Louder Than War Interview: Colin Blaney, author of novels The Undesirables (soon to be released) and Grafters (which is about to be made into a film.)
To be honest, Colin Blaney never stopped grafting, he just does it creatively now and without resorting to crime. Taking the experiences he acquired and the skills he learnt as a InterCity Jibber, he broke into the literary world of football hooligan publications in 2004 when he released his seminal book Grafters which tells his own story of following Man United as they party’d and pillaged their way around the world.
And right now, as he prepares for the publication of his latest football and crime adventure (The Undesirables) the Manchester author is buzzing because he’s just got the green light on something he’s been hoping to make happen for the last 10 years … Grafters is going to be made into a film.
So now is the ideal opportunity to talk to Colin, both about his new book and his hopes for the film version of Grafters. While talking to him we also take a look back at terrace fashion, Man United, football in general, music, his battle with life and his being a writer, community reporter and TV personality (talking about the finer points of pick-pocketing, football violence, terrace culture and general underworld activities.)
This is a terrific in depth interview with a fascinating man…
Louder Than War: Congratulations Colin, it’s great news that Grafters is going to be made into a film … it’s something you’ve been working on for some years haven’t you? Did you feel at times it was never going to happen?
Colin Blaney: Without a doubt, it’s been 10 long years waiting, but now it’s worked out for the best. In fact, I’ve just got back from Llandudno where I went to meet up with my old mucker Bruce Jones (formerly Corra actor Les Battersby) and his producer. She took me up to this huge mansion hotel in the valleys where they’d just finished shooting a film they were putting together, and we sat down and talked about making Grafters the film.
At the moment were looking at two options. If there’s sufficient funds they’ll go right the way through the book with a feature length film or they’ll split it in two where the first part will be the early section of the story, ending were we get off the ferry in 1977 to jib the Rattlers from the coast, through northern France to Saint Etienne, to see Man United play in the old UEFA cup. Then a year later hopefully, if we have success, they’ll go and do part two of the story in richer detail.
Will you be working on the film as well, how much input will you have on the film? Will you be working along side the editors, producers etc on it? And do you know roughly when it’s due out?
Well, because of the concept of the story this turns out to be happy days for me as getting involved is a fact because it’ll need inside information around certain aspects of the story, like Banging the Jacks, or dipping wallets at the football. Also, life itself within terrace culture in the late 70s. But as far as me actually being in the film they’re talking about having me in the end where I’m doing what I do anyway, grafting as a community reporter. Talking to the scally kids in Collyhurst (Manchester estate) and encouraging them to get on in life, whether its through art, cooking, modelling , writing, whatever. Getting over to them the idea that it doesn’t matter if they come from a rough estate, they can still make it, just like many others like myself from the Hurst have. In fact I see it as giving us a edge in life. So that’s where I’ll probably feature in the film.
Truth is, I was initially hoping I would slot in as a QSG member, that’s what Bruce Jones will be in the film (one of the Quality Street Gang). I was thinking at 58 I could play a young Jimmy the Weed who in Thin Lizzy’s hit tune meets Johny the Fox, another hit written by Phil Lynott. The boys are back in town! Was all about the QS returning to Manchester, on the piss after another blag in the sticks. Anyway, they said they’d prefer to film talking to the youth, and I now believe its a better idea.
Yes, I’ve got a few ideas how I’d like to see it come together. Maybe something similar to Away Days. I like the fashion in the scousers film because it was actually quite cheap. Not that colourful, but still classy around that same period as in Grafters 77-79, it was just before the explosion of the casual era. If you notice they all have cheap but slick looking Green Parkas and Green windbreaker sailing jackets on, and funnily enough we wore similar type jackets, but went for black and navy blue. We got ours from the cheap Army and Navy shop Millets, also simple Fruit of the Loom T-Shirts and Adidas kagool tops which you could fold up and stick in your back pocket.
