The Speech by Andrew Smith
A paranoid conspiracy theory. This is how Frank, lead character of this wholly fictional but entirely plausible novel, describes his friend's suggestion that the authorities, far right politicians and Nazi thugs could all be ensnared in a web of racism, bigotry and brutality. However, a series of unfortunate events wake him from his comfortable if uninspired life as an art student in Wolverhampton in 1968 and lead him to discover some harsh realities. These show clearly how the inflammatory 'rivers of blood' speech by his local MP, Enoch Powell, was to blame for fuelling the fires of violence and the Fascist right.
Frank begins the story as an innocent, uninvolved spectator on life, coasting along on his full grant and not taking much seriously. This sublime ignorance is shattered when a photograph he took and doctored is used to frame his West Indian friend, Nelson, for a murder he had nothing to do with. In seeking to prove Nelson's innocence, Frank is unwittingly thrown deep into a world of savage, pernicious racism which, he is shocked to discover, involves local landlords, small businessmen, fledgling Nazi groups and (to his great surprise) the police. In seeking to discover the truth of Nelson's case, Frank learns both about himself and about society, as well as suffering ridicule from the state and violence from the Fascists.
While this book is described as fiction, a lot of research and a lot of truth have obviously gone into the account of the cause and effect of Powell's hate filled speech, which gives the novel its name and provides its backdrop. Explanations for his bigotry are hinted at: repressed sexuality, arrogant self obsession, an Oedipal fixation on his mother, nostalgia for Empire, naked ambition, lack of empathy. The descriptions of the bloody effects of the speech mitigate any unwarranted sympathy this might evoke: racist attacks, Nazi meetings and marches, fear stalking minorities. Frank witnesses this climate first hand as he seeks to clear his friend's name, a task which is harder in the hateful atmosphere created by the speech, as the beatings he receive prove.
This is a real page turner, a sort of political crime thriller that would keep anyone amused over long winter evenings. While we might be startled by Frank's initial naivete about society and racism, the way the events change him is realistic, reinforcing what socialists say about consciousness changing through experience. He comes to understand the world better and realises the positive benefits of solidarity, diversity and multiculturalism: the way the prose adapts elements of vivacious Jamaican Patois when writing about Nelson is one of my highlights of the book. The plot takes place against a 60's setting of subversive music, radical fashions and a profound change in moral values', the progressive influences Powell and his ilk sought to halt. The narrative's happy ending for Frank is convincing, if predictable enough however the joyous celebration of cultural diversity is one that is always worth repeating. I did feel that the postscript, being congratulatory details of the maiden speech by one of Powell's successors in his Wolverhampton South West seat, Sikh Tory MP Paul Uppal, suggest that the author hasn't himself applied what Frank has learnt; when situations are difficult and people struggle in life, reactionary ideas like yours seem an easy fix. In an age in which the likes of Trump, Farrage and Theresa May seek once again to make racism acceptable, it is clear that the battle against prejudice is, in fact, far from won.
However the rest of the novel works as a wonderfully entertaining warning about the dangers of allowing racism to re-enter the mainstream of political life through the actions of ambitious high profile bigots, and of the necessity of ordinary people resisting.
This piece originally appeared in Socialist Review