Elsewhere, I have written about the importance of the Shelbys’ Romany heritage and its impact on the central themes of Peaky Blinders. An idea that I mentioned there but didn’t discuss fully was how language plays into this construction. This relationship becomes particularly evident in 3.5.
Language as a Cultural Signifier
In “Language and Culture” in The Encyclopedia of Anthropology (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2005), P. N. Chrosniak writes about language and the central role it plays in belonging to a culture:
Language is more than just a singular component of culture. It is a symbol system that acts as a glue to bind cultures together. . . .
The relationship between language, communication, and culture is complex. While language is a powerful and necessary tool to unite individuals in particular cultures, it may act as a barrier or be used to exclude or separate people in a society and within cultures. . . . Identification with a culture becomes dependent upon prior social context, and the choices of language and language adjustment are not always simple matters.
There are two points here to emphasize. First, language is a means by which cultures include members and exclude outsiders. Second, language as a cultural identifier is “dependent upon prior social context.” That is, the way in which the member of a culture uses a language depends upon a shared history. Both notions are key in Peaky Blinders 3.5 as the Shelbys and Alfie Solomons use language to transgress the Russians’ power structures.
After all, Grand Duke Leon Petrovna, Grand Duchess Izabella, and Princess Tatiana are Russian nobility. The entry in the book Tommy reads at the library clarifies both that and Leon’s cruelty. They only deal with the Peaky Blinders because they are trying to regain power they see as being unfairly taken from them. They view themselves as above common people — like the Shelbys and Alfie Solomons.
This is reflected in their dress and patronizing behavior as well as their use of language. They are fluent English speakers, though their accents serve as reminders that English is not their first language; rather, it allows them to navigate British culture, which they are doing to serve their own ends. When they wish to exclude outsiders from their conversation, such as Father Hughes in Peaky Blinders 3.3, when Izabella stops speaking English and begin speaking Russian to Tatiana when telling her to follow Tommy. It’s a very public strategy for reinforcing their power. On one hand, this is about culture; on another, it is about class. (Ironically, this incident happens after Tommy has described his plan and Father Hughes says, “Your Highness, if you’re having difficulty understanding his accent, then I can go through the plan with you at a later date.” The Russians and Tommy understand each other perfectly.)
Tommy Shelby is fluent in Romany though he seldom speaks it. When he does, it calls attention to both his cultural heritage and how he is uses it in a given situation. One example appears in Peaky Blinders 1.4 when he talks with Zilpha Lee about John’s marriage and establishes a truce between the two families. When the real negotiating begins, they speak Romany. By doing this, Tommy is calling attention to their shared cultural inheritance; that is, he is using the language appropriate for the cultural transaction they are completing. It sets the stage for John’s marriage to Esme and is a reminder that this is a joining of families with a shared cultural inheritance. (It also creates another parallel to The Godfather, which P. F. Alvarez has written about here.)
At the wedding reception in 3.1, Tommy interrupts Polly’s conversation with Ruben to update her on what is happening. When he does, he speaks Romany and says, “We tossed a coin and Arthur lost. I’m getting the men outside.” This both excludes Ruben and establishes cultural intimacy with Polly.
In 3.5, Tommy speaks Romany to Arthur when they are at the Russians’ house and Arthur is reluctant to undress. Tommy does this to have a private conversation with Arthur in the presence of others. He is also reminding Arthur that they are family with shared values while the Russians are outsiders.
Tommy [IN ROMANY]: I told you they’re all fucking mad. They’re only half joking. Let the ladies have their fun. Eh? Eh?
After this exchange, Arthur does what Tommy asks of him.
English as a Shared Space
When conducting business, the Shelbys and the Petrovnas enter the shared space created by their common use of English. Doing so is a practical necessity and serves as a kind of cultural equalizer: Everyone in the room is able to participate in the dialogue.
Little is known about Alfie Solomons beyond his heritage and profession as a gangster. As a Jew, he is outside both the culture of both the Russians and the Shelbys. This is clear in 3.5 when he is not allowed to attend the party and is instead held in the vault, his hands tied. He says something telling:
Alfie: I, I . . . I don’t think they trust me, Tommy.
Tommy: Mr. Solomons is the only jeweler I trust in London.
That is, Alfie is clearly established as other by the Russians even though Tommy’s articulation of his trust in Alfie suggests that they share a cultural space that excludes the Russians.
After Alfie’s hands are untied, things get interesting. He begins by stating his admiration of the Petrovnas’ jewels: “May I just start, right, by saying that I may choose to stay here and just starve to death and choke on sapphires. I’d have never go back to the fucking world again.”
Then the tone changes:
The Duke [IN RUSSIAN]: The Jew smells of rum.
Alfie: Yeah, well, there’s a good reason for that, you know, little man. Because my shop right, is just above a rum house. So all them . . . .
Tatiana: You speak Russian?
Alfie: Yeah, I do ‘cause of me mum. Yeah, me mother. You people, all right, you hunted my mum with dogs through the snow. Yeah. But today, right, is for forgiveness, isn’t it?
When the duke speaks in Russian, has left the shared space of English for a private space defined by language and culture. He has also indicated that both Tommy and Alfie are not welcome there.
Alfie promptly violates this space by showing that he is fluent in Russian and that he has strong cultural ties to it through his mother. He also clarifies that his cultural relationship to the Russians is built on conflict because the Russian nobility persecuted his Jewish ancestors. That would be Chrosniak’s “prior social context.”
It is a remarkable moment. Alfie takes power away from the Russians – they can quarantine him from upstairs, they can physically restrain him, they can benefit from a history of persecuting Jews (in this case, that persecution is made personal as Alfie explains they hunted his mother), but they cannot keep him out. He has transgressed into a space he has been forbidden from entering. (It also provides more background information on the mysterious Alfie Solomons.)
As Steven Knight has said repeatedly, Peaky Blinders explores the possibility of escaping social class. By the end of the series, Tommy understands that he cannot escape; rather, he has to bring the class structure down. In showing his understanding of Russian and by interjecting himself into a conversation he was excluded from, Alfie Solomons has done much the same thing. Even though Alfie and Tommy have an uneasy alliance, in this, they share the same goals.
Some graphics are from farfarawaysite.com.
Publication Date: 29 June 2016
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