A writer who goes by the name of Penny Reel is indirectly responsible for much of the activity here. For, a tale he told in an edition of the NME way back in April 1979, in what was a Bank Holiday mod special, has had remarkable consequences.
‘The Young Mod’s Forgotten Story’ was Reel’s account of the very early mod years set in and around his native North and East London. It was a secret history oozing with an extraordinary amount of detail, and it took years (in the pre-Internet age) to decode the mysterious range of references woven into the story. It also introduced a cast of characters that would remain with this reader.
What has also remained is the heady sensation of gradually processing so much new information, and the painstaking piecing together of odd facts and strange names. It is a delicious feeling of intoxication that has recurred potently whenever exploring new areas of musical and cultural activity.
This sense of having your world turned upside down and inside out was acknowledged in the very first issue of YHO back in 2008. The second issue, a month or so later, returned to the theme of Penny Reel’s writings, focusing on his book Deep Down With Dennis Brown, which was lovingly put together and billed also as a short story. It seems to have been first published in 2000, shortly after Dennis’ death. Its subtitle is Cool Runnings and the Crown Prince of Reggae, and it is quite simply one of the best books about music ever. The piece in the second YHO sort of concludes by stating: “I’m not sure what became of Penny Reel.”
Well, since that time, Reel has published three books, and there are hopefully more on the way. Like the beautiful Dennis Brown book, these are Drake Bros. publications, Reel’s own imprint, and all are fiercely independent affairs. The first of these, from 2012, is Monkey Business In The Monkey House, which is a beautifully researched account of teenage gangs and crime in and around Hackney in the post-WW2 years up until the original mod era.
The other two books are written by Reel under the name of Thomas Horace Whitmer. The first of these, which appeared quietly in 2014, is Up The Dreary Slope, a novel which tells the story of a man who has lived on the Pentonville Road for 44 years, but whose heart remains in the village of Shacklewell in Hackney where he was born and raised. In a way it tells of his struggle to escape from Shacklewell and ultimately his determination to return there. It is also an indispensable social history of London over the past 60-odd years, which weaves fact and fiction together with many a sleight of hand until it is difficult to tell what is real (or Reel) and what can be taken with a pinch of salt. In many ways it is really Reel’s own story, and often a way of wreaking revenge.
The most recent Whitmer novel is In Groves And Along Lanes, which is made up of four interconnecting tales covering all London’s compass points and taking in many of the capital’s significant events over the past 60-odd years. With Up The Dreary Slope it forms two-thirds of a promised London trilogy.
All of these books, to a certain extent, connect back to that 1979 NME story in terms of places, faces, themes and detail. And, amid this activity, there has been Paul ‘Smiler’ Anderson’s book, Mods: The New Religion, pretty much an oral history of the original mod era, which is something it is harder to get right than most people assume. Not everyone can be Studs Terkel or, more relevantly, Jonathon Green. There is no shortage of mod-themed books on the market, but Paul’s is well-balanced, and right up there with the very best. And Penny Reel’s contributions to Paul’s book steal the show, particularly where he revisits and expands upon aspects of his 1979 story.
It may be unfair to harp on about a very particular part of one man’s writing career, one which may be unrepresentative, and which may not mean as much to anyone else, but then again Reel himself does keep returning to his mod tale or elements of it, like a jazz musician playing with a signature tune or one of Reel’s treasured reggae singers revisiting, reworking, reversioning an old hit. Whether Reel’s stories are true or not is totally irrelevant. He has created a specific legend or mythology, and has pretty much defined a particular aesthetic.