What we wore in the Perry Boy day’s we thought was pretty cool at the time, before we got into Lacoste and all the rest, in fact the only decent label around in Manchester was Penguin, which is actually still quite trendy today. But before we started going over to Europe, we wore Penguin V neck jumpers that we robbed from the classy gents shop Austin Reid in Saint Anne’s Square and Fred Perry’s we got from sporting shops. Trainers were Dunlop Green Flash or Stan Smiths.
So, when I think of us all on the ferry going to Saint Etienne with the flick haircuts our look was similar to the Mickeys. Our jeans would be straight legs or drain pipe, Lee or Levi, later once we’d got the feel for Europe we then started getting quality Lois jeans and jumbo cords, and French kickers boots and shoes were always much smarter than the kickers back in MCR. When we travelled over to Europe we took just one Head bag between about four or five of us, you know, a toothbrush each, clean undies, a few pairs of (Salford’s) socks and we’d always have a pair of Farrah’s each. See, once you’d had your jeans on for two days travelling the first pit stop was the train station for a wash or shower. then you put your clean clobber on, you didn’t need to iron Farrah’s which were golfing Keck’s as they didn’t crease at all. And they were about as good as it got until the 80s when the Hugo Boss, Armani and all the other labels started to come our way via countless amounts of five finger discounts.
On top of the film deal, you’re also bringing out your new book, The Undesirables which tells about being banged up in prisons all around the world to attempted jailbreaks. It all sounds pretty heavy … were these times your darkest moments as a Jibber, the turning point, when you left it all behind?
Yeah, some of it’s well darker. Actually, l wanted to put them pages into Grafters, but as you’ll discover reading the new book, I got married to a German girl who was actually one of the prison officers from the same prison I was locked up in. I thought “Fuck me, I can’t put this and that in” because I was married to her, plus I loved her to death so I couldn’t really put certain things into Grafters ten years ago. But now we’re divorced and in fact she’s given me permission to put them in, because were still good friends.
So, for “The Undesirables’ I’ve now written about it all. Like my best mate being gang raped in a Pakistan prison, it was actually the bent-arse screws who stuck it up him … that’s always going to be a dark story, if you know what I mean.
Another mate was in a Japanese hell hole sentenced to 7yrs hard labour. It took him over a year to get some normal sleep as you have to learn to sleep on your back with both arms crossed into your groin area and your head back straight because when the prison officers do their hourly rounds, if they see you aren’t in that sleep position you get thrashed with bamboo until you get it right.
But then these new pages could well read as a heavy warning to those who might be thinking “I’ll nip to Goa in sunny India, enjoy the raves on the beaches and bring a few top quality kilos of that hasheesh back to the UK and that’ll be more than enough to cover the trip of a lifetime.
See, what I had in mind was “Banged Up Abroad” which has been a huge TV hit, that’s why I’ve given the last chapter the same title, hoping there’s a message to the virgin travellers to take extra care and not to get tempted and greedy. See, time behind bars over there can ruin you and your Family’s life.
Was there a time when the Jibbers got a bit more serious about crime, making money rather than it all being about having a day out at the football and making a few quid?
Yeah, things got more serious in the late 80s when the Inter-City Jibbers ventured away from of the safety of the land of the ‘wedge’ (Switzerland) into new places over in Asia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan and Korea countries where you’d get your hands cut off for thieving. But where the pickings were even easier, like airports, we didn’t even realise back then about the real dangers that await lads like us! For example, Taiwan, I didn’t even know it belonged to communist China! Imagine if we’d got caught robbing the tom shop in the airport of all their best goodies, that would of got us 25-30 years real hard labour, we’d of all really struggled to survive that kind of sentence, I’m certain of that.
So is The Undesirables actually your last years as a Jibber, just before you decided to start writing your story?
It was ’97, when I’d done my last jail sentence in Kraut-land, I’d then met the lady who worked there and got married to her just a few months after coming out, so I bought a Merc van and started working driving night shifts all over the north of Germany for Netto, Lidl and Aldi, that’s when I decided to start writing about myself and the lads crazy times whenever I had spare time .
How does The Undesirables rate compared to Grafters?
