We need to talk about Arthur Shelby

Firstly, an apology.  This is not going to be a very seasonal or festive post, although hopefully there will be one of those next week.  Rather, this is something that, as is becoming increasingly common, I have been meaning to write for a long time, but have struggled to fit in with everything else going on.  Essentially, the teaching term opened up its maw in October and swallowed up anything that might conceivably have been blogging time.  But now my last bit of marking is completed (at least until the new year exams) and I have cleared my desk of all admin and (bar editing an article on the American Field Service Ambulance) I am free to consider series 2 of Peaky Blinders, the commemoration of the First World War and the problem of male violence.

These last two topics are something that, unsurprisingly perhaps, have been preoccupying me quite a bit this year.  The question of commemoration has haunted pretty much everything I have done or written in relation to work for at least 12 months, although there have been times when it has felt as if it has occupied every waking moment for a lot longer. (War fatigue hit with full force on 12th November in my case, although I think I am starting to get my second wind.)  The issue of male violence as a legacy of the First World, by contrast, has been a more intermittent concern.  It isn’t directly related to my current research (although it is likely to be an important issue for the project I have been hawking around to numerous potential funders for over a year now) but it has been popping up in all sorts of interesting places, including the British Academy’s War: An Emotional History Conference, my lecture at the Freud Museum in October and, finally, in Peaky Blinders, where Arthur Selby loses control in the boxing ring and beats a man to death.

As I posted on Twitter at the time, when I write about the ugliness of shell shock, that is, at least in part, what I mean.  Because the narrative of the programme clearly links Arthur’s violent outbursts to his emotional reaction to his war experience.  This is an interesting shift from series 1, in which Arthur’s violence was portrayed as more psychopathic, violence for the love of violence rather than as a form of emotional release.  An even more interesting shift is that it is Tommy, the man who suffered throughout series 1 from nightmares relating to his days as a tunneller on the Western Front, who voices the view that Arthur needs to get over whatever lingering trauma he may be suffering because the war is over and done with.  This particularly piece of characterisation sadly didn’t ring true for me.  Surely, of all people, Tommy should know that the war is never truely over for some men.  One definition of war trauma is that it condemns those who suffer from it to relive their experiences as the present rather than, as healthy psyches are capable of doing, render it into livable, if unhappy, memory.   By putting the ‘all in the past’ stance on war trauma into Tommy’s mouth, the drama, so much of which does emotional justice to the era it represents (even if it does so most successfully through anachronism), descends momentarily into the realm of cosy cliché, taking on the middlebrow narrative that war trauma can, ultimately be cured through the love of (possibly) good woman.

That being said, Peaky Blinders remains, from a historical viewpoint, a far more exciting dramatic exploration of the social and emotional legacies of the First World War than, for instance, Downton Abbey, the fifth series of which was broadcast at much the same time in Britain.  Downton set out much more explicitly to depict the legacy of the war through its preposterous and inaccurate memorial subplot which made me want to hurl the works of Alex King and Mark Connelly [1] (among many others) at the heads of the script writers.  Yet one of the most significant legacies, that most men who fought in the war returned but changed by their experiences, was completely ignored.  Thomas, the drama’s only surviving combat veteran now that Matthew Crawley has been killed off, is, indeed, troubled, but his drug use, unlike that of Arthur Shelby, is attributed to his emotional conflict over being gay (that again!) rather than any memory of his war service.  Even his physical wound, the self-inflicted gunshot wound to his hand which did miraculously little damage at the time, does not seem to bother him at all any more, at least based on the representation on screen.  Indeed, long-term physical disability is remarkably absent in Downton, although I think I caught sight of a man with a missing arm at the unveiling of the war memorial.

