The Speech, by Andrew Smith - review
As ambitious and charismatic orators dictate today's political agenda bringing historic change both here and in America, this novel could not be more timely.
And if we analyse such dominant political characters today as Nigel Farage and Donald Trump – and their policies which seemingly won over the populous – this book could have been written against a background involving any one of them only yesterday.
It is in fact set in the late 60s, almost 50 years ago, and based on the actions of another ambitious, tactical politician who, it is argued, hoped to exploit the fears of an increasing multi-cultural society to fuel his own career path. It follows, of course, the downfall of Wolverhampton South West MP Enoch Powell following the infamous 'Rivers of Blood' speech.
Andrew Smith's novel is fiction – but clearly well researched both historically, politically and geographically.
Anyone from Wolverhampton, the Black Country and Birmingham will be very familiar with the very detailed descriptions he gives of the area from the controversial move of the town's indoor market, to Chapel Ash, to visiting the Giffard Arms and entering the historic offices of the Express & Star. Even a day trip to Shropshire is detailed.
Many who remember the time or have some knowledge of the scandal, will appreciate how the book recognises the key events, chronology and the political protagonists.
While there must be some literary licence regarding the characters, Powell's rather aloof, slightly detached, peculiar yet stoic character does seem to reflect opinions of him.
Smith does try to inject a more human side to gain some empathy for Powell emphasising his family life, his background and a love of arts, scenery, tradition and his country.
The book follows the careful planning and execution of the deliberately crafted speech by Powell – before revealing the 'rocket' it set off with the devastating effect that had on the MP, his career and his relationships. Including that with close friend and former Express & Star editor Clem Jones.
Mr Jones' son Nicholas provided Smith with his recollections and thoughts of the two men at that time which contributed to the story.
Intertwined with the telling of that historic moment, is the tale of Jamaican immigrant Nelson who is wrongly accused of a racist attack and finds himself accidentally placed in the frame by art student friend Frank. Filled with remorse, Frank and girlfriend Christine try to prove Nelson's innocence and unearth a sickening nest of manipulation, racism and violence.
The whodunit plot is compelling.
Admirably, Smith introduces many strong women characters into the book from Powell's assistant Georgy, to Frank's progressive and feisty girlfriend Christine to Nelson's fearsome Aunt Irene.
From the first page, this novel is difficult to put down and is a must read for people of Wolverhampton, the Black Country, those who witnessed this historic episode in the changing and challenging times of the 1960s or anyone who just loves a really good tale.
There is a last chance to catch What Shadows, the Chris Hannan play focusing on the speech and the friendship between Powell and Jones, at the Birmingham Rep before it finishes tomorrow.
By Diane Davies
Was there a real Shelby family? Birmingham author Carl Chinn reveals the truth behind Peaky Blinders