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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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’, http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/19396, last accessed 28/10/2013, 15-24.