Peaky Blinders and the Ubiquity of Poetry

Peaky Blinders gang in Stanley DockA quick disclaimer to begin with.  I do not propose to get involved in the debate over the accuracy of the Brummie accent in Peaky Blinders, the stylish interwar gangland drama broadcast on BBC2 earlier this month, that exercised a number of tweeters.  As someone whose accent hovers around the oddly mid-Atlantic, and has, mortifyingly, once been compared to that of Lloyd Grossman, I am in no position to make any comment on anyone’s accent. Nor is this post is not going to be, strictly speaking, a historical critique of the drama.  I am not a historian of crime and that sort of critique has been done already by those who are, notably Heather Shore in this blog post.

That being said, as a historian of the First World War, I was always going to be interested in a drama set in the war’s immediate aftermath, and there were an unsurprising number of references to the conflict.  The only one I took real issue with was the incitement to strike in the first episode, where men’s war service was used as a reason for striking.  Now, the injustices of the failure to find a land fit for heroes on demobilization was certainly a cause of labour unrest in the 1920s. What was less convincing was the purported date, 1919.  I find it hard to imagine that a significant number of working-class men had been demobilized, rehired and were already prepared to strike at that date.  More plausibly these men would have been on the verge of riot in a camp in France, chafing at the delays in demobilization.

Such quibbles aside, Peaky Blinders wore its war context relatively lightly.  There was the inevitable victim of shell shock, although shooting such a man with pig’s brains at close range is a form of aversion therapy is a treatment I have yet to come across in the medical literature.  The references to the role of women, most obviously in the form of the redoubtable Aunt Polly (Helen McCrory) as the mainstay of the family business in wartime, were nicely done.  And it was interesting to note that the inevitable flashbacks to war experience were set in the tunnels, a trope of war that seems to be increasingly popular at the moment, as if Paul Fussell’s metaphor of the trogolodyte world can only now be properly understood if represented literally.  (Something similar seems to be happening with facial disfigurement, which appears to be overtaking shell shock as the metaphoric wound of the war.)

But it was only in the final episode that I felt I was being beaten about the head by the fact that this was a post-war drama and that war experience was at the heart of character’s attitudes and actions.  That it should be so is no surprise.  This was the episode where the Peaky Blinders, under the command of their wartime leader, Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy), went into defensive battle against Billy Kimber (the fantastically spivvy  Charlie Creed-Miles) armed with that key weapon of First World War battles (at least in the popular imagination), a machine gun.  The references were inevitable.

What interested me, however, was that extent to which the images of the battle referenced war poetry as much as military history.  This started early on, when Aunt Polly told Grace (Annabelle Wallis), that Tommy had thrown his medals into the cut.  Siegfried Sassoon allegedly throwing his MC into the Mersey is the obvious precedent.  This is followed by Tommy’s extended meditation on living in the present in the moments before he and his comrades going into battle, a meditation intercut not with the earlier images of the fighting in the tunnels of France that made up his flashbacks, but memories of making love to Grace the night before.  As I watched I found myself quoting from Alan Seeger’s ‘I Have a Rendevous with Death’:

God knows ’twere better to be deep

Pillowed in silk and scented down,

Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,

Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,

Where hushed awakenings are dear…

But I’ve a rendezvous with Death

At midnight in some flaming town,

When Spring trips north again this year,

And I to my pledged word am true,

I shall not fail that rendezvous.[i]

Then there is Ada Shelby’s appearance, in widow’s weeds and pushing her infant son in a pram (an extraordinary image that I want to think about further in terms of what it says about domesticity and respectability), bringing to mind ‘the pallor of girls’ brows’ that was, for Wilfred Owen, the pall of young men dying in battle.  And finally, in the culminating moment of battle, when Tommy Shelby single-handedly kills Billy Kimber, I thought I saw a look of recognition pass across Murphy’s. By this time I was so attuned to potential poetic references that all I could think was ‘Oh, Strange Meeting, of course’.

Now, I have no way of knowing if Murphy read any Wilfred Owen when researching the part of Tommy Shelby, or if the director Otto Bathurst is familiar with ‘I Have a Rendevous with Death’, not one of the better-known poems of the war, though it should be.  My associations may simply be an over-sensitivity on my part to any poetic reference in relation to the war, an unfortunate aftereffect of studying the war and its culture for too long.  But the fact that the references are there, even only subconsciously, tells me something about the power of these poems to speak down the generations in their representations of an emotional truth about war, violence and its aftermath.  Dramatically, this is how our culture understands the war and its aftermath, the images that it associates with this bit of history.

