By Order of the Peaky Blinders
16 October 2019
'By Order of the Peaky Blinders' is the official companion to the hit TV show - packed full of behind-the-scenes glimpses and wonderful photography.
And we've been fortunate enough to grab a quick insight - the introduction to the book by creator Steven Knight!
The inspiration for Peaky Blinders came from my mother and father. When I was a boy they told me about their own childhoods, growing up in Small Heath, Birmingham. Their stories were like tales from another world, even though I grew up in the same city. Their words came alive in my imagination.
I learned from them that the backstreets of Birmingham in the 1920s were a wild and, in my mind, wonderful place. A lawless, smoky, boozy cast of characters moved to the rhythm of mysterious bangs and booms and hammer blows coming from the car and weapons factories that worked twenty-four hours a day all year round, dropping ash like snow on the blackened streets.
At the age of nine, my mother was a bookies’ runner. Local bookies used children to collect bets because off-track betting was illegal at the time and they knew kids wouldn’t be suspected and arrested. She carried a basket of washing down Little Green Lane and gamblers dropped their stake, usually a few coins, wrapped in a scrap of paper on which was written the name of the horse they were betting on and their own code name. She carried the dreams and hopes of poor people to the illegal gambling parlour of local bookie Tucker Wright, after stepping around his ferocious dog on a chain, and stepping over the broken beer bottles.
Her father (my grandfather) was one of Tucker Wright’s best customers, and often my mother took his only suit to the pawnshop to get money to lay bets. When his horses failed to win he’d play piano and sing in The Garrison pub, in return for free pints and whiskies to allow him to forget how much he had lost.
Some tales I was told were just images – almost scenes from a movie. Like when Dad was sent on an errand across Small Heath to take a message to his uncles.
My father’s family had worked canal boats, but his uncles were a notorious family of bookmakers and gangsters. My dad was eight and barefoot as he ran across cobbles with a scrap of paper in his hand, given to him by his father to pass on to the uncles. Dad was scared because that family and their associates were also known all across the city as the Peaky Blinders.
Historians may claim the phrase ‘Peaky Blinder’ went out of use at the turn of the century, but every uncle and auntie in my family and the grandparents told me the term was alive and kicking into the thirties. They were Blinders from their soft woven peaked caps to their shiny black boots. I’ve consistently found history books to be an unreliable source of information when it comes to working-class history, since mostly people didn’t bother to write things down. I trust word of mouth, true memories and, of course, newspaper and court reports.
Dad arrived at a back door in Artillery Street and knocked nervously. The door swung open with a backdraft of cigarette smoke, stale beer and whisky. My dad said he stepped inside to find a group of men slouched in chairs; their flat caps pulled low, razor blades stitched into the peaks, guns only half hidden under open jackets. And in the middle of the group, piled high on a table, was a mountain of silver coins.
This was a neighbourhood where money was scarce, but the Peaky Blinders were kings and princes and this was their treasure. As Dad stared wide-eyed, someone tossed him a half-crown. He said the men were immaculately dressed: every crease as sharp as the razors in their hats, reflections in their toe caps, dicky bows and ties pulled tight on studded collars.
But what struck my dad most of all was that these men of royal Small Heath blood drank their beer and whisky from jam jars, not glasses. Not a penny of that fortune stashed on the table would be spent on anything so mundane as kitchenware. The money was in the fibre and the leather of their clothes, in their grooming and their guns.
I was around nine years old when Dad first told me that particular story. The image of a gang gathered around their cash stuck with me for decades, I think because each detail was delivered with the wide-eyed world view my father experienced as a kid, living this stuff for real, and for the very first time.
I later had cause to go to Small Heath regularly to watch football and so I saw the last of the old terraces and tenements before they were pulled down. Every pub had a story attached. I’d walk by The Garrison, The Hen and Chickens or The Marquis of Lorne and imagine my grandad banging out a tune on the piano for free beer. I’d picture my mother as a child my age, running through the alleyways with her washing basket in hand.
Most of all, I imagined the Peaky Blinders.
Football season after football season, I saw the pubs and factories and back-to-backs of Small Heath disappearing. It only made me hungrier for the mythology that blew in with the smoke and dust of demolition. There was a pub called The Chain where, in the Peaky days, only women were allowed. Not by legal authority, but because if a man tried to set foot in there he’d be beaten to a pulp by the clientele, who were mostly chain makers from local factories.
The streets teemed with characters. There was a preacher called Jimmy Jesus, who was black and barefoot and who evangelized as he walked the cobbles, pursued by children, for whom Jimmy was the only black man on earth.
There was a man called Tommy Tank who often exploded without warning, destroying whole pubs single-handedly. There were men blinded by war, walking in line with hands on each other’s shoulders. There were pubs that opened at 6 a.m. so the factory workers could sink a few pints before reporting to work, where men were paid in beer, washed their machines with beer and apparently lived entirely on beer.
Elsewhere, bare-knuckle boxing matches took place where the loser was tied up and thrown into the canal; he was then required to swim to the nearest lock without the use of his hands. Another man was known to go from pub to pub where he’d then force his head into a cage to fight the rat inside with his teeth. This was mad, wild stuff that most writers wouldn’t dare put into a work of fiction because it was too far out, but it was true – all of it. It was our history.
I glimpsed more than most of this disappearing world because Dad grew up to be a blacksmith and farrier. He travelled around the West Midlands shoeing horses. Along with the usual riding stables, he still had connections with various Gypsies and scrap metal dealers who kept yards and horses in the inner-city suburbs and the Black Country. I was the youngest of seven kids and sometimes on a school day he’d say to my brothers and me, ‘Do you want to go to school or do you want to come with me?’ Of course, the answer was obvious. As a family we’d go to the van to shoe and when we went to the yards I’d meet some incredible characters – they seemed to be from a different universe.
One of the best yards for tea and stories was owned by a scrap metal dealer called Charlie Strong. His helper was a bloke called Curly, and I was later told that Curly was my great uncle. Meanwhile, the yards were like an Aladdin’s cave. As a kid, you couldn’t help but be fascinated by the junk and jewels to be found there and when I asked if any of the stuff was stolen I was told firmly: ‘These people don’t steal things. They find things before they’re lost.’
Sometimes Dad would take us to Gypsy fairs, such as Stowe Fair, and they were fearsome places full of fearsome characters. He used to be a boxer, so could handle himself pretty well, but I remember when he took me to Stowe, he seemed a little edgy.
He said, ‘Son, don’t look at anybody. If I get into a fight here, I’ll lose.’
Mum and Dad’s childhood was set against a supporting cast of war casualties and victims of circumstance. Times were hard and life was often brutal, dangerous and harsh. In summer, mattresses were pulled into the yards and smoked with smudge fires, in order to rid the fabric of bedbugs. Sanitation was almost non-existent. Men fought, women fought back and children sat in the shadows and watched.
Knowing how hard life was didn’t ever make the world inhabited by the Peaky Blinders any less appealing to me as a storyteller. I always felt that I’d found my own source of myth and poetry, which I should turn into a narrative that could be shared at some point. Most importantly, the story of these people had never been told. With the help of the BBC, I set about putting that right.