Tuesday, 25 November 2014

My Great-Grandfather and the Peaky Blinders

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 what - or who - my grandfather was referring to. 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 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 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. My father mused that perhaps I had picked up an idle musical gene from him. Then, in conversation with my aunt, she told me how she would sit on my great-grandfather's lap and put her tiny hands over his large hands while he played the piano. She remembered how beaten up his hands were from the fights.  I questioned my aunt about this strange comment and asked for more information about my great-grandfather and when she 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 tell me more about James’s 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 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 he kept as beer money. He seemed to make a fair living out of it.

Many of these stories that my father told me involved shady characters such as the mysterious Italian 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 group of 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 (thereby 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’ (beaten up) and my great-grandmother claimed that he was never the same 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 going out for the day with his 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 up 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's face with razor blades, but my father is a calm and gentle man and he is not predisposed to glorifying violence, so this was something that he would not normally have discussed with me at that age. But although James’ group of friends and their activities were very violent, it was somehow acceptable for my father and grandfather to talk openly about them because the group had ‘principals’ - they had a strong family-like bond, they would watch out for one another and one another's families and they were very firmly ‘on our side’. I took comfort in knowing that, due to my surname, I would have enjoyed the same protection 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 there is 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, well slicked hair and a kindly smile. Sam started out as a boxer, then he became a book maker and freemason and he owned a boxing ring in Selly Oak.  Although he was deep in dodgy book-making dealings, he presented a business-like front to his activities and he clearly had the police under his influence. The police would 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 local orphans. 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 when she was a child and she was aware that Sam mixed with both well-heeled and shady 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 food chain’.

I have portraits and photographs of James and Sam, I have paraphernalia from their lives, I remember visiting family living in their old terraced housing with tiny rooms and open fires, I remember how my grandparents spoke about their lives and I grew up in a community in Birmingham that could also be a violent place to live at times but it also valued strong generational links forged between large, gang-like families that looked out for each other. Things haven’t really changed much in that respect. Loyalty and family names still carry a great deal of weight around here. And seeing how closely I physically resemble James and hearing how similar our characters are (even down to our piano playing!), things haven’t really changed that much within my own family either.

So, as you may well imagine, hearing about a TV series focusing on the blinders felt as though someone was making a documentary about a close friend or relative and I watched the first episode of the first series of Peaky Blinders with mixed emotions and expectations. 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 didn't shy away from the brutal, frenetic violence that these men were predisposed towards because that was certainly the case from the stories that I heard (and I still see it around me in Birmingham communities these days), but it also highlighted the strong allegiances, friendships and family ties between the gang members 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 my family connections with the blinders as a child.

Perhaps the fondness that I have for James, Sam and their friends is borne out of a 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 aspire to.