Guest Post by Andrew Smith
I’m delighted to welcome Andrew Smith back to my blog for this event. Last year his book, ‘The Speech’ was published and it has been doing well. Andrew has written a guest post.
WRITING POLITICAL HISTORICAL FICTION IN THE AGE OF ‘POST-TRUTH’
You’d think that when M.P. Harold Wilson, who was destined to become Prime Minister, patted me on my six-year-old head, he may have endowed me with an instant interest in politics. But the truth is I was a disappointment to my parents, staunch Labour supporters at the time, who’d placed me in front of Wilson at a Labour Party event. As I grew older it was painfully obvious to everybody that I had no interest whatsoever in political debate. Later, as I watched my fellow art students campaign and demonstrate, I couldn’t understand the point of making such a fuss. I was a spoilt recipient of the considerable benefits of a post-war welfare state. What reason was there for me to protest? It wasn’t until the draconian days of Margaret Thatcher, when the country became more polarised than ever, that my interest was aroused. And then it was less about policies and more about individuals. Thatcher in particular fascinated me. I wondered about a person who could inflict obvious harm on so many — miners and their families in particular, but others too — with absolutely no apparent regret, or any attempt to compensate. As politicians came and went, it was their personalities that interested me, more than any particular policy or platform.
In 2012 I found myself looking around for a subject for a second novel. My first had had an actual event at its centre — the internment of Italian men living in Britain during World War II. I’d enjoyed writing imaginary characters whose lives were immeasurably altered by that dark episode in Britain’s history. I was hoping for a similar phenomena around which to build a story worthy of a full-length novel. Then, one day, listening to a particularly bigoted and racist speech by a UKIP member — perhaps Nigel Farage — the name Enoch Powell popped into my head. I remembered the brouhaha Powell had caused when he gave his so-called Rivers of Blood speech back in 1968, when I was a student. I felt the excitement every writer wishes for when a light bulb turns on in one’s head. The late 1960s was certainly a defining time, and one with which I was familiar. And if I’ve had any small-p political zeal at all, it’s been in defence of the victimization of the less fortunate, hence my interest in the cruel internment of innocent British Italians in my first novel — the objects of UKIP’s and Powell’s racist rhetoric also had my heartfelt sympathy. The elements were all present for a project tailor-made for me.
I spent the following months researching everything I could find that concerned Enoch Powell. I poured over two comprehensive biographies, numerous newspaper and magazine articles, TV and radio interviews, documentaries, several books and academic papers on the Rivers of Blood speech, Powell’s own papers stored in Churchill College, Cambridge, and various other ephemera about him and his family. And, perhaps most valuable of all, I talked to the few surviving people who’d actually known Powell.
I remember distinctly a moment during my research when the thought occurred to me that, whatever I eventually wrote, I had a duty to do Enoch Powell justice — flawed and prejudiced as he obviously was. My resolve to portray him in an unbiased and accurate manner may have come when I began to have intimations of the complexity of his character. When, for example, I learnt that he’d voted to decriminalise homosexuality. Or when he voted to abolish capital punishment. Or maybe it was simply when I learnt from various sources, his own writing included, what a solitary and pressured childhood he’d had. The sense of journalistic fairness I experienced may well derive from my time working for a newsmagazine for which I was art director. I well remember the endless debates at editorial meetings about what could and couldn’t be reported. There were huge efforts to ensure that whatever was published was true, fair, and as unbiased as possible. The exact opposite, it seems, to the policies of some publications today, in the age of so-called ‘post-truth.’ But most of all, I realised that it was vital to make Enoch Powell — as one ought to do for any character in a novel — as fully-formed, rounded, and complete as possible.
I believe this to be true of all aspects in any historical fiction, particularly political historical fiction. And what historical fiction is not, in some shape or form, political? Successful historical fiction takes a vast amount of research coupled with a burning desire to accurately portray whatever era and individuals appear. I certainly strived to do this in The Speech — for the 1960s, for the imaginary characters who represent the population of the time, and for Enoch Powell.
‘The Speech’ is available from:-
Urbane Publications – http://urbanepublications.com/books/the-speech/
Twitter – @andrewaxiom