You know what, I swear if it’s half successful as Grafters was then I’ll be over the moon. It’s like when new groups release a mega album that’s grips the nation and you’re thinking ‘how the fuck are they gonna top that’. I could never ever top Grafters for a chuckle and a good old laugh because that’d be impossible. But saying that I think it’s a bolder story which reads as more of a warning to anyone thinking of going on the jib overseas than the Grafters book did.
Where I come from here in Collyhurst the only lad I knew who actually passed the 11+ was Bruce Jones (Less Battersby). I suppose it’s fair to describe us all back then as losers, you know what I mean? Even the teachers had us down as thick as fuck, just factory fodder. You had 5 / 6000 kids in this one area alone, the only option for us was the depressing Mills or wood yards etc, and that was it, unless you knew the right heads who you paid a few quid as I did to put a word in with the gaffers for you to graft on the Smithfield Market. See, as kids we all knew the score as the older generation would let us know, all the way through our youth days “The best way in life is simple kid, become a footballer, a boxer or a thief”.
It’s the type of thing which no doubt inspires other people to write or get over their learning difficulties, do you agree?
Well actually yeah, my brother is now halfway through writing a book, but it’s taken me over a year to convince him to try his hand at writing! His book’s called ‘Jet Set Scallies’ and it’s due out this time next year. I’d be like “come on Mark, just have a go and see how it goes”. I mean, he’s written pages in my book “Hot Shot” and one of the longest chapters in “The Undesirables”, and when I was putting Grafters together I was always ringing him up for advice and for details on a load of things for the book. He’s writing it with another lad called Stuart Campbell who’s old man was a Dibble, his mum was also a copper and so in protest he became a grafter. Stuart actually also wrote another full chapter in ‘Undesirables’ as well.
Plus my mother is a writer and has actually written chapters in local history books … though we didn’t actually know for years, she just never told us. It was about 1999 and my brother used to live in Holland in Amsterdam, he’s got a daughter and a Grandkid there while I lived over the border in Oldenburg. She’d come over to visit Mark in Amsterdam for Christmas and then came over the border to visit me for new year. I was just starting to put my 1st chapter together and she said to me “you know all those questions you’ve been asking me for years” (regarding how my Mum met my Father and things about my Grandparents etc for the book) “Well, there there you go, that’ll help you with all you need to know”, and she also gave me this list of the books she’d actually help put together.
The books are about places like Tatton park, Yew-tree and Wythenshawe. When she was a kid she loved all these places and was lucky to be asked to write about them, these books are still in Waterstones today. So when I did get back I went and read them all and thought she was amazing with a real hidden talent, and it was when I got my second wind and belief to write Grafters I was reading these books while I was in hospital having an operation on my conk, so I had plenty of time to go through them all. It defo runs in the family. In fact Mark’s book, Jet-Set Scallies, his publisher is over the moon with title and concept of the whole story, it’s a really cracking title … I just wish I’d of come up with it myself Ha! E.Z now Col.
Going back – what were big sounds on The Stretford End with the football casuals, the music scenes which really made an impact on the terraces?
It’s got to be when I came out of Borstal, the punk scene was just sort of brewing up, but then you get into 77 and The Ramones and The Stranglers burst onto the scene. Where I lived in Collyhurst we had the iconic venue on our doorstep, The Electric Circus, where every punk, new wave group and even the mod bands like The Jam would play live every other night. It’s like everything with spunk went punk and for the best part of three years I was lucky to get involved with the whole scene. So I’d say from September ’76 all the way through to 1980, that was the most exciting period for me in every way.
Man United did have a little crew of punks, it’s in Grafters. We had punk attitudes but we didn’t dress punk, we went to all the punk venues, but then at the end of the night we’d be fighting with the punks at the bus station, which was a bit out of order really, but that’s the way it went. But then some of those punks were good lads and pretty hardcore, so they’d start to get into our crew and come to the big away games with us. It’s like when you’ve had a good away day steaming there mobs end, you’re all wired up having a few drinks on the football special coming back to Manchester. We’d get off at Piccadilly then head for the town centre. Walking down that ramp that goes out of Piccadilly station we’d be all po-going, punks and perry-boys together, then it was on to the punk venues. Like Foo Foo La Mar’s club The Ranch which like a few other sweaty back st clubs were very near Piccadilly station.
