Penny Reel’s mod story was a shaping force here, as much a part of the teenage reading process as Kerouac and Sartre. His tale, as published in the NME back in 1979, was incurably romantic, and illuminating, in the absence of much else. There were fragments of Generation X or Revolt Into Style, but not much else around. Reel’s tale was absorbed here before discovering Absolute Beginners, before finding Gary Herman’s book on The Who (though certainly the Purple Hearts knew that one), before Richard Barnes’ Mods! book appeared, before Nik Cohn’s Today There Are No Gentlemen was found in the local library, before Jonathon Green’s Days in the Life came out, and even before the NME ran Steve Turner’s comprehensive interview with Peter Meaden, though that too became a sacred text here.
There are those among us who might make something of a specialised subject out of Penny Reel’s accounts of the origins and evolution of modernism among the youth of Jewish East and North London in the early 1960s. For us, maybe, back in 1979, most importantly Reel’s story would be the antidote to Quadrophenia at the cinema, and all the other kids roaming round in parkas with patches sewn on. It, more than anything else, celebrated the idea of mods being outward-looking, open to new ideas and influences, and being bright and smart, which seemed to have a lot more to do (here, at least, if nowhere else) with the early Subway Sect story (another enduring fascination) than it did with idiots fighting on the beach down at Brighton or saving up to buy scooters.
This is also an idea that Steve Sparks famously put forward eloquently in Days in the Life, a quote which has been recycled often. Steve, incidentally, puts in a brief appearance in Thomas Horace Whitmer’s Up The Dreary Slope, and also crops up in the story of The Deviants. In his great book Give The Anarchist A Cigarette Mick Farren wrote about the early days of his group and said: “The second recruit to the team was Steve Sparks. Steve had a Romany gypsy background and was another ex-mod from East London, who thought that pop music had ended with Phil Spector, but still took a delight in anything that might cause trouble. He was one of the old-style mods, the ‘modernists’ who pre-dated – and rightly thought themselves infinitely superior to – the scooter boys who followed. The ‘modernists’ were essentially stylish beatniks, working class existentialists who smoked Gitanes, drank Guinness, looked at the pictures in Saluts Les Copains although they couldn’t read a word of French, and worshipped Miles Davis in his golden era of cool, copying his silk suits and perfect mannerisms.”
In his original 1979 story Reel introduced a memorable cast of characters. The opening is gripping, and this can be recited from memory: “In the beginning - or so the story goes - there are only three real mods, and one of these is flecking Lea Davis' brother. Mind you, it is Lea Davis himself who first puts this about in general currency, which means it is not necessary true, as it is known locally and wide that Lea Davis is more than somewhat fond of his brother, whose name is Wayne and who is said to have the best collection of Jimmy Witherspoon records in London.” It is a line Robert Elms misappropriates in his novel In Search of the Crack, but at least it is in there.
Among the other characters we meet are Charley (or Charlie) Steiger, Yonker Malcolm Chiswick, Beardy Pegley the foppish hard nut with an apparent fondness for Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and ,the particular favourite here, Lennie Tyler who we are told is “a very intense and temperamental character, much disposed to extended bouts of broody, sulky silence”. He first appears on Tower Hill doing the Continental Walk and, with odd echoes of Hercule Poirot, brushing imaginary flecks of dust from his simple midnight blue mohair suit. These are all characters we will meet again.
As well as the dramatis personae, the locations seem particularly important and, to those of us from elsewhere in London and beyond, oddly exotic. The 1979 story is set in and around Stamford Hill and thelocal schtip (or amusement arcade) and the bowling alley(which was the first in the UK), Tower Hill, Pentonville Road, Mare Street, the Chez Don in Dalston, Kingsland Waste, and the markets in Middlesex Street, Club Row, and Ridley Road. Farther afield, of course, there is the exotic world or the promised land of Soho.
These parts of London are recurring features of Reel’s books. In particular Thomas Horace Whitmer in Up The Dreary Slope is a living witness to the way that part of London has changed. He celebrates what successive waves of immigrants have brought to his city. He has similarly watched in despair as middle-class incomers have brought about the creeping gentrification, so much so that those born in the area 60-odd years ago, like him, find it nigh on impossible to live there. But Thomas is still there, long after the shops, pubs, cafés and restaurants he remembers have closed and the people he once knew have moved away. He is still there to tell his tale, and it is such an odd delight to have a book ostensibly about London written by someone who has lived there all their life.
In Absolute Beginners the father figure with his unfinished history of Pimlico is portrayed as rather a pathetic individual, but Penny Reel or his altered ego Tommy Whitmer unrepentantly loves local history, and has a vast collection of books on the subject (only Eddy Grant has a larger collection, apparently), and though he loves walking around the metropolis he doesn’t make a big song and dance of it like Iain Sinclair whose books, particularly the one on Hackney, Tommy loathes, echoing Jah Wobble’s comments in his memoir about the so-called scribe of Hackney never having anything to do with local working-class London people.
Reel, rather like Jack Kerouac, seems to have a prodigious and perhaps faulty or selective memory. He stands as a willing witness, an inside outsider, listening and observing: he was known as The Observer was he not? He has a complicated love and hate relationship with London, with the native Cockney’s convoluted set of prejudices and twisted snobbery (like the memorable dismissal of a couple of old NME colleagues as pretentious provincials), so that it is possible to mourn the disappearing working class while despising them as ignorant peasants. Who said we have to make sense?