Gangsters: Peaky Blinders – Part I of II

If you are going to understand Noah and his character, if you are going to understand the building of the ark and the flood that followed, if you are going to understand the Tower of Babel (Migdal Bavel) tale and effort to have everyone speak the same language and have the same thoughts in contrast to a world of linguistic differences and tribal warfare, if you are going to understand Noah’s downfall afterwards as a vintner and drunk, if you are going to understand why Ham, who saw his father naked and spread the word (he was a snitch), and Shem and Japheth covered up their father and refused to look at what was in front of their eyes, if you want to understand the world they inherited and the role Abram played, in contrast to Noah’s expression of the banality of goodness, to radically change it you have to understand what immediately preceded it all.

What preceded it all was the fifth generation after Cain killed his brother, Abel. You have to understand the generation of a murderer like Lamech. And to understand Lamech, it is helpful to understand both gangsters and how they are portrayed in movies and television series.

In Genesis in the accounting of Cain’s descendants (Genesis 4:17- 22), Cain begets Enoch (cities are formed) who begat Irad who begat Mehujael who begat Methusael who begat Lamech (a gangster) who begat Jubal (a nomad) and a brother who played music and, via a second wife, Zillah, Tubal-Cain who was a blacksmith forging instruments of copper and iron. Seven generations in all.  It is the sixth that interests me here, five generations after Cain.

Lamech confessed to both his wives, Adah and Zillah, that he killed someone who had wounded him, as well as a second person, a younger lad for bruising him. (4:23). Then he pronounced the rule that governed his conduct. “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, then Lamech seventy-seven fold.” (4:24) Was killing people who slight or cross him revenge for what Cain did, for what was done to Cain (possible), or was it a vow made that, in contrast to God who would only deliver punishment sevenfold, he was far more ruthless and would do so seventy-seven fold?

First, vengeance was possible because of superiority in armaments. Lamech had a son who forged advanced weapons of metal. Of the blacksmith’s two step brothers, one was a nomad and the other a musician, alternative lifestyles where success is not pursued as a life goal, or, at least, success measured in material accumulation and social as distinct from artistic status.

There is a parallel development. Adam and Eve had a third son besides Cain and Abel. His name was Seth and he had a son Enosh, which means man. From the first line of births emerged a search for recognition and status and a willingness to murder if necessary for it, as well as two alternative anti-social paths into aesthetics or a nomadic life. From the second line emerged man proper (the meaning of Enosh) who was the first to invoke the Lord by name. He was religious. We thus have four lines:

  1. An industrial inventor, and the gangster who was not only dependent upon him, but like him, for he eschewed aesthetics, travel and religion;
  2. A musician;
  3. A rootless nomad;
  4. A religious man.

The inventive industrialist or businessman is simply the acceptable side of the gangster. Both have in common a search for status and recognition. Both also have in common a determination to achieve their objectives and often to sacrifice social norms to do so. Both sides can be expressed as two sides of the same Janus-faced character. Gangsters live by revenge and killing. Businessmen try to achieve the same results within the realm of society’s laws. And there is the range in between.

To flesh out the meaning and significance of this way of life, it is helpful to go beyond the terse language of the Torah to the tough world of gangsters. One series that surpasses The Godfather films is the Netflix British series, Peaky Blinders, set firmly in the industrial town of Birmingham with the lead Gypsy gangster of the family, “the godfather,” Tommy Shelby, played by Cillian Murphy. (I have yet to see The Wire or Boardwalk Empire or Hell on Wheels so I cannot make any comparison to those series.) However, rooting the series in the immediate post-WWI period, in the poverty of the twenties, in the PTSD of the survivors of the war and, most of all, in the rivalries between Imperial Britain, Communist Russia and, more removed, the evangelical America and its ineffectual efforts at prohibition, offer a very distinctive flavour and larger than life sense to the narrative.

Given the series brilliant cast in all of its characters, given the settings, the music, the cinematography and lighting, the costumes, the direction and, most of all, the brilliant script, even if you watch Peaky Blinders as simply a gangster film, it is well worth the time. But at least pay attention to the oxymoron of the title which, in literal terms refers to the peaks of workers caps and the razors sewn into them by the gangsters to blind their opponents. But peaky refers to a glancing look into that of which we are also blind.

Tommy Selby is often portrayed walking down a road in Birmingham with blast furnaces in the background. It is a depiction of hell. It is where he belongs, but also aspires to leave and enter the normal world of purportedly non-vengeful civility. He learns that the world he aspires to join is akin to the same one he occupies, but his is naked.

In the series, the gangster life is both ascetic and carnal. Like Lamech, monogamy was not part of the equation, even in the case of Tommy Shelby who had a deep love for his first girlfriend before he went off to war and for his wife Grace (Annabelle Wallis) – the meaning of her name is patently clear. He met his wife when she was serving as a spy for the British Secret Service, like Zillah, the shady. Grace dies when she tried to shade Tommy Shelby from being murdered by someone seeking vengeance.

What stands out in Tommy Shelby’s character is his inventiveness, his industriousness, his creativity, his ability to respond quickly, not only to opportunities but to moments that would bring anyone else to the point of despair. And it is clear that Tommy Shelby is after the material accoutrements of power and position, and loves the adoration and respect he receives from those who both respect and fear him. He is also determined. What he so explicitly lacks is any respect for God or fear of death – a characteristic that makes him so successful as a gangster. As Polly Shelby (Helen McCrory), his aunt, says, when you stick your head in a noose and come out the other side, then you are free. For you are totally unafraid to die. All life after the noose is a bonus.

