Friday, 13 September 2013


Image from here

Not everyone enjoyed last night's new and undoubtedly original BBC2 crime drama but I loved it and it appears to have gone down well with others too.

I was hooked from the moment the haunting face of actor Cillian Murphy came into view as he sat bareback astride a magnificent black horse. He rode through those dark, grimy post World War One Birmingham streets full of drunks and paupers to meet a Chinese woman who put a magic spell on the animal to make it win a race. In reality, it was probably an early form of drug doping to give that competitive edge.

The programme had all the authenticity of the day with a bit of modern relevance thrown in for today's audience. The music, for example, was very much of our age and the drugs. We might have seen old fashioned men committing old fashioned crimes, but the menace of opium addiction and the reasons for it were made all too clear as Murphy in the role of Tommy Shelby battled with his demons following life after his near death trench experiences in Flanders fields.

Nicknamed The Brummie Sopranos, this was the English version of mafia-type mob violence and organised crime with a very British name. The term ‘Peaky Blinders’ was, apparently really used back in the day to describe gang members in the least glamorous setting of a big urban Midlands town.

These criminals did exist which is why the West Midlands Police Force dug into its archives to give us a peek at the real faces and the type of crimes committed by those early mobsters who went back to lives of crime after they came home very different and changed men.

The character Danny Whizzbang suffers shell shock and soon gets into trouble with two Italian gangsters who demand justice is done after their brother is stabbed to death by Whizzbang during one of his manic bouts. The Italians may have been based on the Sabini Brothers of London who saw off competition from the Brummie Boys who moved into the capital city led by Billy "Bookmaker" Kimber.

Whizzbang's impending end was all very amicable as Tommy explained why he had to "dispatch" his friend to stop gang warfare between the two tribes breaking out. It hit home that those poor men in reality were taken from the battlefield and its horrors and dropped back into their lives where they were expected to just carry on as before. There was no counselling, no understanding of trauma, no compassion or sympathy for those who came back mental cripples. I was pleased it ended up as it did for the character but he's now been sent on that mission to London that can only end in a mess because of his unpredictable condition.

I don't care that the women in it are kept in their place. That's how it was. Awful, I know, but true. Some of the new feministas would like to see women in less traditional roles in such a ground-breaking new drama but history is what it is and shows us how far we have come. A nice girl working in a rough working man's club might have faced the prospect of being raped which is why, generally, nice girls didn't work in such places. Bad girls may have told secrets they should have kept which is why their brothers and fathers wouldn't want them mixing with nice boys like Ada Shelby does with the communist worker Freddie Thorne.

Mention of how the women ran the gang in the men's absence could have been ignored by the writers but it wasn't. The first world war gave many women a new found freedom and aided the cause of the suffragettes and I'll bet women married to crime lords did their bit in their husband's absence too. Maybe as the six part series progresses we'll see some of the everyday trauma the women went through. They were tough and they had to be.

Some girls found themselves on the receiving end of the most terrible violence. In one case, a 15-year-old thug knifed his girlfriend in the back simply because she refused to go out one evening. She was lucky to survive. A far worse fate visited 18-year-old Emily Pimm, who once broke a jug over her boyfriend James Harper's head during a row. Harper knocked her to the ground, and then kicked and stamped on her face with heavy army boots with metal tips on the heels and toes. The assault killed her.

According to police files before the war, Birmingham was infested with gangs. Most favoured fighting pitched battles in the middle of the slums. No mercy was shown to anyone in the way, and women and children were often badly injured in the fracas. However, it seems that in reality the gangs were little more than groups of semi-organised thugs who loved a good scrap and the way they looked. The Peaky Blinders wore heavy metal-tipped boots, skin-tight moleskin or corduroy trousers and silk scarves around their necks. They wore bowler hats with brims that came to a point worn on one side to ensure their natty quiffs stuck out on the other.

The TV series producers clearly did their homework as we saw those trademark clothes worn by the cast. The police also released the charge sheets of some of the criminals, which gives an illustration of the types of crimes these young men, and boys, would have committed.

