Monaco of the Midlands is a novel by Alex Dennistoun, which I really enjoyed reading. It’s set in modern Birmingham but is most interested in a time about 30 years ago — much like this site. I’d be trying to pay it a massive compliment if I said it reminded me of novelisations of TV programmes from the ’70s like The Sweeney, it’s honest, straight, and gritty, it’ll go down well. Someone should be looking to make that slightly retro Netflix series out of this. Anyway, here’s an exclusive extract: go see what you think.
Recently released from prison, Tony Walker spends his days pretending to be Polish to get cash-in-hand work at the local car wash. All the while he’s carrying ten grand’s worth of £20 notes in an old jiffy bag.
The money belongs to him, but he can’t spend it. He needs it to realise his dream of re-staging the Birmingham Superprix, a street motor race held around the streets of England’s second city for five consecutive years between 1986 and 1990.
Can they endure the help of a drunken ex-racing driver, an over-zealous investor, and an unwelcome face from their past, as they set about attempting to triumph against the odds and reignite Birmingham’s racing future?
“Birmingham’s still the only place in Britain where you’re allowed to hold a motor race on public roads.” Matt said.
“It’s true, He read it on Wikipedia.” Tony added, watching the coffee machine fill another plastic cup.
“What about the Isle of Man?” Paul asked.
“Mainland Britain, smart-arse.” Matt continued. “Anyway, they’ve never changed the law back. So as far as I can tell, it’s still legal to race here on the Sunday and Monday of the August Bank holiday.”
Tony handed flimsy plastic cups of coffee to Paul and Matt. Paul sniffed his cup and surreptitiously palmed it off onto the desk behind him.
“People have tried to bring it back before though, haven’t they? Does somebody still have an option on this thing?”
“Not as far as we can tell.” Matt replied wincing at his rancid coffee. “It’s not like….owned or registered as a copyright or anything.”
“I heard it fell flat on it’s arse last time someone tried.” Tony said looking doubtfully at the brown liquid in his own cup.
“We need to find out why. What went wrong.” Paul said “And what about the Council?”
“They’re bound to be up for it.” Matt said. “The benefits to them are the same now as they were back in the day.”
“Are you sure?” Paul was unconvinced, but Matt had given this a lot of thought.
“Think about it? What do we do? What have we got that sets us apart from Manchester, Bristol or Leeds or anywhere else?”
“We’ve got more miles of canal than Venice.” Tony suggested.
“Theirs aren’t full of shopping trolleys, though are they?”
“There’s more trees than people?”
“Is that true, do you know?” Paul asked.
“Who cares?” Matt pointed out “It hardly a bleeding tourist magnet is it?”
“We’ve got two great football teams.” Tony aimed a conspirational wink at Paul.
“Yeah, Villa and Villa Reserves.” Paul said holding his open palm up in the air.
“Have that, you bluenose bastard.” said Tony completing the high-five with relish.
“Fuck off.” Matt smiled “Look, what Birmingham has got, apart from Ozzy’s birthplace and Jasper fucking Carrott’s Christmas show, is the right to hold a street motor race. Nowhere else has that. Yet we do sod all with it.”
“Okay,” Paul said. “But I’m telling you that you can’t rely on the Council to support us. They’ve got no fucking money. Nobody has these days. Besides, they got stiffed on the bill last time.”
“So you think we’ll have to do it without them?“ Matt asked.
“Without their money maybe? We’ll still need them for planning permission, alterations and road closures…everything, really.” Paul’s relentless realism and attention to detail appeared to be taking its toll on Tony who drifted out of the conversation and was now studying a city centre street map pinned to the wall. “Before all that,” Paul continued “We’d need to sit down and work out how much we’re gonna have to raise to put something like this together?”
“I’ve got ten K to get us started.” Tony ripped the map from the wall carelessly. Matt who had finally plucked up courage to sip his coffee, immediately spat it out.
“That’ll pay for about fifty yards of Armco.” Paul said.
“Ten fucking grand?” Matt mumbled. “Where did you get ten grand?” Tony ignored the question and spread the map on the table.
“That’s not important.” he waved his hand dismissively. “ It’s all about this. Say hello to an old friend…… Pen?” Tony clicked his fingers and placed his palm face up. Matt and Paul turned to look at him, before Paul rolled his eyes and handed him a marker pen. Tony began drawing on the map.
“Hey, I need that.” said Paul objecting to the defacement of his property.
“Shut up you girl. I’ll buy you a new one.” Tony replied as he drew a large and unsightly asterisk at their present Bristol Street location. “So, we’re here….okay?” He started to carefully draw a line on the map tracing the route of the old circuit. “The start finish line is right outside, so you’re off up to the first corner. Left hander onto Highgate. Round the roundabout, the wrong way of course, then up the hill to the Halfords hairpin. It’s still there, they just put some concrete bollards out to make it a proper roundabout.” Tony flamboyantly looped the marker pen around the roundabout. “Round the hairpin and down the other side of Highgate, past the Mosque, past your old house, towards the right hander. Ferodo. Foot down up Sherlock Street, Up to a right hander. Loctite. Onto Pershore Street, then left again onto Bromsgrove Street. Up to the end, little right kink….”
“You’re a right little kink.” Tony’s middle finger was answer enough to that interruption as he completed his assessment.
“…then left back onto Bristol Street and there it is.”
“That’s one mean bastard of a lap.” Paul said as Tony completed the loop and lifted the pen up off the map.