Which brings me to the subject of wider commemorations of the war in this centenary year.  Throughout the year we have, appropriately enough, talked a great deal about the reasons why the war broke out and carried on for as long as it did. We seem to currently be talking about the history of the 1914 Christmas Truce on the Western Front.  This is not something that interests me a great deal, not simply because I don’t have any interest in football beyond the ways in which association with football (either as players or spectators) was used to construct ideas of patriotic masculinity (very negatively in the case of Sapper’s short stories, if you are wondering), but also because whatever happened on Christmas Day 1914 is not an overarching symbol of the war in its entirety, any more than 1st July, 1916 was.  To understand why men fought and continued fighting, we need to look at these individual days within the wider context of the 1,560 days of the conflict, all days in which, somewhere, men joined the army, killed and were killed, thought kindly of the enemy, rebelled against their commanders and reaffirmed their sense of duty to whatever they felt they were fighting for. So focussing on one particular day as a way of remembering the war risks losing our perspective (as I fear some of my colleagues may be running the risk of doing) about the full extent of what it is we are commemorating.

But the Christmas Truce has, at least, the redeeming factor of being, like the outbreak of the war, an appropriate moment this year to pause, think and discuss what happened 100 years ago.  I have struggled a great deal more with the focus this year upon the dead of the war, with any number of projects examining extant memorials and creating new ones.  The dead should, of course, be a hugely important part of our commemorations, but by making them the centre of the centenary from the outset runs the risk of recreating the struggles over commemoration of the interwar period when, as Dan Todman as noted, the interests of the bereaved came to take priority over those of the survivors,[2] a situation which had important and devestating implications for those who, like Arthur Selby, continued to suffer from the traumas of war experience long after it was all over and done with.

Which is why, as we come to the end of this first year of commemorations and gird our loins for the second, I reiterate a plea that I know I have made before, that we talk about men like Arthur Shelby, men like Robert Fentiman and men like the one cited by Michael Roper whose child recalled how he eschewed as violence in the wake of war, including corporal punishment, deeming it pointless and ineffective.  Only by talking about these men, and representing them in our popular cultural as much as we do the dead, can we ensure that they too are remembered.

[1] Alex King, Memorials of the Great War in Britain: The Symbolism and Politics of Remembrance (London: Bloomsbury, 1998); Mark Connelly, The Great War, Memory and Ritual: Commemoration in the City and East London, 1916-1939 (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2002).

[2] Dan Todman, The Great War: Myth and Memory (London: Hambledon and London, 2005), 53.

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7 thoughts on “We need to talk about Arthur Shelby

  1. But do you think Tommy Shelby actually has shut away the war as well as he would have himself and Arthur believe? I just thought his reaction to nearly being shot in the head, in the scene in the field in the final ep., might have suggested otherwise?

    • A really good question. I think you might be right. It will be really interesting to see what happens in series 3 with this aspect, one of the most interesting of the drama as a whole and one reason I am such a fan.

  2. I had completely forgotten until I read this post that Downton Abbey’s Thomas has an old self-inflicted gunshot wound that was supposedly bad enough to invalid him out of front-line service. And I’m pretty certain Julian Fellowes has forgotten it too.

  3. This is a brilliant analysis, Jessica, and one I really appreciate having come across it trying to find out more on what exactly is plaguing Arthur in S2. I’m currently rewatching the show in anticipation for S4, and Arthur’s demons stick out a lot more than they did the first time I watched it.

    Are you on Facebook by any chance?

    • I’m so glad you found it useful!

      I’m not on Facebook, at least not in a professional capacity. I mainly use it for sharing photographs of my children with my family.

  4. Hi, I do not own a TV so references to TV are completely lost on me. My mum’s dad was a veteran of the FWW and he was a thug. at his funeral there appeared to be hundreds. I was young there may only have been dozens. Every one of us was there to make sure he was dead and buried a very happy event. I can remember talking to people that know him before the FWW. He was by the accounts I was given a thug then before he was conscripted. He was not brutalised by the war he relished in it.

    • My talk at the Freud Museum, all those years ago, was about the character of Robert Fentiman in Dorothy L. Sayers’ novel The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, so it a much longer story, and one that needs to be remembered alongside the stories of trauma.

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