I’m a 60’s baby, so the decade has a fascination that can never quite be shaken. When I discovered one of my favourite publishers, Urbane, had published The Speech by Andrew Smith which is set in the 1960s, I had to invite Andrew onto Linda’s Book Bag to tell me more.
His words threatened rivers of blood…and they fought him with hope….
On April 20th, 1968 Enoch Powell, Member of Parliament in the English town of Wolverhampton, made a speech that shook Britain to its core. The ramifications of what some labelled a ‘racist diatribe’ changed forever the way in which race was viewed and discussed in the United Kingdom.
The Speech follows the lives of a group of characters – including Powell himself – living in Wolverhampton over a ten-day period before and after his speech.
Mrs. Georgina Verington-Delaunay is a volunteer working in the Conservative riding office of Enoch Powell. It is through her interaction with Powell, now at a critical point in his political career, that we get to know him intimately. Frank and Christine are art students inadvertently caught in an undercurrent of intolerance. Nelson and his aunt, Irene, are Jamaican immigrants striving to make a life for themselves in an atmosphere of turbulent emotions and polarised opinions concerning Britain’s immigration policies.
A violent crime brings these disparate characters together as they struggle to find their places in the swiftly changing society of 1960s Britain. Set against a background of ‘subversive’ music, radical fashions, and profound change in ‘moral values’, they attempt against all odds to bring a fair conclusion to an unjust investigation. As they work together against murky elements of self-interest and bigotry, they’re forced to confront their own consciences and prejudices.
The Speech: Writing A 1960s Novel
A Guest Post by Andrew Smith
It’s said that “if you remember the ’60s you weren’t there.” The implication being that those who were truly immersed in the decade’s counter culture, were too stoned and/or blissed out to remember the social and political revolution raging around them. “Write what you know” is another often quoted maxim for authors. I was indeed present throughout the 1960s, but too young for most of the decade to partake in any mind-altering substances or strident demonstrations. During the earlier years I hovered on the sidelines from the unwanted safety of my parents’ suburban, drug-free house. But I watched, avidly and longingly, the shenanigans happening in the world outside. It was only for the latter couple of years of the decade, when I moved into a grungy flat with student pals, that I was able to throw myself wholeheartedly into the action. Even then my euphoria came from my new-found freedom rather than from any artificial stimulant. So I do remember the era … vividly. As a consequence it was relatively easy, and hugely enjoyable, to write large sections of my socio-political novel, The Speech, set in 1968 — I already “knew” a lot of what I was writing.
The remarkable thing about the 1960s was that everything visual — clothes, furniture, cars, anything that involved design — was distinctive and quite specific to the decade. It was easy and fun for me to recall and describe my characters’ clothes. Here’s a description of art student Christine:
With one deft tug she pulled off the black cape she habitually wore. When her copious honey-coloured hair fell languidly back into place over the shoulders of a body-hugging sweater, Frank’s gut fluttered. His eyes glided over knees caught in fishnet tights. His stare slid between shapely thighs to a tantalizing shadow cast from the hem of a black leather mini-skirt.
And here Frank is eyeing an advert for kitchen appliances:
In the coloured photograph a hip young housewife lifted the lid of a red-enamelled casserole while a bevy of her friends, all dressed in the latest fashions, stood around a canary yellow Formica countertop. The women wore mini dresses, the men sported satin shirts with gargantuan collars, some with ruffles.
These descriptions of coloured kitchen utensils, plastic furniture, and outrageous clothes may seem like small fry in a full-length novel but they’re the kind of details that, peppered throughout the book, add atmosphere and— most importantly — absolutely pinpoint the era.
The political scene in the 1960s was almost as fraught as it is at present. The huge difference being that the population in general, the young in particular, were far more vociferous. Demonstrations and marches were daily events in the 1960s — especially for students. I have to admit I was too busy enjoying my newfound freedom to be particularly proactive. Some of us were more like Frank as I describe his lack of commitment to any particular cause.
The issue of the day could be racial injustice, the war in Vietnam, or the price of beans on toast in the college cafeteria — Frank couldn’t give a toss.
But I observed others who were much more typical of the times, people deeply passionate about expressing their outrage. And then, in my research, I came across a photograph of a 1960s student demo where hand-made placards were being angrily brandished. From that I created this scene — doubtless typical of colleges and universities of the period — where Frank watches a fellow student prepare placards for a demonstration against Enoch Powell in protest over his racist and extremely controversial speech given in April, 1968, and from which the title of my novel springs.
Frank was sitting on the stairs watching a young woman mop red paint off the black-and-white-tiled floor in the hallway when Christine arrived. A dozen placards were stacked up against one wall. A large black and white photo of Enoch Powell, obviously ripped from an old campaign poster, had been mounted onto one of the placards. Earlier Frank had watched as the girl with the mop had daubed a toothbrush moustache and fringe in black paint onto the photo. Then she’d drawn an armband featuring a bright red swastika. The likeness to Hitler was startling and the armband stood out like a beacon.
Atmosphere is key to adding veracity to any novel, but when the story is set in a period as unique and distinctive as the 1960s I count myself lucky that I had such a rich bank of remembered as well as researched details on which to draw.
About Andrew Smith
Andrew Smith was born in Liverpool, but was too young to gain admittance to the Cavern Club to witness the birth of the Beatles. A year or so later he couldn’t forgive his father for taking a job in the British Midlands and moving the family at the height of the Mersey Sound era to Wolverhampton, where there was no sound at all, Slade being still in short trousers. But Smith did witness the local reaction to Wolverhampton MP Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech and, apart from the occasional ‘lost weekend,’ he remembers most of the brouhaha during that time.
Smith has published numerous short stories, some of which won awards. His novel Edith’s War won a gold medal for fiction at the Independent Book Publishers’ Awards. His latest novel, The Speech, was published in October, 2016 by Urbane Publications. Examples of Smith’s short fiction and other writing can be found on his website. You can also follow Andrew Smith on Twitter.