By John Ruberry

Most of the main characters in Hell on Wheels, my last Netflix binge-watching adventure, were shaped, and scarred, by the American Civil War.

In this BBC 2 television show, Peaky Blinders, set in Birmingham, England beginning in 1919, World War I casts its shadow over the lead characters.

Three seasons have been released so far. The action–and the violence–is centered upon the Anglo-Gypsy Shelby family, led by Thomas “Tommy” Shelby (Cillian Murphy), a decorated Great War tunneller who returns home a new man–and a better suited one to run the family business, Shelby Brothers, Ltd, a bookmaking operation set in the grimy and noisy Small Heath section of Birmingham. But the gang is generally called the Peaky Blinders by members and their enemies. His oldest brother, Arthur (Paul Anderson) is clearly more psychologically damaged from the war than Tommy, but he’s better suited to serve as the enforcer for the family. “I think, Arthur. That’s what I do,” Tommy explains to him. “I think. So that you don’t have to.” Third son John (Joe Cole), another World War I veteran, is also employed in the muscle side of the operation, while Finn, the youngest Shelby, is only 11-years-old when the series begins.

Tommy has a sister, Ada Thorne (Sophie Rundle), who is married to communist agitator. But she’s still loyal to the family.

While the Shelby men were fighting in France–the family business was run by Elizabeth “Aunt Polly” Gray (Helen McCrory), a kind of a Rosie the Riveter of the underworld. Tommy quickly takes over from Polly, who serves as his senior advisor. Like Edward G. Robinson’s legendary Rico character in Little Caesar, Tommy becomes a small-time-hood-makes-good-by-being-bad by playing one gang faction against the other, first in Birmingham then in London, while largely ignoring Aunt Polly’s warnings.

When the Peaky Blinders stumble upon a large machine gun shipment in an otherwise routine heist, that gets the attention of Secretary of State for War Winston Churchill (Andy Nyman in the first season, Richard McCabe in the second), who dispatches Inspector Chester Campbell (Sam Neill) from Belfast to find the machine guns. Those guns give Tommy power and respect–and enemies. Not only do Churchill and Campbell want those weapons, but so does the Irish Republican Army.

Campbell sends in an Irish domestic spy, Grace Burgess (Annabelle Wallis), to work at the neighborhood pub owned by Arthur, appropriately named The Garrison. She quickly becomes its de facto manager.

In season three, which is set in 1924, Tommy, at Churchill’s request, gets involved in another armaments caper, this time with members of the Whites faction who haven’t ascertained that the Communists have won the Russian Civil War. Arthur warns Tommy to stay out of “this Russian business.” It’s too bad the script writers didn’t take their own creation’s advice. As was the case with season four of Sherlock, what follows is a collection of tangled and confusing plot lines. Possibly realizing their mistake, the writers include quite a bit of gratuitous nudity to accompany the Russian adventure, including a bizarre orgy scene which does nothing to advance the storyline.

On the other hand, the Russian diversion is loosely based on a 1924 scandal that brought down Great Britain’s first socialist-led government.

At least two more seasons are coming.

The cinematography of Peaky Blinders is masterful. Imagine Tim Burton creating a remake of The Untouchables television show and setting it in 1920s Birmingham. And this is an ugly Birmingham. J.R.R Tolkien lived in the city before the Great War and his reaction against it was his creation of Mordor for The Lord of the Rings. Just as the Eye of Sauron looked upon that evil realm–the sparks and the ashes of the foundries oversee the Midlands metropolis here. And the industrial roar is always there too.

Blogger in his flat cap

Without getting into spoilers it’s a challenge to bring a description of Jewish gangster Alfie Solomons into this review, but his portrayal by Tom Hardy is too good to overlook.

Oh, the name. Peaky Blinders? There was a Birmingham gang by the same name who gained that moniker because its members supposedly sewed razor blades into the peaks of their flat caps. And in fights the hoodlums went for the eyes.

And finally, the music deserves special mention too. Anachronistic goth rock dominates, the unofficial theme song is Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ “Red Right Hand.” You’ll find selections from PJ Harvey, Tom Waits, and the White Stripes too.

And Johnny Cash sings “Danny Boy.”

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

Society has a curious love/hate relationship with pop culture. It hurls bile and snark at some, while tongue-bathing others, all in an effort to seem disaffected and elite while simultaneously craving acceptance by the Kool Kidz. It seeks a mythical connection with the latest bands and the hottest hands, an association minus genuine attachment. Those considered unworthy are summarily dismissed, ignored save when someone uncool dies so the insults can once more be recited before being laid to rest alongside the recently departed.

Example? Sure. John Wetton and Beyoncé.

Wetton died the other day at age 69 from cancer. Nearly simultaneously, Beyoncé announced she is pregnant with twins. The media went front page ape for the latter. Wetton? Hey, let’s dust off an insulting concert review of his band Asia when it was riding high in the early ’80s!

This comes as no surprise to those possessing any awareness of pop culture. Wetton, throughout his career, pursued creativity, be it in full-blown progressive rock such as his ’70s output with King Crimson and U.K., or Asia’s more concise, melodically focused work. Beyoncé? Although not naming her directly, Joe Walsh precisely nails her “artistry:”

Beyoncé’s career will fade with her looks as she is replaced with the next generation’s pop princess. John Wetton’s genuine artistry will live on in the hearts and minds of his fans, the true believers who will hand down his work to that portion of the next generation blessed with predecessors who caught the vision.

Don’t follow sheep. Seek the vision.

Reagan statue, Dixon, IL
Reagan statue, Dixon, IL

By John Ruberry

“This is the issue of this election: Whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capitol can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.”
Ronald Reagan, A Time for Choosing, 1964.

While the Republicans lost the 1964 presidential election, resoundingly, sixteen years later Reagan turned the tables on big government Democrats.

Today President Obama is at best blurring the lines between the federal government and the fifty states.  Healthcare is being fundamentally transformed by ObamaCare. The curriculum at public schools–remember, local schools are usually the most local of government bodies–is being altered by Common Core initiatives. Even what students eat at those schools is being dictated by the Obama administration.

Government in the United States is becoming more and more top-down, being run, in Reagan’s words, by a “little intellectual elite in a far-distant capitol.”

Just like Europe. And oh do the liberals yearn for a government more like a European country.

But increasingly, Europeans are turning away from top-down government. Last week Scottish voters nearly voted for secession from the United Kingdom. Promises of more local control for Scots by London politicians may have swayed the outcome.

This time.USA-UK flags

There are movements all over the European Union that are demanding independence or more local control, including those in the Basque region, Catalonia, Corsica, South Tyrol, Wales, Brittany, and the Faeroe Islands. Belgium could split in two.

Two days ago Anne Appelbaum in the Washington Post took a look at how people across Europe view of their top-down governments.

The ideals of European unity that inspired a previous generation don’t move younger people who have no memory of what came before. At the same time, it is increasingly and notably strange that the wealthiest group of nations on Earth cannot create a policy to cope with the chaos rising on its southern and eastern borders — chaos that is, of course, the source of massive new immigration as well as economic instability. Instead, distant European Union institutions appear to fill their time making petty regulations. No wonder voters want to bring the decision-making “home.”

True, some of these local European movements are hyper-nationalist and yes, even racist. But like Reagan decades ago, Europeans are disdaining the so-called wisdom of those  experts who live far away and claim only they know what’s best for them.

As for Obama, he’s on the wrong side of history.

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

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