Staring Death in the Face: Danny Smith goes to find The Reaper, and have a word

Danny Smith — you know the guy, he writes eloquently grimy stuff about our city right here— was finding life hard, so he went across the world on a mission to find Death – and have a word. 

In his new book Staring Death In The Face: Searching For The Reaper Across Mexico  (which we’re publishing) he describes how he travelled to ancient temples, vibrant bustling markets, white sands, with weird tourists, and found a neon blur of excess searching for the Grim Reaper in Mexico during the famous Day Of The Dead Festival.

He tells of nights at Mexico’s famous luchador wrestling, lost passports and drug busts, and a near-death experience almost drowning when swimming alone. 

Danny was lost, nearly forty, without his partner, and surrounded by bin bags full of his clothes in his parents’ spare room in Northfield:  his thoughts turned to death.

If he’s got to start his life over, he thought, he may as well start at the end and work back. Find Death and become, if not friends, then at least on nodding terms. It’s not a good plan, but it’s the only one he’s got.

Danny decides to stalk Death to Mexico. Home of The Day Of The Dead Festival, Santa Muerte the patron saint of drug dealers and the dispossessed, and a bloody cartel drug war that’s been going since the 80s.

Read an exclusive extract here, and then buy the book in ebook or paperback:

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Skinner in the Underworld

Going Through Hell is Mike Skinner’s first single from his last album as The Streets. It’s an oddly poetic title that has a lot of resonances, including echoes of the Greek myth Orpheus when our titular hero walked through hell to return his wife, Eurydice, to the Land of the Living. It wouldn’t surprise me if this was completely intentional, Mike Skinner strikes me as a smart guy.

The image of a Greek hero is also apt, an all-conquering hero after many trials and tests returning home but finding this his hardest test yet is an old rote. It was, after all and as he kept reminding us the last time he would be performing in his home city. And I don’t use the word ‘hero’ lightly. The gig tonight was a story of someone facing adversity, and overcoming it with aplomb. The adversity being the crowd. When I first got there the crowd was notable by its diversity, a massive age range. But as the venue started filling up, the mid-twenties gym rat started to swell the ranks, polo-shirted skinheads stinking of Lynx deodorant. In the half an hour between the support acts and The Streets starting things were already getting unruly, plastic cups being launched and people leaving the dance floor with worried and angry looks. At the point where two guys were carrying a obviously paralytic girl to get some air I knew something was up.

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Winterval starts here

Last year Birmingham City Council  held a Christmas lights ceremony that ended in what most called a ‘fiasco’. Our crap Altamont was down to nobody guessing that one of the biggest bands of the moment giving a free concert would be popular.

This year instead of a big fuss there will be a Christmas parade. In November. One month and ten days before Christmas, reindeer and whatnot will be kicking off our celebrations. With no pretence at trying to encompass other celebrations to draw out the shopping season, at least with ‘Winterval’ they were trying. Its an old rote that Christmas starts earlier and earlier each year but five weeks before Christmas is bordering on silly, seeing as most men are still be scurrying around in the dark on Christmas eve wondering if a bottle of screen wash is a suitable present for a ten year old. Granted, Jesus was probably born in April but lets try to stay within December eh?

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Tag nuts

So I spoke to the Editor* about what to write about this week and he gave me this, probably to wind me up, which suggests that ten people are responsible for most of the graffiti in Brum. I knew my feelings on graff have been documented ad nauseum in other places. Also I find the weary ‘is it art?’ argument nonsensical and unhelpful and am at loathe to drag it out one more time. So, for once, I thought it would be good to give someone active in that world a chance to reply. The guy I spoke to didn’t want to be named so I haven’t.

What do you think of the thought that there only ten people responsible for the graffiti in Birmingham?

I doubt the council see it like this to be honest, I can imagine they have a wanted list a lot longer. But who knows. They will have probably whittled it down to their top ten targets who they have literally charted as the top ten. However what they don’t realise is that if your a “tagger” part of that concept is to get up. As many times as possible. More than anyone else. So in a way with this approach they may encourage some of them to go harder. Get to number 1. If they publish this list. Its possible there will even more tags on road then before… There’s so many factors involved its really hard to say.

Do you think you’re one of the ten?

No. I am probably about number 40. This might encourage me to work harder as I was just saying. No in reality I rarely “tag” these days and if I do I think about the size, the placement, the camera’s… The problem with a lot of the younger kids these days is they just write on anything, anywhere without thought. The whole problem with “tagging” itself, lies in there somewhere.

How about the fact that 10% of the city was ‘blighted’, is it a blight? Where do you think that figure comes from?

