Book Review: The Speech

The Speech, by Andrew Smith, is set over a ten day period in April 1968 during which Enoch Powell, as local MP, gave his infamous Rivers of Blood speech. It is written from a variety of points of view thereby enabling the reader to gain a better understand of each of the protagonists. The era is evoked with a perceptive wit, whilst the story told – the machinations surrounding a Jamaican immigrant’s wrongful arrest for GBH – reminds how little certain people have progressed.

“He moved on to the effects on the “native population” of the granting of rights to so many immigrants – people were confronted by crowded maternity wards and their children forced to study in overflowing classrooms. Their neighbourhoods were being transformed against their will. He applied words to the British public such as “defeated” and attributed to them the feeling that they were “unwanted”. Powerful words […] painted a scene of utter degredation of ordinary native citizens as a result of immigration”

The tale opens with some background to Powell’s ancestry and upbringing, wryly salient given the opinions he developed. By 1968 he had been Wolverhampton South West’s MP for eighteen years and was serving in a shadow cabinet led by Ted Heath, who he wished to usurp. Powell’s constituency home is in a neighbourhood becoming popular with an increasing immigrant population and he is concerned about the effect this will have on property value.

Powell is supported in his local Tory party office by the intelligent and loyal Mrs Georgina Verington-Delaunay, known as Georgy. Whilst she acknowledges the strengths of Powell’s work ethic and values, she is increasingly disquieted by his beligerance. His regard for the days of Empire and conviction that England should not change frustrate her efforts to demonstrate the benefits of enabling recent arrivals to integrate.

Meanwhile, Wolverhampton art student, Frank McCann, is in his favourite bar examining a set of photographic prints taken at the previous day’s student demonstration in support of racial equality. The bartender points out that every face in his photos is white, suggesting that the images would be more powerful if a darker skinned person were portrayed. Frank accepts a wager from a couple of fellow students, disparaging his talents, that he will successfully doctor a print to replace one of the marchers with the image of a Jamaican friend, Nelson Clark, in a manner that makes the change undetectable. This challenge sets in motion a series of events that result in Nelson’s incarceration. Frank, with the help of his strong minded girlfriend, Christine, must then try to find a way to persuade the police, who are all too eager to prove Nelson guilty, that the photo they are using as evidence is a fake.

Racism, intolerance and hatred are never going to be comfortable subjects to read about but the warmth and humour of the narrative, and the breadth of characters populating each page, make this an engaging tale. Even Powell comes across with a degree of poignancy, notwithstanding his damaging rhetoric. It is sad that, despite improvements in many other areas, his ilk are still being listened to today.

The author uses dialogue to expand on arguments which, although succinct and well constructed, did not always segue with plot progression. The denouement relied on a stroke of luck, admittedly a familiar device. These were minor niggles in a work that offers an entertaining story as well as an evocative history of a period this country should by now have learned from. This is an intelligent and recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Urbane.

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