I’ve been binge watching Peaky Blinders on Netflix over the last couple of weeks. All the press about the death of Helen McCrory, who starred as the glamorous and tough female head of the Shelby family, made me look it up. I was immediately hooked. It has everything I love on screen – glamour, stylised violence, tribalism, politics, war and love gone mostly wrong but occasionally right.
Some of my continuing interest in the show is because of my Glasgow gangster grandfather. Last time I visited Glasgow – pre COVID – I was sitting in a relative’s courtyard drinking Prosecco under a rare Glasgow sun. I hadn’t seen her for eons and was startled when I thought I heard her say something about our grandfather having a long stint in jail. She went on to say that it had caused a split in the family when his wife, our grandmother, had expected people to take sides. Well, her side.
Obviously, I am no poker face because my crestfallen relative stopped mid-sentence saying “Oh, my God, you didn’t know?” I hadn’t known. In fact, I had been told that my poor grandfather had only become a violent alcoholic after coming back from the war. I never met him. Yet I had always known there was a secret in the middle of the family. I could feel it.
Watching Peaky Blinders, which is set in Birmingham, another Northern Industrial town in what used to be the United Kingdom, made me feel like my grandfather’s life was unfolding in front of my eyes. For the first time, I understood the impulse to lawlessness in the face of oppression of all kinds – classism, racism, religious bigotry. Given the impenetrable hierarchies of the time, taking to the wrong side of the law where at least he had a fighting chance of making a life that wasn’t crippled by grinding poverty seemed like a logical choice.
The industrial landscape that Tommy Shelby, the head of the Shelby clan, struts through is filled with fire breathing monsters called factories. We are now in the technological age and, please God, waving goodbye to our own fire breathing monsters – petrol cars, dirty power and plastics manufacturers.
This time, technology might just mean the end of hierarchies. When dissent happens out of sight, at lightning speed it’s so much harder to quash. People don’t need a place to gather and ideas and things – actual or virtual – like Bitcoin and Extinction Rebellion can be grown just by being hurled through cyber-space. It hurts my head and gladdens my heart even though I don’t know where it’s all going. What I do know is that change is coming, I can feel it.