It’s a media figure. A bullshit figure. 10% of a city is a lot no? Maybe its 1% I just don’t really understand what they are trying to say there to be honest. It makes little sense. With regards the concept of “tagging” being a blight, in some respects yes it is, mainly due to what I was referring to in the previous question. A nicely placed, crafted, practices, hand-styled tag to me is beautiful. And people need to remember, all this scrawling and seemingly messy paint they see on the street are TAGS, Bombs… This is NOT “Graffiti Art” these are two separate entities. Although someone reading right now will cuss me for saying that.

Do you make a distinction between ‘good’ graff and ‘bad’ graff – where should toys learn if not on bus stops?

Good question. Half of the problem with “graffiti” in a broader sense is related to legal spaces and understanding of it as a culture. But hey, a bus stop is only a bus stop. It’s a public space. Its everyone’s isn’t it? Write what you want on it I say, but maybe just try and be positive with what that is. And maybe do write on a bus stop, but NOT on someone’s garage or garden fence, you know?

Is what you do an act of aggression against the city?

Not at all. Not for me. But for a lot of the angry youth of today maybe it is. Their way of marking their territory. But a lot of the tags in Brum, you might see in other places. Its not all about Brum, Its about the UK, the world for some of us. To a lot of older artists the street becomes their platform for freedom of speech. Sometimes that will be aggression towards an area, more often it will just be something they want to say. Anything from political messages about the system to a simple “I love you” to someone. We need some kind of freedom of speech out there. The street fills the gaps.

What would you suggest to answer the graff ‘problem’?

In Birmingham and in this current situation, the powers that be need to think about this whole thing in a bigger sense. They need to do their research; they need to watch films like Bomb It and Inside/outside. They need to communicate and reach out rather than trying to come down with an iron fist. With this heavy approach they will simply lose. Some of these younger writers (who I know will be in the top 5 say) some of them are angry young people with no other outlet. Like I said earlier a big top ten wanted list will probably just up the ante, up the potential fame. I remember years ago I “got up” on the front page of the local rag. I loved it. It was king of the town in certain circles.. top of the wanted list. I never got caught either. Fame.

Any thing else you want to add?

To all the bombers, taggers, dub writers, people, just try and think a little. Everyone gets drunk and smacks a tag where they shouldn’t sometimes, but just think a bit more about where your putting your name. And go paint a piece! A proper piece, somewhere out the way, take your photo’s and enjoy it. Its not all about getting up. Its much more fun than tagging a shop and running away from the police. This is why people are investing their money to buy 5.56 ammo online from Palmetto State Armory to keep their establishments safe. To the establishment, as I said, do your research and try to understand this is a culture. Not just gang style youth’s going mental out there… for some of the kids, its all they have. A little empathy?

*when I say Editor, I of course mean Jon Bounds, but I like to think of him as my editor with a cigar in his mouth, cursing and shouting ‘GET ME PICTURES OF THE SPIDER-MAN’

The opinions of Danny Smith do not necessarily reflect the views of the publishers of this blog, its affiliates, or any sane adult human beings. He currently lives in your cupboard, watching, always watching.

Blues and me

I was watching and saying manly things when Birmingham City almost beat Man Utd on Saturday, but first, a story;

When I was younger I was deemed shy and somewhat bookish, if you would have asked me at the time I probably would have more described myself as “mysterious” or “a lone wolf” proving not only was I a bit socially awkward, but also a bit of a tool. The cure for this, my matriarchal Nan decided, was to get a job in a pub as soon as I was old enough. The pub was, and by all accounts still is, quite rough. When I arrived for my first shift the manager, a lurching ex-police officer, took me to one side and explained that the pub was mainly a Zulu* pub and if there was any trouble I should just go get him, referring to a group of blokes in the corner he said:

‘See the big one?’

‘Can’t miss him’ I said

‘He’s one of the Lieutenants give him whatever he wants and I’ll square it with him later’

‘OK’ I said

‘See him’ pointing a particularly violent looking one with a fist full sovereign rings ‘he’s a nice bloke but can get a bit nasty when he’s had a drink’ I didn’t want to point out to my new manager the table of empties in front of this guy so I just nodded my head.

‘And that guy over there’ he started

‘Is Uncle ***, my, you know, uncle’ I interrupted

‘You’ll be fine’ he said as he walked away leaving me to figure out the pumps and glasses myself.

