There was a beyond the grave reappearance of one of England’s most controversial and debated politicians the other week. The fiftieth anniversary of Enoch’s Powell’s infamous ‘Rivers Of Blood’ speech provoked plenty of social media debate and column inches to questions as to how far we’d come as a society in the past half century. The BBC’s decision to broadcast the speech in its entirety voiced by an actor particularly set the cat among the pigeons. In the middle of all this debate I came across The Speech by Andrew Smith an historical thriller released in 2016.
Set at the time of Powell’s speech Jamaican immigrant Nelson finds himself embroiled in a murder investigation coming up against the ingrained racist attitudes of the authorities in the West Midlands of the late 1960s.
The novel is filled with rich period and local detail, from folk clubs to art schools, to protests and the suburban homes of local Tories. Powell isn’t just a vexatious background figure in the text, instead Smith takes the bold decision to give him fictional voice exploring what it was that made him tick and the thought processes that brought him to making the speech that would ultimately destroy his career. The Powell depicted is otherworldly, romantic and vain nostalgic for a High Tory England that probably never really existed. His administrator the more socially secure Georgina Verington-Delaunay tries to root her employer in a more realistic pragmatic approach. Powell proceeds with his preparations for the speech despite warnings from Georgie about its possible consequences, Powell the loner finding comfort in the populist support he rightly expected it to garner.
I was convinced by Smith’s portrayal of Powell. It’s neither a hatchet job nor an apology. Powell comes across as a deeply flawed man who probably knew full well what he was doing. The subsequent slap down by his party leadership perhaps playing into his own sense of personal martyrdom. Race relations in the years that followed were hardly smooth, but they were far from the apocalyptic picture that Powell presented. Time hasn’t proven him right.
One thing that struck me in the book was just how clear cut and decisive the action was from the leadership. Reading back over reports from the period and a famous Times leader written by the father of none other than Jacob Rees-Mogg the condemnation was pretty damning at a time when some might have felt it was politically worthwhile to harness the hate Powell cultivated. Seeing how politicians like Farage have been indulged over the past few years and the recent problems for both main parties with structural racism of different kinds I’m not entirely convinced the moral outrage is quite so clear cut nowadays. Powell’s erudition and supposed intellect (perhaps overstated) gave cover and credibility to some base politics at the time. He was playing with fire and he probably knew it.
I’m not a big reader of historical thrillers but I really enjoyed The Speech. It’s a real page turner with well developed characters that really immerses you in the period. As a folkie I loved the portrayal of earnest sixties folk clubs.
Powell threw a bomb into the middle of a community that was adjusting to change and Smith captures the real life consequences that had for those caught up as collateral.