Harry Fowler, 19, for example, had been charged with the relatively minor crime of bicycle theft, while Stephen McHickie, 25, had been arrested for breaking into a draper’s shop. Thomas Gilbert, a comparatively old man at the age of 38, had been charged with ‘false pretences’ which sounds like the equivalent of the modern crime of fraud.

In March 1890, a young man called George Eastwood stopped at the Rainbow pub one Saturday night. A teetotaller, he ordered himself a ginger beer. Unfortunately for Eastwood, his request was overheard by some gang members. ‘What do you drink that tack for?’ asked the gang’s leader, Thomas Mucklow. ‘Mind your own business,’ replied Eastwood. After Eastwood left the pub, he was followed by the gang. When he reached a quiet spot, Mucklow shouted: ‘Now boys! Give it him hot!’ Eastwood was savagely beaten. He managed to escape and hid in a house. When he got himself to hospital, he was diagnosed with a fractured skull and was operated upon. Such attacks were so common, that there was little the Birmingham police could do to deter or to detect them. They themselves were considered fair game by the gangs.

On one occasion, a policeman tried to stop a fight between a drunken gang member and his girlfriend. The policeman and the thug soon ended up having a vicious brawl on the pavement. Two passers-by grabbed the policeman’s whistle to summon help. However, it attracted more gang members, who set upon the policeman and the two passers-by and almost beat them to death.

Only a copper in the fictional guise of C I Chester Campbell, played by actor Sam Neill, could match their ruthlessness and gain the upper hand in bringing some form or law and order to those wild cobbled streets and murderous canal sides.

However, he is there for one purpose - to find the guns stolen from the BSA factory by order of the then Home Secretary Winston Churchill. Tommy has them but has ignored the family matriarch's advice. Aunt Polly, played by Helen McCrory, urges him to dump them where the police can find them but Tommy has other plans.

The series continues next Thursday at 9pm and is one definitely not to be missed.

Thursday, 12 September 2013


Image from here

WEA tutors and those who wanted to enrol on one or more of a myriad of adult educational courses met last week at the Friends Meeting House in Lincoln.

My courses in creative writing and crime and mystery literature begin next week in Gainsborough and Boston and I can't wait. Summer has been long, glorious and fun, but the joy doesn't end with the holidays when you work for the WEA. It is a delightful organisation with a long and prestigious history in educating people who may be unable to access learning elsewhere - or cannot afford to do so.

An educational charity founded in 1903, it aimed to bring learning and some form of equality to the poor working classes at a time when not everyone went to school. Children left education early to become breadwinners in disadvantaged households who didn't see the value in schooling when going down mines, working on railways or in factories, at least put money on the table at the time it was much needed.

Today, as students can still be in a learning environment into adulthood, the WEA is not only just as relevant to the cause of educational equality as it ever was, but more so as cuts bite into the social fabric of modern society and further and higher educational institutions become businesses with high fees limited to students who can afford to study or can afford to get into debt.

Former chair of the Trustees of the WEA, (Workers' Educational Association) Richard Taylor, has written an in depth piece about the modern role of the charity HERE and it is well worth a read.

He says : "As our society becomes more unequal so it is also apparent that the WEA's social purpose ethos is more relevant and important than ever. There are now increasing numbers of people trapped in cycles of deprivation. Government cuts to local authorities, the voluntary sector and social services are severely exacerbating these problems. The WEA provides a valuable and very varied programme of targeted work with some of these communities.

"Lastly, it is increasingly important for the WEA to preserve and advocate the voluntarist ethic. Education is being increasingly bureaucratised and structured (and in recent years imbued with neoliberal ideology and practice). The WEA's voluntarism bucks the trend and sets an example for others to follow.

"As much as at any time in its history, the WEA has a central, vital role to play. Its educational provision and ethos are unique; and it has potentially an important role to play in buttressing and developing a truly democratic society."

In short, the WEA teaches people to embrace and enjoy learning, to think and analyse for themselves, and to take up as many opportunities as they can to further their interests or ambitions. Certainly my adult students come to courses because they enjoy it, they like to think and analyse, it gives them new skills and helps to develop existing ones, and they leave feeling more empowered, and I hope enthused, by what they have learned and the journey we take each session over our 10 weeks per term.