Tommy Shelby’s inventiveness, his creativity, his ability to plot and scheme in the face of the maneouvers of more powerful adversaries, however, proves over and over again to be insufficient. He is merciless, he is ruthless, in his efforts. And what seems to make it all possible is that he was a tunneller or sapper, the most dangerous military assignment in WWI, a war hero in WWI in France, practiced in the arts of digging tunnels under his enemies and blowing their tunnels up. But a tunnel collapsed on him. However, he was resurrected from what seemed a certain death.

Tommy Shelby, like Lamech, would not and did seek the favour and acknowledgement of God. Nor would he succumb to self-pity like Cain when God recognized another. Further, like Adam and Eve, like Cain who would lie to God and say he did not know where his brother was after he had killed him, Tom Selby could really lie. In fact, his whole art of fighting his rivals depended on deceit and trapping them. Hence the ending of the fourth series which I watched last evening. But in one other and more important respect he was very much like Cain. Cain also uttered the categorical imperative of the foundation of gangsterism – “Am I my brother’s keeper?” It is more than an oxymoron; it is a double entendre.

The question is very ambiguous. On the one hand it could put forth the conviction that my brother’s well-being is not my responsibility. I am not my brother’s keeper. On the other hand, there is the implication that being one’s brother’s keeper is a moral norm which God would impose, namely, that we are responsible for everyone else on the planet. We are our brothers’ keepers. But there is a third meaning – I am my brother’s keeper because it is only my blood brothers whom I can trust. Everyone else is potentially my enemy. Anyone who hurts or threatens my kin will be killed. Anyone who insults or slights my kin may also be killed. For what we want for our family is respect.

The most successful gangsters are the ones who are their brother’s keepers and build the family criminal business on the foundation of an enormous pool of trust between and among brothers and, more broadly, others who become part of the family. Lose that family, lose that trust and you open yourself to becoming a victim rather than a winner – again see the final episode of the first four series. Gangsterism, in the end, is a family business. To avoid Cain’s fate, to avoid his father’s fate that was built on the destruction of brotherly love, to avoid becoming like his father, a rootless traveller who would easily cheat his own children, he develops this third expression of brotherly love into a fine art.

Unlike Cain, no burden was too great to bear, no weighty decision and no brutal beating. Cain cannot settle down and become a successful farmer but must expose himself to a brutish world. God offers Cain protection; no one will kill you, God promises. Anyone who does will be avenged seven times. But for Lamech, he will be the avenger. If anyone tries to kill him or his family, he will be avenged seventy-seven times. Further, like Lamech, Thomas Selby is continually and repeatedly addressing his brothers and other family members; “Hear my voice. Hearken unto my speech.” Not God’s. The family meetings, the one-on-one asides, are all critical to the operation of the family business.

If one son is a musician, Lamech is at base a poet, a creative artist. In the Torah, what we read is an ode of Hebrew parallelism in rhythm, sentiment and style. It matches the practical choices of two roads that diverge in a wood and Tommy must always choose one, and never the obvious one. There is a rhythmic pacing caught on film in the collective walks of the women and men down the road of the blast furnaces or housing estates of Birmingham. Among such ruthless gangsters, it is almost shocking, but totally convincing, how much sentiment and caring ties them all together. Further, each even dresses in a paradoxical style, of higher and richer style as they rapidly grow wealthier, but never leaving behind the working class caps that define their socially low origins.

The family business is originally based on illegal numbers and betting. Through the series, it gradually morphs into more and more legitimate businesses as they acquire pubs and then racetracks and then industrial factories and housing estates. Always, they are practical. Always, they pursue the thing of this life and disdain any so-called higher calling. In fact, the most despicable characters in the series – the head of the British secret service, Chief Inspector Chester Campbell played by Sam Neill and Father John Hughes (Paddy Considine), a corrupt priest and child molester – are not the most sinister ones.

Though sinister, the Cockney leader of the Jewish gang on Canary Wharf in London, Alfie Solomons, and Charles “Darby” Sabini, the leader of the largest Italian mob in London, are not despicable. They weave their respective Jewish and Catholic religions into their murderous lives but make no claim that they are acting on behalf of God. Chief Inspector Campbell (promoted to Chief of Staff for British Intelligence in the second series) and Father Hughes are outright hypocrites. As Chief Inspector Campbell intones, “I have the love of God, and the certainty of salvation,” even as his fury, resentment and betrayals shame the devil.

Tommy Selby never makes any such claim. When his older brother Arthur, under the influence of his wife, wants to move in that direction, Tommy Shelby subverts it with the attraction of money, of sex and of brotherly solidarity.

Aside from the absolutely marvellous acting among the many varied characters – other than Tom Selby, I liked who played the Cockney London gangster Alfie Solomons (Tom Hardy) with a pithy richness and a vocabulary derived from both the Torah and the streets, and Luca Changretta (Adrien Brody), the Italian gangster from New York bent on revenge for the death of his father and brother at the hands of the gypsy gang, the Peaky Blinders, led by Tom Shelby. The story is triply rich because it is: a) historically rooted and b) reflects the view that the so-called civilized world is simply the world of family rivalries writ large and with a genteel patella. (See Part II of this blog)

For example, in the fourth and last episode of the series, with each series consisting of eight 45 minute episodes, Vicente Changretta, if you google him, was a leader of the Changretta mob in New York involved in the illegal liquor business during prohibition and in a continuing rivalry with Al Capone’s mob. Vicente went to Birmingham, England, the city controlled by the Peaky Blinders, to attend his cousin’s wedding. He and his son, Angel, were gunned down by the local Birmingham mob in their conflict with an Italian mob from London. This was the source of the vendetta and Luca Changretta’s determination to avenge his brother’s and his father’s deaths and became the most serious threat to the Shelbys and their family business.

To understand the real depth of the series in both actual history as well as profound myth, it is important to trace the full range of how this series is written both into real history as well as a universal trope of mankind. (Part II)


With the help of Alex Zisman


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