“You know, it was a great circuit.”
“The Monaco of the Midlands. That’s what they used to say.”
Matt stood awkwardly outside the old bank on the corner of Warstone Lane and Vyse Street. He didn’t know why, but he’d always hated the Jewellery Quarter. He tried to rationalise his feelings towards the place but he just couldn’t. He’d spent a lot of time in this part of town when he was growing up, and from where he was standing, it hadn’t changed much. Okay, there was Tesco Local where the newsagent was, and some of the old workshops were now swanky overpriced café bars, but strip away the layers, and the skeletons of the past were clearly visible.
From where he stood, he caught sight of Tony trying to help a young mum lift her buggy from the bus. He probably hadn’t been asked. After all, it was a low-level access bus with no step down, and her boyfriend was vociferously telling him to get his stupid bloody hands off the buggy. Matt wondered what it was in his brother’s psychological make-up that ensured trouble followed him less like a lost puppy, and more like a rabid and demented tiger.
Tony backed away from the buggy and began to cross the road toward the rendezvous point. The girl’s boyfriend hadn’t quite finished making his feelings known, giving Matt further cause for discomfort.
“Christ Mate, What is it with you and causing aggro?”
“I was only being helpful.” Tony said “Just cos there’s some ungrateful bastards in the world.” He shouted this over his shoulder, but only when he was sure he was at a safe distance.
They set off along Frederick Street heading towards Albion Street through the old Victorian workshops and modern eateries.
“I love this place.”
“You love everything.” Matt said.
“I haven’t been here since……” Tony paused for thought, but then seemed to think better of it. “I dunno, but we used to come a lot as kids, didn’t we?”
“Mom was like a magpie when it came to shiny things.”
“It’s funny, but when you look at it, nothing much has changed since then, has it?” Tony said, as they rounded Albion Street onto Tenby Street. Opposite the old Fire Station, they were confronted with the dazzling site of a new, ultra-modern apartment block. “Except that….That’s different.”
Matt marvelled at the sleek glass façade and seemingly random angles. He loved how the gold coloured panels interspersed with the asymmetrical sheets of bluey-green smoked glass. He followed them with his eyes to the point where the functional lobby jutted out like effortlessly folded white marble. The materials, the colours and the off-kilter angles made it look more than a product of modern system building. It looked like a piece of beautiful, futuristic, interstellar debris that had fallen to earth.
“It’s like something out of the bleeding Jetsons.” Tony said. Matt sighed and pressed his finger against the cold metal button for Flat twelve. The buzzer sounded strangely cheap and tinny. Hardly in keeping with it’s space-age surroundings. They waited for a moment, but there was no reply.
“You sure it was flat twelve?” Matt asked.
“You’re probably not pressing hard enough.” Tony reached across him and held the button down for what seemed like an age. Matt slapped his hand.
“Ow. That hurt you prick.” Tony said, nursing his latest bruise.
“Don’t be stupid.”
Somewhere above them, a window flew open and the sound of a woman’s shouting filled the air. Aside from the odd choice expletive, neither Tony nor Matt could make out any real words. They stepped back and could see that the door to one of the upper balconies had been thrown open.
Tony stepped further backwards to get a better look, but this proved to be something of a mistake as he found himself dodging the first of a pair of flying, highly polished black Italian brogues.
Running back to the lobby for sanctuary a second brogue was soon followed by the constituent parts of a three piece suit, a white shirt, a tie, two socks and finally a pair of Calvin Klein briefs.
Following the appearance of the snowy white underpants the enraged shouting died away. Tony ventured out into the road again and a broad smile spread across his face. He beckoned Matt towards him and pointed up to the window. Matt stepped out with trepidation, fearful of further flying footwear, but when he looked up, he too saw the naked backside of a dark-skinned muscular man with his face against the glass door to his apartment.
“Oi, Blakey……” Tony yelled.
Paul turned and looked down, instinctively cupping his most intimate areas with his hands.
“Fucking hell….All right, lads?”
“We should be going” Matt shouted. “It looks like a bad time…”
“Couldn’t have timed it better.” Paul replied. “If you could just……” He was interrupted by the appearance at the door of a short, petite young blonde with a look of rage that could not so much curdle milk from a hundred paces, rather make it wish it was back inside the cow. She pushed past them, and disappeared up the street at a speed that Usain Bolt would struggle to match if he were wearing sling-backs.
“Bit of, er….girl trouble.” Paul said obviously thinking things through. “In a minute, someone else is gonna come out of that door” I need you to grab it for me and stop it from closing.”
“Are you locked out there, young man?” Tony asked.
“Just grab the door, will you?” At that moment another short, petite, young blonde burst out of the door, looking eerily similar to the last. Tony stood and stared while Matt made a lunge for the door. He too had been confused and distracted by the similarity and almost let the door close. Instinctively, he thrust his arm into the gap and let out a wail as the heavy door gently crushed the soft tissue of his lower arm.
“Fuck.” he shouted as he hauled the part-glazed, wooden door open with his one good arm. Tony, meanwhile, stood in the middle of the road trying to work out what had just happened. Paul took the opportunity to enlighten him.
“Twins.” He smirked.
Tony shook his head, trying to conceal his grudging respect. As he started towards the door, Paul called him back.
“Tony? Get my stuff for me, will you?”
As he gathered the assorted items if clothing from the street below, Tony kicked the snowy-white briefs towards the storm drain. He wasn’t touching another man’s pants.