Anyone who wants more information about the local courses put on by the Lincolnshire WEA can find the brochure at this link. More news about the WEA generally can be found HERE

Tuesday, 10 September 2013


I am lucky enough to live in an old village that hasn't been developed to death. It's a place surrounded by countryside and behind my house we have acres and acres of open wheat and crop fields.

That gorgeous view was slightly hidden as a wild lilac tree at the back of our low dry-stone wall had rooted and grown to become quite a monster. But now the landscape has been opened up to reveal it's breath taking glory as the farmer who lives up the road, and who keeps the land, clipped his hedgerows and felled the tree on request from one of our neighbours.

The problem was that once it had gone then our garden was hit by lots of extra sunlight and it suddenly looked a bit of an overgrown mess. We had a couple of days of hard graft tidying it all up, pulling out weeds, digging the flower beds, pulling up the last of the potatoes, and pruning the honeysuckle bush that had also got a bit wild and out of control. My husband wasn't best pleased initially that the lilac tree had gone because he makes wine with the flowers every year. However, as we are not big drinkers then what we have in stock will surely last until the tree grows back - or we can forage for it elsewhere.

As I pulled out some plants that grow under my poorly greengage plum tree, which we have also made wine from in its healthier days, I spotted many hairy yellow and black creepy crawlies like that pictured above.

The insect turned out to be the Lady Bird larvae which is a great friend of gardeners. It might just save our tree which has been horribly attacked by aphids for a few years now. We had decided to chop it down this year but Nature's Salvation in sending us her ready made army of pest control means that it might just get a reprieve until next year when I hope it will be in better shape.

Ladybird larvae eat 1,200 aphids each in their lifetime. The beetle parents lay millions of eggs so I guess there is a good chance that the tree will recover. It's been in our garden longer than us or our neighbours can remember so it would be an awful shame if it had to go.

One thing that did strike me, though, as I searched the web to find out what these insects were, was how we would manage today without Google and what we did before it made finding anything suddenly easy.

I think I would have looked in a few general reference books and hoped to have found it. But as I don't have any in my library specifically about insects, then I would probably have shown it to my neighbours - if they were about at the time I found it - or asked my friends who are not insect experts either.

More than likely, I would have done as the short cartoon below illustrates, cut down my tree and forgotten all about it.

Monday, 9 September 2013


Inspector Montalbano is back - well sort of but as a new younger version of himself in The Young Montalbano which began last Saturday evening on BBC 4 and continues for another five weeks.

I missed actor Luca Zingeretti in the role that he has made his own and it was hard to imagine that within 20 years, the actor who plays the comissario's younger self, Michele Riondino (pictured above) will transform into the older man he becomes. However, the character traits are consistent and it didn't take long for me to put aside the physicality of the outward appearance and warm to the humble beginnings of this great literary and screen detective created by writer Andrea Camilleri.

The new series begins with Montalbano in a mountain village which is cold and too far from the sun and sea for his liking. However, he is soon promoted and transferred to his own home town of Vigata.

He leaves for his new role before the case of a man murdered with hobnail boots is concluded but a chance sale of the same boots in the local market in Vigata has him heading skywards again to tie up the loose ends of that case before returning to the seaside town to deal with a vulnerable young girl who appears to have been sent to murder a judge by a Mafia lover.

All is not what it seems, however, and Montalbano resolves to find the true reason using unofficial means which could put him at odds with the Italian law system and end his career before it even gets off the ground.

As we see a young Montalbano so we also see an older Fazio in the shape of the young Fazio's father who, like his son with the older detective, acts as Montalbano's conscience in aiming to keep his investigations on the straight and narrow.

And it is was with great delight that I saw Caterella come back too - slightly taller and slimmer than the original but with those OCD character traits and zealousness to please intact, despite getting much largely wrong, that lend so much of the comedy to the series.

Will the womanising narcissist Augello also come back as a younger version of himself as the series progresses? I guess we'll have to wait and see. Meanwhile, I'll be tuning in again next week for a slice of Italian sun, sea, culture, food and a mystery like nothing else we'll see on TV this year.