Reviewed by James McLaughlin
Gangsters, Geezers and Mods marries social documentary and crime thriller. Drawing on autobiographical material, the canvas is a wide ranging survey of youth culture since the early 70s. Football matches provide the setting for hilarious capers as well as brilliantly relived scenes of glory and disappointment. If you wear claret and blue, you will rejoice in the supremely witty digs at the denizens of Small Heath.
The protagonist's love of Paul Weller is celebrated in some of the most insightful commentary on the meaning of this musical icon I have ever read. The soundtrack he evinces and analyses spans post-war jazz to modern rap. The more fictional elements of the book take a darker route through hard drugs, gang violence with surprising plot twists and turns. Hints are laid early and the story is woven with pace and suspense. Most of all I enjoyed the protagonist/author's engagement with life.
Despite a tough upbringing, there is a youthful exuberance that shines through in every match, every pub conversation, every escapade. The characters are a comedic gallery of rogues and are beautifully, sometimes tenderly depicted. On multiple occasions, the protagonist shows a better, kinder side in contrast to his dystopian surroundings. And that is where this book wins. The main character is both fully immersed in his surroundings but has the wisdom to stand apart, the ability to engage completely but also the distance to stand back and offer wry observations and insightful assessment of what it's like to grow up in the inner city as a working class lad from humble beginnings.
To say I enjoyed it is an understatement - I read it in two sittings. In conjuring up the Birmingham of my youth, the book evoked fond memories of many long-forgotten incidents, people and places. Pennell is Birmingham's answer to Danny Baker. If you grew up any time since the 1960s, you too will love this book.