) they were far from prepared for the army of geeks that had arrived fully prepared to do battle with them. Equipped with funny signs and chants such as ‘What do we want? Gay sex. When do we want it? Now!’, the geek army set about a counter-attack that will go down in history as the Great Battle of Comic-Con 2010. The reviled Church group were quickly sent away and fanboy power reigned supreme.

The lesson learnt by all is that religion might well hammer women and homosexuals, but it should NEVER mess with a nerd. For the Geek shall inherit the Earth…

Friday, 9 July 2010

Strawberry Ice-Cream Boobs!

So I’m officially one year older on Tuesday and I feel that I must finally embrace a maturer outlook on life and become a wiser and more responsible person. But since I have a few days of immaturity left then please indulge me....

Look, I found ice-cream boobies!!!!

AHHHHHHHHhhhhhhhhhhhhh....that's better.......Raspberry Nipple flavour, anyone?