BBC (available on Netflix) has released the fourth season of “Peaky Blinders” recently, a show centered around British gangsters of the same name in 1919. We follow Tommy Shelby, played by Cillian Murphy, as he takes his small, hometown, family-run gang beyond the small pickings of local crime and into some high-risk high-reward criminal ventures. They are beset by all sorts of obstacles, be it a zealous detective, rival gangs or internal family disputes, and the road is paved with blood and the slow ebbing away of their souls. It is not a week-by-week, episodic show — the stories sweep across episodes and seasons alike.
“Peaky Blinders” has one consistent theme running through each season: the devastation wrought through British society after WWI. In a portion of my “Pages of War” series, I read through several books written prior to WWI, during WWI and just after. The changes in society are readily apparent, as the subject matter, tone and themes all take a wild turn — some are more depressing, some are grittier, some are simply more realistic — all are born from the horrors of WWI, seen by the average man who, in the 20th century, now has the means to channel their emotions into their writing and have it published.
The Great War completely upended society. The profound blanket of sadness and despair that has nestled into the hearts of every British soldier does more than create a few extra drunks. Where there may have been respect for authority before, there is an absolute disrespect toward those who stayed at home while they fought. Where there were gang rivalries, there is a mutual respect as they fought side by side on the fields of France. Where there might have been a family hierarchy, a younger brother having proven his mettle and returned a war hero might be the new head of the family. Where there may have been a population of young men, there may just be vacant houses and no one to support their families — surging the number of working women. Decadence and the ensuing “Roaring Twenties” was one way of coping (or repressing) the memories of such a conflict. Age and education mean little anymore — experience means everything.