It was a really exciting time. I suppose we didn’t fully realise it at the time but we knew we were on to something new. Though if you look at most of the United fans at that time they were still all big hairy geezers with side burns and big semi flares. But punk and the perry boys was our movement. Like the re-emergence of The Mod scene which also happened back then, they were the best times ever.
What were your favorite songs at the match?
Police and Thieves, that was a massive tune for us. You know at the very beginning to Police and Thieves, the DJs we knew slowed down the guitar intro and repeated it over for a good minute building to the main beat and the first line where Joe Strummer gives it “Police and Thief’s in the street…”, we’d all give it OH YEAH!! Then … “Fighting the nation with your guns and animation”! Fucking awesome I’m telling ya! We used to sort of sing that part on the terraces then start po-going and bouncing when the song kicked in as we sang it, even after fighting the away mobs. It was a real big tune with the United fans, when The Clash first came out we loved their attitude and the White Riot tour in ’77 was the best live act we’d seen from all the bands. ‘I fought the law, and the law won’ was a brill tune, but truth was our lot never liked it, because of that end line, we sang “we fought the law and we’re still here..!”
What’s your own personal attitude towards writing? Is it hard work or does it come easy? And are you busy right now with so much on, the community reporting and TV work as well as writing?
I’ve already done an interview today, for ‘United We Stand’. Every month they interview a United fan, just normal fans answering the same questions. Like … your favourite magazine, your favourite website and that type of thing. It does keep me busy yeah, and it suits me because it keeps me out of the pub. I don’t mind getting up at 7 in the morning, answering the emails then I’m still up at 7 at night writing or talking to people like yourself, because I’m thinking to myself it’s keeping me off the booze, and that’ll do me. I still enjoy a drink now and again though, but I plan it. Say United are on the TV and it’s a big game, I’ll be thinking ‘this will be a big one, I think I might have to have a drink with the lads for this game’. See, then I’ll prepare it all, I’ll get all my food in, but I wouldn’t have a drink till say 8 pm, but then by 12 at night I’m pissed and I need a taxi home … and I’ll have that arranged as well.
Writing seems to have had a real positive effect on your life, but was the drinking a problem which you had to battle first?
Fucking hell, it nearly destroyed me. When I split up with my wife in Germany and moved back to Rhyl / North Wales, things started to go a bit pear-shaped. I had 4-5 years of it and ended up on the cider in the end, we call the white-lightning Quite-frightening???? Plus there was a load of drama to go with it. I got attacked whilst on the shite drink with a samurai sword which is all in The Undesirables. When the fella attacked me I went and fell through my front door, and he chopped away at the door trying to get at me. Helicopters and loads of police turned up, it was crazy, but I actually ended up getting the guy off who did it.
What happened was I’d gone to Manchester for a weekend and when I’d come back, the guy who I’ve let stay in my flat, who was a DJ, kept playing his music really loud. My neighbour was sat in his home thinking it was me shouting “Turn ya music down Blaney”. He suffered a bit from when he was in the Army and the noise was doing his head right in. He’d split with his misses and was on medication to calm himself down, but didn’t have any at that time, so he was in a bit of a mess to say the least, and the music just drove him even more mad. He’d had a drink too because he was so stressed out and then he decided to wait for me to come in then attack me. So I walk in oblivious to it all and he comes at me with a samurai sword, just went for me, but like I keep saying, “it’s all in the book” … ha ha.
But it was then that I decided I had to leave Rhyl, plus it had run its course. But it wasn’t just Rhyl I decided to leave behind, but the drinking too, I had to get a grip of it. And with the greatest of intentions it still took me another 3-4 years and a couple of detoxes to get there.
