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.