This is a fact that those of us who argue that there is far more to the war than ‘the mud, the blood, the endless poetry’ must come to terms with in our attempts to convey what else history has to tell us about the First World War.  That there are emotional as well as historic truths to be acknowledged.  The continued power of war poetry is that it taps into the sense of being ‘of all time’, speaking as powerfully to us today as it did to those who read it when it was first composed and published.  This does not make it the only narrative of the war, but it does make it a significant one.  And if we stay attuned to these references, in whatever unlikely scenario they pop up, not only will we be able learn more about the place of the First World War within our cultural heritage, but we may also have an excuse to quote some very moving and beautiful poetry.

[i] Alan Seeger, ‘I have a rendezvous with death’,, last accessed 28/10/2013, 15-24.


Never such innocence again

Yesterday was the anniversary of British entry into the First World War and, as such, saw a rash of articles in the British press and on line reflecting on both the conflict and the forthcoming centenary. Among them was this offering from Henry Porter in The Observer.  The main thrust of the piece is a discussion of the meaning and purpose of commemoration of conflict, about which Porter has a number of reservations, some of which I share.  What fascinated me about it, however, was the series of assumptions that underpinned Porter’s argument about the nature of the men who fought the war.

The opening paragraph describes a piece of graffito carved into a tree in Gloucestershire: PM 10/9/13 MKN.  As described, that is it, no heart encircling the initials, no indication of the sex or age of either party.  Yet, from this description, Porter makes the leap to a narrative whereby these are the initials of two lovers separated a year later by the war.  While I, too, make the assumption that at least one of the individuals was male (based on assumptions I make about knife possession and the desire to mark things through carving), my immediate narrative conclusion was rather different: two boys marking their friendship after school, perhaps, rather than two lovers swearing eternal fidelity after work.  Yes, they might have been 18 and, a year later, found themselves in the British armed forces preparing to face the enemy.  Or they might have been 13, too young to enlist until the war’s final year.  Porter’s narrative, while romantic, seems to have little evidence to back it up, making his tour of local war memorials even more of a long-shot than he himself implies.

Another, similar, imposition of narrative occurs later in the article, when Porter writes of the war as ‘an event that prods Owen, Sassoon, Graves, Remarque, Gurney and Nash into great art’.  By implication, the war is the sole source of these men’s artistic inspiration.  Certainly experiences of war inspired great art from these men, but their artistic aspirations and labours predate the war and several of them (most notably Graves, perhaps) produced great art in the years after that drew on other sources of inspiration. We cannot begin to speculate what sort of poets, artists, musicians they might have been had the war not occurred, but positioning the war as the sole reason for their artistic endeavour is equally a-historical.

It seems to me that there is quite a lot of this imposition of narrative in relation to our historical memory of the war.  The narrative runs that the Britain of the pre-war world, and all who inhabited her, were innocent and pure.  The war, with its unimaginable (by us as well as by those pre-war peoples) mud and blood and violence, destroyed that innocence, leaving behind only the grief and cynicism of the modern world.  It is the narrative of Paul Fussell’s literary paradigm shift writ large upon British social history.

And yet… As someone who has spent an awful lot of time reading the letters and diaries of men who fought in the war, documents which cover the complete span of 1914 through to 1920 and beyond, this narrative sits uncomfortably with me.  In the first place, as I have argued elsewhere, the post-war world was not entirely bereaved or cynical.  Men survived the war and came home to families who rejoiced.  All had been changed by their experiences of warfare, but those changes weren’t, in all cases, for the worse.  Some had gained new skills, acquired new aspirations, had their horizons widened, their philosophy and tolerance deepened.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly in the run-up to 1914, when questions of war enthusiasm and recruitment will be at the forefront of commemorative events, not all men who served were the lovelorn innocents of Porter’s (and I suspect popular) imagination.  The men who enlisted in the first years of the war were probably fairly reflective of the population at large: some were unworldly, some were sophisticates, a few were criminals.  Following the introduction of conscription, the accuracy of that social reflection may have increased as the reluctant soldiers were called up for service. Among the ranks of the army were surely, throughout the war, wife beaters, bullies, incompetents, malingerers, con men, the lazy and the cowardly, as well the idealistic, the intelligent, the grafters, the loyal, the poets and the heroes.  I have read more than enough papers of young men who started the war as prigs, or fire-eaters, and remained that way until the Armistice to know that war did not necessarily change men in the ways the canonical poets would have us believe, as well as far too many of men who were killed before they had a chance to reach anything like maturity.  Their stories, as well as those of the men who war changed in a myriad of ways, reflecting the myriad of personalities who were engaged in waging war, are worth listening to as well.

Over the course of the centenary it will, I know, be very tempting to look at the many artifacts of the conflict that will emerge into the public eye and impose romantic narratives on them, as Porter has done with a piece of graffito and as Philip Larkin did with a photograph in ‘MCMXIV’.  We should be wary of doing so, however, lest, in our romanticism, we miss far more, and far more interesting stories of this extraordinary conflict than the ones we believe we know.