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PREVIEW Discover the real-life Jessie Eden

Peaky Blinders has its appeal, but its depiction of a communist heroine of trade unionism is blighted by misogyny. GRAHAM STEVENSON recommends a forthcoming event where you can find out the true story

SOMETHING of a stir has accompanied an initiative to hold an event celebrating the real life of Birmingham heroine Jessie Eden, who features in the BBC TV series Peaky Blinders.  

Local trade unionists are a tad slighted over the way that the programme, which is set in the city, has used her character in a “love interest” subplot — even if the popularity of the series has brought attention to communist pioneers of the region’s special brand of mass factory trade unionism.

Although the TV series’ cinematography, music and fast-paced action is obviously attractive, especially matched to outstanding charismatic performances, it’s disappointing that an expert in Tudor history was the historical adviser to the series, rather than someone with a background in trade unionism or communism.

Many local trade unionists are now asking, if you want to write about trade unionists in history, would it not be wise to ask trade unionists?

Of course historical drama needs to be subject to the same rigour as historical fact. 

The series implies a thoroughly modern social outlook among the programme’s characters. Seemingly, the 1920s working class held a sophisticated sexual knowledge and their values and tastes were not dissimilar to those held today. 

I knew Eden, and as a callow 22-year-old, I didn’t ask the 70-year-old Jessie about her relationships, let alone sex life. But I doubt her private life was as complicated or dramatic as her eponymous character’s. Nor can I see any young woman during the 1920s gratuitously going into a gents’ toilets, as Eden is shown doing, for any reason at all other than life or death. The social values of the programme are ahistorical. 

It is surely the conceit that Tommy Shelby, the gangster villain-hero of the series, could ever convince a woman like Eden to be wined and dined, let alone be seduced, that finally reveals the true motives of the creators of the programme.  

A character tells us of Shelby’s plan to “defeat revolution with his cock.” For the British army has offered him lucrative contracts if he can help entrap leading communists.

Peaky Blinders’ commercially minded creative team displays an outdated and traditional view of women. 

The focus is on a white male viewership, but Peaky Blinders has many female fans, who have created Pinterest boards and Tumblrs and are creating their own fan fiction.

Will some now draw on the real Jessie Eden? Especially now that she has been turned into yet another disposable love interest to show off Tommy’s machismo — disposed of like many female characters. 

The creator of the series, Stephen Knight, conceived it as a kind of Western. Raw masculinity seems to need strong women to enable heroic men to shine, but the outcome is always sadly misogynistic, as they can never win. 

Peaky Blinders denies female characters a role in driving the narrative and frequently diminishes their status or hurts them.  
Many have noticed small issues of non-fact, perhaps because the source is mainly a novel from four decades ago, rather than contemporary records. 

For example, Georgia in the Caucasus is described as tsarist in the Soviet civil war, whereas it had been Menshevik, but was conquered by the Bolsheviks before the time of the story, and Winston Churchill wasn’t home secretary in 1919 but had been a decade before. 

Stories around the IRA, which appear to be sourced from online biographies of communists from Birmingham and Coventry who actively supported the war of Irish independence, are closer to the 1970s scene than 50 years before, but worryingly, they take no account of the distinct position that communists took in each instance. 

And it’s highly unlikely that gangsters named Peaky Blinders ever used razor blades in their caps. The name probably just came from the peaked flat cap, which could hurt if you were poked in the eye with it. Peaky Blinders were, like Teds in the 1950s, a name for a style of youth dressing, which dated from 30 years before the series is set.

Eden wasn’t a mass union leader in 1926, merely a shop steward of a small group of unionised women, hugely outnumbered by 10,000 non-unionised women at the Lucas motor vehicle factory. 
Unlike the portrayal in the TV series, she was never a professional paid official for a union, able to clad herself in Roaring Twenties flapper finery. 

Making her the “area convener for the Boilermakers’ Union” is a travesty of understanding of what a convener was for, let alone which unions dominated the locality.

