As leader of the eponymous Birmingham gang, Peaky Blinders, Thomas Shelby is the definition of a self-made man – a master manipulator, deal-maker and entrepreneur whose unbridled ambition is matched by his instincts for survival. A man of lowly birth (he has gypsy heritage on both sides of his family), he returns from the war a decorated Sergeant Major, but also a changed man, disillusioned by his experiences and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
In this Man of Character column, Man of Many takes a look at some of popular culture’s most notable male protagonists. We discuss the origin of the character and why they have had such an enduring influence on the popular consciousness.
“You can change what you do, but you can’t change what you want.” – Thomas Shelby
In the posthumously-published A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway recounts a conversation with his friend and mentor Gertrude Stein and the genesis of the phrase ‘Lost Generation’. Having heard her garage owner describe his young mechanic as part of a “génération perdue”, she relays this to Hemingway, adding that ‘that is what you are. That’s what you all are … all of you young people who served in the war. You are a lost generation.”
For those who came of age in the 1920s, a decade eclipsed by the history-defining world wars that bookended it, there was an abiding sense that they had been forgotten amongst the tumultuous social, economic and political upheaval brought about by the end of the Great War. Yet, for Thomas Shelby, a man very much of his time, the period served not as a cause for existential malaise, but a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make something of himself and ensure the names of Peaky Blinders and Thomas Shelby would not be lost to history.
Played by Cillian Murphy, Thomas ‘Tommy’ Shelby is almost a proto-Walter White, without the self-destructive and megalomaniacal tendencies that proved the latter’s undoing. He is deeply cunning and coldly efficient, someone who understands the value of compromise, but only if it does not compromise his greater ambitions.
First as the leader of the Peaky Blinders, and later through the Shelby Company and as a Member of Parliament, Shelby is an empire-builder of the highest order. He possesses the near-pathological thirst for success associated with the great American industrialists like John D. Rockefeller, but with a streetwise sensibility and adaptability borne out of his upbringing and wartime experiences.
He finds a nemesis in Sam Neill’s Chester Campbell, a major in the Royal Irish Constabulary who is recruited by Winston Churchill to investigate Peaky Blinders and Thomas Shelby himself. Despite a prolonged battle of wits, Tommy ultimately prevails over Campbell – the first of many such triumphs that come to shape his character and destiny.
Having piqued the interest of Winston Churchill, the Peaky Blinders leader is then saved by the future Prime Minister and recruited to clandestinely serve the Crown, proving Thomas Shelby as a man to reckoned with.
Yet, he understands that success without purpose is meaningless, as demonstrated by his loyalty to his family and his tumultuous relationship with Grace, who enters his orbit as an undercover agent in Campbell’s investigation, and leaves it as the love of his life, having given birth to Tommy’s son Charles Shelby. Despite a love triangle of sorts with Inspector Campbell, as well as Tommy’s liasions with various women and Grace’s American husband, Shelby’s love endures past her tragic death.
Thomas Shelby is the ultimate personification of Nietzsche’s concept of the ‘will to power’ – a working man driven by an innate imperative to make as much of his life as possible. Despite his humble origins and the circumstances of his life, Tommy Shelby embodies mankind’s ability to overcome and achieve what would normally be considered beyond the realms of the possible.