There is no denying that sections of Penny Reel’s Tommy Whitmer novels are scabrous, scurrilous, blasphemous, vicious, vitriolic, malevolent, poisonous, plain offensive, and downright nasty, though some people may take delight in this approach. These parts, however, make for uncomfortable reading here, but there is far worse all around us and often among our own friends and followers on social media and in real life.
These troubling parts of the Whitmer books are balanced by many passages of incredible insight and beauty, and these are often to do with attention to detail and specific references to music which sometimes form a special kind of list poetry. For example, towards the end of Up The Dreary Slope, the narrator Tommy Whitmer has been contemplating the music of Gary U.S. Bonds, and proceeds to dance around his flat to a succession of old R&B jump records and some ska singles, winding down later with some fruit, sweet tea, and a plate of Garibaldi biscuits, while listening to The Notorious Byrd Brothers.
There is a similar passage in In Groves And Along Lanes where Marvin Cohen takes a day off from his record shop, stays at home and plays a load of old records, while his wife is out at work, starting with ‘Skank in Bed’ by Scotty, working his way through a load of old rock ’n’ roll, soul, highlife, jazz, and much, much more, until he ends the day blissfully with tea and oranges and Leonard Cohen’s debut LP. It is difficult to think of any other writer that can make such potent and beautiful use of a list of records.
There is, also, right at the end of Up The Dreary Slope a lovely piece where Tommy heads out to sit on his favourite seat in Shacklewell Green, to smoke a spliff, and whistle down the wind. The tone is meditative, contemplative, and quite moving. There is an earlier variation in another Reel piece featured in The Faber Book of Pop. This is an article called ‘Better Must Come’, the opening piece from the Pressure Drop reggae fanzine, the first of two editions, from Autumn 1975, which Reel ran with Nick Kimberley of the Compendium bookshop in Camden, and Chris Lane, later of Fashion records. It opens with Reel walking across town the morning after a party, and ending up in a caff (Reel being far more of a café type than a pub dweller), where luxury is a toasted ham sandwich, three cups of coffee drunk hot, and a copy of the Mirror to read from cover to cover.
It is an extraordinary piece, very political and confrontational, about racism and missed opportunities. It is filled with abstract polemics, and is written in a freewheeling ’talking blues’ style, with what are now familiar Reel tropes and tics: locations like Dalston and Ridley Road market, the shebeens and blues dances, Prince Buster’s ‘Ghost Dance’ and Herman Hesse in the same sentence. There is mention too of Laurel Aitken, and “bombers, blues and dizzy dexes”.
The Pressure Drop piece also links to the opening of Tommy Whitmer’s In Groves with its setting of Ladbroke Grove and Notting Hill, with Peter Rachman being more sinned against than sinning, Stephen Ward too, plus appearances by Michael X and Johnny Edgecombe, Lucky Gordon, the Ethiopian World Federation, the first Rastafarians in London, and so forth. Prophetically there is also a reference to Dennis Brown’s ‘Money in My Pocket’
There are allusions too to horse racing and betting, which conjure up memories of being a kid and reading Reel’s columns which he wrote as The Citizen in the NME circa 1980, which were filled with references often too abstruse to appreciate here, being too young to know Jim Haynes from Johnny Haynes, though a mention of Damon Runyon’s racing tales did prompt a visit to the local library and triggered a long-lasting love affair with his stories.
Reel describes himself as a stylist, stating that like Damon Runyon he writes only in the present tense, which works. The Dennis Brown book is a great example of this, where he stays within the timeframe of the original NME cover feature, which came with brilliant shots by Dennis Morris of the reggae star in the snow of a London park, without using his knowledge of what happens to the singer subsequently. And the book includes a wonderfully Runyon-esque description of a soundclash in the early days of 1977 in the Club Four Aces, Dalston, between the upstart D Unis Hi-Fi and the ruling sound system operator Count Shelly.
Perhaps partly because of personal obsessions, what really appeals enormously about Penny Reel’s writing, despite or because of the way his words are scattered all over the place, is the way it is riddled with references which echo and repeat and loop around over and over, forming patterns, rather like one might once have done with a Spirograph set. There is an art in that, and hopefully it is one we will be able to enjoy often in the future. In the meantime the Reel and Whitmer books mentioned here may well be available from the Muzik Tree or Dub Vendor sites, and they are very much recommended, whatever your taste in music or clothes.