Yet seemingly, “with a single blow of a whistle she can bring the whole of Birmingham’s workforce out on strike.” This is some accomplishment given the many hundreds of unions and the relative absence of joint shop stewards committees at that time. 

The show is planned to end with air raid sirens sounding in World War II, over another two series. How will it deal with Eden’s greatest achievements, thus far unshown? For her remarkable true story has been obscured in the drive for mass marketability. 

Eden’s leadership triggered the founding of mass factory trade unionism for women and young workers in the Midlands. And also so far unshown is her equally extraordinary achievement in bringing 45,000 Birmingham Council tenants out on rent strike in 1939 — and winning. From her late forties to her retirement she was the key official of the city’s tenants’ association. 

Entitled Can Art Imitate Life — Peaky Blinders and the Real Jesse Eden begins on Saturday January 13 with a panel discussion at 2.30pm at Cherry Reds Cafe and Bar at 88-92 John Bright St, next to New Street station, with Graham Stevenson, Professor Paul Long, and Dave Puller on the platform. All enquiries can be directed to BrummieStar@gmail.com.

Culture Matters:

IN conjunction with Culture Matters, a programme of entertainment runs from 4.30pm, compered by Andy Chaffer, a PPPS management committee member, and kicked off by poet and satirist Dave Puller. 

Also featuring in the entertainment part of the event is Tim Martin, a composer, singer, chorister, baritone ukulele player, carer, writer and artist. 

As a performer, he is a writer of political songs, mainly singing his own material at folk clubs, festivals, union events and demonstrations. 

Tim came to music quite late in life through his membership in the Workers’ Music Association and Birmingham Clarion Singers, who are also performing at the event, including rounding off with a resounding rendition of the Internationale. 

Clarion was established in 1940 and the socialist choir carries traditions from then into the 21st century with songs and music from a long-established workers’ tradition. They have a wide repertoire, from folk to classical, from ballads to African choral works. 

The event is sponsored by Birmingham TUC president Ian Scott and George Hickman, co-ordinator of West Midlands United Left, president of Sandwell’s TUC and a regular promoter of the Morning Star from the platform at his union’s conference.  

There’s opportunity to order food and drink all afternoon in the Bosta Room where the event will be. Recommended is the hearty buffet at £8 a head. 

Admission is free, thanks to generous support from the labour movement, but this is on condition that all present will give generously to a collection for the Morning Star’s Fighting Fund in memory of Ivan Beavis, who died on December 28, aged 69. A bumper total is warmly expected.

The panel:

DAVE PULLER has written for the stage, radio, film, and television and has featured in these media regularly as a contributor, actor, and performer.  

A professional stand-up poet, he is the author of several books of poetry and will perform some in the second part of the event. 
He regularly tours with his one-man shows, performing at schools, community venues, pubs, clubs and theatres. His latest and hot-selling new book, A Bit of a Leftie, says it all. 

Paul Long is professor of media and cultural history at the Birmingham School of Media. 

The author of Class, Place and History in the Imaginative Landscapes of Peaky Blinders, he has engaged in extensive work on popular music heritage, as well as cultural representations of Birmingham. 

He co-curated the exhibition Is There Anyone Out There? which documented the local independent music scene in the late 1980s.

Graham Stevenson was for many decades a senior official of the T&G, responsible for its transport industries at a national and international level. He is a former president of the European Transport Workers Federation (ETF).  

A lifelong communist, he knew Jessie Eden and her family well during the 1970s, when he first learned how proud she was of the TGWU gold medal awarded to her by Ernie Bevin for organising 10,000 women. 

Since retirement he has published online historical researches from a lifetime, including thousands of biographies of communists and the story of Jessie Eden and the strike of Lucas women and girls she led in the early ’30s.

His biography of her continues to expand. Stevenson says: “It is slightly annoying that the makers of Peaky Blinders say on mainstream media there’s not a lot of info about Jessie Eden and ignore the 20,000 words I’ve written about her, from which references to Birmingham communists of the interwar period have been lifted by the Peaky Blinders creative team. The truth seems to be not that it is ‘not much’ but that it’s a single source and that it’s from a communist.”

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