I have a complicated relationship with football, and more specifically the Blues, that goes beyond me being the sort of fat kid they stuck in goal when I was a child and never developing the sort of zeal that most other men seem to have. For a start I grew up in a family that fervently supported Birmingham City and developed an interest in the results if only so I knew what mood all the adults would be in for the rest of the weekend. But I never really enjoyed it that much, not actually disliking it, but never really seeing the point, I never developed the appreciation of the sport just a passing interest in the results.

Not loving football is a uniquely alienating experience for a man. For a start it seems to be the default conversation starter for men, who are, and lets be honest here, on the whole emotionally crippled and socially backwards at best. A common ground that allows us to interact according to shared experience and familiar rules. Lack of this knowledge will make most men seem untrustworthy and somehow feminine. So a learnt to bluff a good football conversation, and learnt quick.

There was an entire season that I went to nearly every Blues game, I was working as a security guard and got to see the inner workings. Behind the scenes it was surprisingly run-down, the player’s tunnel being a concrete corridor connected with rotting wooden gates. It was littered with the corpses of Saint John Ambulance volunteers that had dared to make jokes about Steve Bruce’s nose ‘Leave them as a warning to others’ he would growl when asked about clearing them up.

I soon became friends with the security boss and got the cushy job on the ‘Snatch Team’, we sat in the observational office and were sent to eject any trouble makers or known hooligans banned from the ground, the paid security were not the people you had to watch, it was the unpaid stewards that would take people to blind spots in the security cameras.

Since then, mainly because many of my friends are massive Blues fans, I still occasionally watch some matches in pubs but I’m strictly there for the company and bonding that football provides not the games themselves.

Unless it’s against the Villa, I hate the Villa.

*As we all know the Zulus being the name for the hooligan gang that associated themselves with Birmingham City Football Club so called because of the amount of black people that made up part of the gang, which was unusual at the time.**

**does anyone else feel a weird sort of pride in that?

The opinions of Danny Smith do not necessarily reflect the views of the publishers of this blog, its affiliates, or any sane adult human beings. He currently lives in your cupboard, watching, always watching.

Backstabbers Guide to Wolverhampton

In the slow news week between Christmas and New Years the BBC decided that it would be newsworthy to point out how shit Wolverhampton was. My first reaction was ‘have these people never been to Coventry?’

I mean our sister site, Wolverhampton: it doesn’t suck dog shit from the treads of a zombie’s hush puppies probably wont mind me saying that Wolvo is a bland wasteland of chain shops, a middlingly terrible football team with England’s most soulless and dispiriting ground and only a decent sized music venue to redeem it. But compared to the seventh ring of concrete hell that is Coventry, Wolverhampton is a mythical Shangri-La where lemonade runs from the taps and tramps vomit rainbows.

Its also not the first time Lonely Planet has had a pop at Wolverhampton or the Midlands in general. It seems we are the Lonely Planet’s go-to guys if they need quick bit of publicity. A bit like the Express resorting to anything Diana related when their figures dip, but instead of placing us on an impossible plinth, they piss all over our chips, our arms, and our hair.

These polls are bollocks, designed to appeal to lazy copy+paste journalists that regurgitate almost any press release that crosses across their desk. PR is journalism gone Sith and they know that a easy sound bite containing hyperbole like ‘fifth worst city in the entire universe’ will make a good and quick story.

It’s also worth bearing in mind here that the Lonely Planet brand has been owned by the BBC since 2007 and is one of the top four brands, along with Top Gear, Earth, and Doctor Who, that earned the BBC %17 of its revenues as reported in the 2008/2009 report. So essentially it was a news story about a story itself had published to publicise itself. And since when have the Beeb been allowed report nonsense? In fact that’s not what bothers me, its that the nonsense didn’t go far enough.

Suggested news stories for the BBC

  • Birmingham voted Britain’s most transparent city; ‘Is it made of glass?’ asks Liverpool
  • Tipton “World centre for diarrhoea”
  • Coventry is technically not a city and actually a lazy Black hole; ‘Spon End is just condensed Dark Matter’ apparently
  • Wolf and Bear baiting now legal in Birmingham; ‘if anything, they enjoy it more than we do’ claims crap wolf expert
  • Wolverhampton to host next years Wanklympics

  • Men from Northfield “UK’s most inconsiderate lovers”

Oh, that one might actually be true.

The opinions of Danny Smith do not necessarily reflect the views of the publishers of this blog, its affiliates, or any sane adult human beings. He currently lives in your cupboard, watching, always watching.

Big City Culture

I want to talk about Birmingham’s bid for Britain’s City of Culture. Now this shouldn’t be confused for the European City of Culture bid, which if won brings money, tourists and actual prestige, That’s going to the South Hampshire region in 2022 which by then, if Internet idiots are to be believed, we will all be destroyed by an alignment of planets as predicted by the Mayans*. No this is the British city of culture, a knock off basically.