As well as writing there’s your TV work too, appearing on Channel 4 and 5 for programmes and documentaries on pick-pockets, street crime and football, how do you find the TV world and that whole industry?
I’ve actually just done another one today for Channel 4, with Ben Earl, a really talented magician, he’s like the new Dynamo. He was actually one of the first to beat Penn & Teller at magic. Which came from a programme that was presented by Jonathan Ross a couple of years ago where he introduces the latest upcoming magician and then they show Penn & Teller their trick. If they can’t suss the trick out the magician wins a trip to Vegas. Well Ben was one of the very first to beat them. He went to Vegas and since then has sort of moved up the ladder on the magician circuit, if you know what I mean.
Well, on the programme we were showing him how to pick pockets and he was showing us his magic, it was good fun. That was the last bit of filming I did which was a couple of weeks ago for channel 4 again. Altogether I’ve done quite a bit for them; Secrets Of The Pickpockets, More Secrets Of The Pickpockets, Pickpockets In Europe, Pickpockets And Proud. That’s four programmes for Channel 4 and one for Channel 5 in the last 18 months, whatever they’ve got in mind for a show they get back in touch. Like there’s other idea’s like Shoplifters and Proud but I said ‘”No. I don’t fancy that” and there was another about house burglars, but I don’t take them all. It’s great though, if I’m off to London and they offer me a nice hotel, bring my mates and that, I think why not, plus it’s put my name up as an author, it doesn’t do me any harm.
Because say ten years ago when Grafters first came out it was all word of mouth. To be honest I don’t think many people knew I’d written it or that I was an author except the lads of the at Old Trafford. But ten years down the line, like when Un Desirables comes out, maybe 4-5000 copies might be sold straight away just because of my name.
You also work as a volunteer as a community reporter in Salford don’t you, what got you involved in this role and is it something you enjoy and get a lot out of doing?
Again this is all in Undesirable’s, for me it was a way of keeping active, off the booze, so I did a 6 month course at Salford Uni on how to interview. The techniques, sound, how to film, all the basic things. At the end of it I became a community reporter in Salford which was great, proper. People in Salford are a lot like Collyhurst, but once I left Salford and went back to Manchester I didn’t have the postcode I needed to work there anymore, so now I do it off my own back all over North Manchester.
I do enjoy it, I try to tell young kids “listen, if you’re bored, out of work and that, become a community reporter”. Because when you do become a community reporter they give you a laptop, camera equipment, headphones, microphone, even batteries, everything you need. So you get your own mini kit and if you check out the Manchester Evening News on a Friday it lists all the events taking place over that weekend. Like the recent Saint Georges Day parade at Miles Platting and Ancoats, you can go and film that and interview people, throw it on YouTube and if it does well with the hits you can actually make a couple of quid, cover your costs. You’re doing something and making a move instead of being sat at home watching Jeremy Kyle and going on saying ‘There’s no work’.
It went to the printers about 2 weeks ago, to make the plates up for printing, so I’m just waiting now and keeping my fingers crossed that next week I’ll get a phone call saying the books are ready. Because I want the book launch ready for the Man United fan-zone, May the 6th, Tuesday night, the last home game of the season against Hull. The actual release date for Undesirable’s is marked for the 31st of May.
I’m at the fan-zone every game, I’ve got my own stall in there. I’ve also got the European cup in there, when you buy the book or the Hotshots, Grafters books I sign them and you get to have your photograph taken with the cup, but now we’re out of Europe I don’t take the cup in there, if you know what I mean, people don’t want to see it at the moment with the way it’s all gone pear-shaped lately.
What are your thoughts on the recent departure of Moyes? Unlike Ferguson he wasn’t given much time at all was he, but is that just another side affect of modern football … how do you feel about it all Colin?
