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Zoamorphosis

Blakespotting: Peaky Blinders and William Blake
The latest series of Peaky Blinders is drawing upon William Blake’s vision of England.

Season 6 of The BBC show Peaky Blinders seems to be working hard in the shadow of William Blake, at least if the first two episodes are anything to go by.


Set in Birmingham in the years following the First World War, the series has charted the criminal success of the Shelby family, led by the ambitious, charismatic - and thoroughly ruthless - Thomas Shelby (played by Cillian Murphy). Created by Stephen Knight, the first three seasons or so were vivid and gripping, although I must admit to a certain sense of becoming slightly jaded by season 5 when Tommy, elected as an MP for Birmingham, apparently comes under the influence of the British fascist, Oswald Mosley (Sam Claflin). 


Although the current season maintains some of the tics of the series that annoy me from time to time (not least the rather casual glamorisation of violence via a rock video aesthetic that was quickly going to wear for anything longer than three minutes), nonetheless the opening scene on Miquelon Island off the coast of Newfoundland is much more compelling. Particularly of interest to Blake spotters is the moment when Tommy, now teetotal just as the USA is being weaned off prohibition and onto the hard stuff, sits across from a group of Boston gangsters and tells them that he reads poetry from time to time. His chosen verse? William Blake's "A Poison Tree".

In many respects, Blake's song of experience is ideal for the Shelby clan, riven as they are by anger and a desire for revenge. The more interesting allusions, however, appear in the second episode.


Back in England, Shelby decides to rally his voters to the socialist cause while also playing - and, perhaps, being played - by the fascists and the Irish Republican Army. What is especially significant about his speech to his South Birmingham constituents, however, is how his words carry echoes of another, more famous hymn. His speech begins with a sarcastic dismissal of the government's instructions to say nothing about hunger, jobs or pay as the country suffers through the Great Depression, but a Blakean tone echoes through when he says:

those in greener pastures, they may speak, they may raise their voices! But here in this smoke you men and women - Irish and Italian and English - who support the socialist cause... you must hush.

The reference to the greener pastures is a deliberate and sardonic allusion to Blake's stanzas "And did those feet...", better known as the hymn Jerusalem. While composed by Parry for the nationalist cause, Fight for Right, Parry's own disillusion with the jingoism of that group led him to grant the copyright to Millicent Fawcett and the women's suffrage movement. Almost immediately from the moment of its composition in 1916 it was used for liberal and socialist causes - most notably by Clement Attlee during the Labour administration that came into power at the end of the Second World War. In his speech, when Thomas Shelby says that it is his audience, the veterans of the war, who must carry burdens for "the sake of those in greener pastures" he is demonstrating how far Blake's hymn to a green and pleasant land has fallen. The sardonic reference to another part of the country where the grass is always greener suggests that the holy lamb of god will not be seen on England’s pleasant pastures.


In case we miss this allusion, episode 2 returns to it at the end. Speaking in the House of Commons, Shelby tells MPs about how his experiences in the Birmingham slums would have tested any man, and that he intends to introduce a bill that will bring radical reform. He will clear the slums and build "a new Jerusalem". His speech, of course, is intended to echo that of Attlee two decades later - although here the irony is that we cannot be sure whether Shelby is a socialist or a fascist, or whether his passions for his fellow men are more that they will serve as prey for his criminal empire as he imports opium from Boston.


Season 6, then, alternates between America and England, the Atlantic Ocean where Orc rises in America a Prophecy. What remains to be seen, however, is what kind of revolution Thomas Shelby wishes to bring to England's green and pleasant land.