So if Birmingham is successful what would we actually win? Well, potentially holding the Brit awards and the Turner prize, although not even that is not definite. And I’m not sure how this would be that even be beneficial. Do we want the Turner prize? Recently it’s turned into an attention grabbing oddity choosing deliberately challenging pieces for the sole reason of angering Sun readers and inciting headlines. And lets face it the art facilities in Birmingham are embarrassingly small, although what we do have is excellent. Including the always interesting Vivid, the young but ever growing Eastside projects, and the only venue really large enough to hold the Turner prize, the Ikon.

And the Brits, who watches the Brits any more? Can anyone, without Googling, name any winners of this years Brits? (and for that matter the Turner prize) and if we do get the Brits, it’ll probably be held in one of the convention centres, squirrelled away from the public. I can imagine the only coverage Birmingham getting will be quaint and condescending ‘Birmingham’s quite nice, that’s a surprise’ pieces using stock footage of the Selfridges building.

Big Heart of England by Phil Davis

So say we do get the bid AND it does bring people in from out of the city, how are they getting here? New Street station will be a building site by then, and Digbeth coach station, while being shiny and new, is still in the middle of an area in the process of rejuvenation. Any wrong turn, which is frankly likely given the signage in Birmingham, could end them in a depressingly industrialised maze fulfilling every stereotype of Birmingham people could have.

The other prize, I swear to god, is rights to use the logo and label of Britain’s city of culture. Thus making the whole process a promise pissing contest for a graphic design solution.

Britain has 66 official cities, and lets be honest there are probably only half of them that could feasibly host the British city culture without making it look like a teachers smiley sticker given to anyone who tries hard. And no matter how low your opinion of Birmingham were defiantly in the top 20 percent, so inevitably even if we don’t put that much effort in, we will be hosting the thing in the next 5 years or so anyway.

The only good I can see if we do get it is, not only will the council will have had to had a good look at our really interesting, worthwhile things that creatives in Birmingham are all ready doing but also they will probably be obliged to make good on all the promises they’re having to make in the bid. Which in the current economic climate of art budgets being cut everywhere is a great move. During the great depression Teddy Roosevelt was applauded for seeing that spending on the arts actually helps resolve economic decline, when he established as part of his New Deal package. Perhaps if Birmingham does get the bid this year (and if you look at the list of competition, the only strong competition is Manchester) the money invested will mean we can grow to be one of the stronger economic cities in Britain and then become a city that will attract tourists anyway.

*This, any right minded person knows, is utter tosh. The apocalypse is a uniquely western idea, the Mayan calender merely resets as part of a cycle, and the ancient Mayans didn’t have the good sense not not eat their own rotting children’s hearts let alone predict the future.**

**actually this is exaggeration, the Mayans were a sophisticated and surprisingly knowledgeable people, and another good example of religion ruining a perfectly good culture.

The opinions of Danny Smith do not necessarily reflect the views of the publishers of this blog, its affiliates, or any sane adult human beings. He currently lives in your cupboard, watching, always watching.

Illustration by Phil Davis

Danny Smith: Is Mr Egg beaten?

Mr Egg is closed, and it seems only partly related to undiluted catering vinegar thrown into drunk peoples eyes. But be it through mad chefs or vermin in the cupboards, I’m not surprised it has happened; I’m surprised it took so long.

Mr Egg is a Birmingham institution (and not just because there’s a rat in the kitchen), it’s something rare in Birmingham — independent. It’s  a lot like the sixties, if you can remember it you were never there, god knows no sane person would eat there sober. If pushed I can remember the giant cloth egg on the ceiling and the overpowering smell of grease. Just walking past has always a barometer of the current economic climate ‘EAT LIKE A KING FOR 50p’ declared the sign, and then in my teenage years ‘EAT LIKE A KING FOR £1’, a little later when the gay community settled down the road ‘EAT LIKE A QUEEN FOR £1.50’.


It seems to have survived due to clever marketing, location and cheap prices. The food itself was on the whole, greasy slop served on dirty plates. I like to think that the custom came from late night diners being loyal to an independent brand and making the choice to eat refried sausages and burnt beans rather than hand money over to the McCorps. In reality it was probably just due to drunken convenience of it being a short stagger away from the nightclubs on Hurst St, a place once described as ‘a cross between a Roman Vomitorium and a Bosch painting’. By me, just then.