Well, I’m sort of old-school so I’d be thinking “give him till the end of the year or something”, but this season, I can’t think of a worse season since we went down in ’74. I mean, it got to the stage where I was terrified of West Brom or Sunderland coming to Old Trafford, I thought if FC United came in the cup they’d do us too. I did feel sorry for Moyes, the pressure he was under and that but he got it wrong, the people around him got it wrong and I really believe that when he was advised and brought all his Everton staff with him was a mistake. I think the guy who we got rid off, who went to Fulham as well as Phealan and a few others was too much. Its like coming off a little sailing ship onto a well oiled yacht, tinkering with too many things straight away without some back ground knowledge. If maybe he’d of brought 1 or 2 of the Everton staff with him as well as keeping some of the original Man United staff and brought them together, he might have been able to keep it all working and ticking over as it did before he came.
But now we’re finding out how bad things really were. He ended up not only losing the dressing room, but I think all of Carrington. Though I didn’t agree with the banner, that wasn’t Uniteds style. Especially when the second banner had ‘Paddy Power’ written on it. What did it say … “6-1 Fergie to come back” …with Paddy Power at the end of it, not a good look is it? So I didn’t agree with that, but I’m thinking “fuck’n hell, I’m nearly 60 but if I was 15 could I put up with all that”, I don’t think I could, because no matter how much we like to say we have faith in the old ways, football moves so quick these days. And if we had kept Moyes in until Christmas like I was saying, spending something like 100-150 million building a team, most probably if he didn’t get it right we’d have had to spend that or more again … so I think its worked out right. Plus, he got 5 million anyway which is a decent pay off isn’t it?
In my day, nearly every team had brilliant tacklers like Billy Bremner, Chopper Harris and Nobby Stiles, and they’d have you off your seat. When the game got exciting and the tackles went in it was something else, I don’t mean dirty play or anything but its not in the modern game anymore. We used to actually enjoy watching the defenders getting stuck in, but these days we can’t, maybe because most are big soft pussy cats aren’t they, they seem like they can’t tackle to save their lives.
They reckon that’s all down to the diets and speed of game nowadays and the perfect pitches, the speed of the ball. Plus all the stadiums are enclosed these days; whereas in our day places like Leeds, Maine Road and at United they all had big open ends, and I reckon it’s made it a different game in a way. Tactically it’s all different too, even the positions they play! But what I do really dislike with the changes in football is not being able to get excited by good defensive play, defenders are shit scared of putting a foot in because of the way it’s all played now.
…and finally Colin, if you were picking out tunes for the soundtrack for the Grafters, what would you like to hear in the film?
Police and Thieves without a doubt and my biggest hero when I started wearing the perry flick was Bryan Ferry so Lets Stick Together with Jerry Hall. If you look at that video he looks like Clarke Gable with his white suite, dicky bow and black jelled hair with the big flick coming down, a great look. I really liked Roxy Music, it was quite cool at the time and has seemed to of stood the test of time, still pretty cool today.
I’d like to see some early reggae in there too, not so much rude boy but Dub, when it first started. Like Dillinger with CB200, reggae and punk were both really popular and the punks and rastas used to mix real well together in Manchester around that time. I remember a massive open air concert in Moss Side back in the day, it was a rock against racism event. The Buzzcocks were on, Slaughter and The Dogs; and Steel Pulse came down from Birmingham. And not forgetting UB40, they were massive back then. We used to go to the shops just to buy their video’s.
In fact the music I’d like to see featured in Grafters, if there was any, would be all before the Ecstasy scene kicked in, it wasn’t quite the same after that came in, though the E did change the world in many way’s didn’t it? But before that we had artists like Robert Palmer, who was also big at the time, he was massive for us because, like Ferry, he was a really cool dude, his music was cool and he was well dressed guy. Talking Heads too, and there was another group we loved called Yellow, from Switzerland who come out with that track ‘Ooooh Yeah’. We came across it when we were grafting in Switzerland quite early on. And the very last one I’d definitely have to say, because we always listened to it wherever we were travelling too was Kraftwerk. That motorway tune, we used to listen to it for days and days whilst on the Autobahns. It was a great era for music.
If you’d like to buy the new book on Amazon, The Undesirables, go here.
All words by Carl Stanley. More writing by Carl on Louder Than War can be found at his author’s archive.