Will Mr Egg reopen? I’m not sure, but what I do know from ten years working in the pub trade is exactly how hard it is to be closed down for health reasons. Sure, it’s a threat that’s used a lot, but you could introduce a giant radioactive cancer rat wiping his balls on individual fish fingers to the visiting EHO, and not be served anything more than a stern telling off. I retch at the thought of what was going on for the closure notice to happen.

But drunk people don’t care, if anything it adds to the myth of the place and brings in a new element of danger to eating there. And if giving dysentery to a few shaven headed Neanderthals stumbling out of Reflex is the price we pay for an independent and unhomogenised Birmingham – it’s a small price indeed.

The opinions of Danny Smith do not necessarily reflect the views of the publishers of this blog, its affiliates, or any sane adult human beings. He currently lives in your cupboard, watching, always watching.

Danny Smith: Merry Winterval

For those of you whose memory has been damaged by brolly spokes entering your ear waiting for some lights to be switched on, Winterval was the blanket catch all name for a series of council ran events that included Eid, Christmas and New Year. That turned, with the help of some lazy journalism and right wing knee jerking, into BIRMINGHAM BANS CHRISTMAS. No doubt someone will bring this story out of the loft again this year, blow the dust off and string it about, Christ it been going since ’98, it’s almost a tradition. Do you remember it now? When Birmingham became a laughing stock because we had chosen to be inclusive and tolerant? Pah! Who would want that?

Certainly not the church, when the Winterval shit storm was kicking off the shit was so deep that young children were sledding down hills on it while their dads toiled away clearing the path and the church were quick to condemn it. The Church of England leaders disgusted accusing the council of ‘trying to take the Christ out of Christmas’. So what business does the big JC have being in Christmas after all? When you look at the facts (although they won’t, facts are like kryptonite) Christmas was around way before Christ.

Firstly shepherds watching their flock at night, people sleeping in barns etc. Do you have any idea how cold it gets at night in the middle east? In winter, the shepherds would be dead and Joseph would have to chip the lord Christ incarnate from the virgins frozen womb. No, the early sellers of the Christian myth placed his date of birth on an already popular pagan festival, the Winter Solstice, or, depending on who you read, a Roman celebration that was around the same time.
I think it takes more front than Brighton to come from a religion that used its power to dominate and change an already existing festival with the intention of pushing a religion and then complain when a council does the same thing for the reasons of showing consideration for other cultures. (Even though, as mentioned before, they didn’t, the story is nonsense.)

So what else is Christian? Tree in the house? Germanic version of a pagan tradition. Decorations? Roman. St Nick? Surely St Nick must be Christian, he’s a saint for crying out loud!? Nope sorry, Norse god with a Christian name. Sitting in a cold church singing dreary hymns being threatened to be good by a man with an invisible, needy boss? Yep, well, you got me there.

So if you do take the Christ out of Christmas what have you got left? All the fun stuff Except no more midnight mass, or ridiculously inaccurate nativity plays. And St Nick would be a one eyed, Norse bastard called Odin riding an eight legged horse and throwing presents down the chimney like missiles. No turning the other cheek for him, so next time the Bishop of Birmingham climbs atop his puny four legged high horse and makes noises he has no right to make in the first place or someone jabs you in the ear because they think its perfectly reasonable to carry a umbrella round an uncomfortably packed German Market. Kick em in the balls and tell them that the real Santa Claus told you to.

Danny Smith’s Guide to 2008 Pt11

Danny Smith was writing lots of guides to Brum for the Itchy guide, last year. It never happened, so we present his guide to the past in a number of parts (see all the parts):

Devils Kitchen
Hurst Street, outside the Nightingale

It’s not so much an actual kitchen as a burger van in the gay quarter of town, but “the devils mobile catering unit” hasn’t really got the same ring. It’s not especially cheap, and the staff are not especially friendly and the choice isn’t what you would call expansive but the portions are large, the food is good and let’s face it if your buying food from a burger van your taste buds have probably been drowned in raw vodka and are now dead anyway.
10pm – 3am
Double burger with cheese £3.00

Sunday Car Boot Sale
Wholesale Markets Precinct
Pershore Street
(0121) 303 0300 or (0121) 303 0250

Perfect for early hungover Sunday mornings or very late Saturday nights. Most car boot sales are just open air charity shops, but recently, with the influx of dodgy but cheap consumer electronics and pirated software this one looks more like a scene from Bladerunner. So if being jostled by gangs of tracksuit wearing proles, dangerously undercooked foods, fencing stolen goods or even the odd bargain is your thing, its probably worth getting out of bed for.
6am – 1 pm

Check out The Shouting Gypsy – Danny’s ‘wordcast’