As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood
Fifty years ago, conservative British MP Enoch Powell got himself sacked as a shadow minister after he controversially warned that Britain would face “rivers of blood” if it did not reduce immigration. The BBC has now kicked off a shit-storm by announcing that Scottish actor and erstwhile Stars Wars emperor Ian McDiarmid will recite Enoch’s incendiary speech in full for the very first time.
What Powell said back then, at closed gathering of Conservative Party faithful in Birmingham on 20th April 1968, was regarded as unacceptably over the top, rhetorical hyperbole. But we get stuff like this all the time these days. Every Tom, Dick and Himmler on the right of politics from Brixton to Brisbane, from Galveston to Gdańsk, from Hopkins to Hanson, come up with this and worse every day – to the delight of dog-whistling shock-jocks, populist politicians, and angry white men and women who hanker after the “good old days’ and want somebody or other to go back to where they’re came from – which quite often happens to be just around the corner: comedian Lenny Henry, raised in the Midlands’ Black Country (just west of Birmingham) which many wanted to make white, would satirize such white delusions: In a gig at West Bromwich , he said the National Front wanted to give black people £1,000 to go home. Fine, Henry said: after all, that would more than cover his bus fare back to Dudley.
After what was regarded at the time as Britain’s most racist election in 1964, Liverpudlian bard Brian Patten penned the wistful, unseasonable I’m Dreaming of a White Smethwick (just down the road from Brum and Dudley) in response to the the mood of certain sections in the population about immigration, a mood which entered the national dialogue in odorous array once Enoch let slip the hounds of woe, and which, as the Brexit referendum and its fallout continue to demonstrate, has never dissipated.
Immigration debates are running hot in western democracies, including down here in Australia, and on the neo-authoritarian eastern edges of the European Union, as fringe and mainstream parties defend and propound their invariably conflicting and flawed understanding of western civilization against disparate and often doomsday scenarios of mass migration, islamification, and ‘white replacement”.
This is not, however, the time or place to engage with these issues. The fiftieth anniversary of Enoch’s seminal “Rivers of Blood” speech has been greeted with many articles and reminiscences. This one in the New York Review of Books, Enoch, Bageye and Me, I found particularly informative and also entertaining. A piece in the Guardian on that infamous Smethwick by-election is also worth reading. I reproduce Brian Patten’s poem below.
But right now, I want to leave the commemoration and commentary to the pundits and recall my own encounters with the phenomenon of Enoch Powell. I never actually met the man – the nearest I ever got to him was about twenty metres – let’s just say that on several occasions, our paths intersected
Back in the day, the words that Enoch had made flesh were not to be said in polite company. And yet, they could not be unsaid, and in pubs, parlours and playgrounds across Britain, he strummed a power chord long before these were invented.
In the summer of 1968, I had completed my final school year in, yes, Birmingham, of all places, at what was then emphatically white-bread, boys-only Moseley Grammar School.
Those hypothetical rivers of blood had a particular resonance in the industrial West Midlands with its motor industries and variegated populace a long-time home of immigrants and their descendants from all quarters of the coloured commonwealth. As I have written earlier, the bleak and bland streets and suburbs of our English and Irish Birmingham were already rocking with new sounds and flavours, from the ska and reggae beats of Sparkhill to the spicy aromas of Balsall Heath and Alum Rock. There was prejudice, there was discrimination, there was at times violence, but as Britain emerged from the austerity of the war years, as the bombed cities were rebuilt, and a resuscitated economy created a consumer society, labour shortages persuaded politicians to facilitate mass immigration from the empire – and particularly, from the West Indies and the Indian subcontinent (See: Weighing the White Man’s Burden)
And Birmingham, the Motown of the north, was at the heart of the calabash. But scratch its skin, and you find … Ron Simcox.
I spent the summer of ‘68 working as a labourer on a building site in Chelmsely Wood on the outskirts of Brum. Back then, my back was strong, my eye was keen, and my ears were sharp – and my memory for conversations, well, it must’ve been good, because a few years later, I was able to recall almost verbatim the world according to Simcox, a dark angel washed in White Tide. Warning! Bad language follows.
Ganger-man, foreman, industrial spy, jack of all trades, agent provocateur, martinet, scourge of the to bureaucrats, friend of the workers, champion of the oppressed, bless his soul and damn his eyes in the same breath. The man’s an institution – like prostitution. Big mouth, big belly, very big. Look, look at my tan, my body beautiful, “all muscle 18 stone and still as fit as a 18 year old!”
“Go to the other shop – not to the black man’s. You don’t know what filth he has in that place. Mind you, his bird could do with a good seeing to …”
“Bleedin’ wogs – we never should’ve let ‘em in now. Old Enoch Powell’s dead bloody right, int’e. We should kick ‘em all back to fucking India. If I had my way, I’d shoot the bleeding lot of them filthy cunts, coming over here and spreading their diseases, an’ fillin’ up all our hospitals, and taking the money and sending it all back home, and getting the fuck out of here when they get it …”
“We should offer to pay to pay ‘em a thousand quid each to go home, then put them in a boat and send them all to Jamaica or wherever the black monkeys come from. And when they’re in the middle of the ocean, torpedo the lot of them buggers. Anybody who gets to Jamaica after that would deserve the thousand bloody quid, I tell you!”
Ron couldn’t brook the shirkers, could Ron. But that was easy as he was always heard before he was seen even, and even if you had pleasure of gazing upon this Adam, he would rarely see you as he was for ever distracted by the body he was always admiring in car windows or or by the local talent of the estate across the way.
“How would you like those thighs around you, eh? Corr! I could take that one from behind!”
Ah, Ron, a way with words. “What are you doin’ Enoch? Come ‘ere bollock-chops. Fucking stoodents – good for nothing bastards. If I had my way, y’know what I’d do to these stoodents if they caused trouble? You know what I’d do. I’d turn the fuckin’ sewer hoses on ‘em, I would, cover ‘em in shit. Then they’d have to wash to get rid of the smell. Turn the hoses on ‘em. Cover ‘em in all the shit and rubbish, and all the jonnies and the jammies and the slime. That’d really shake ‘em up and give ‘em some sense it would!”
Always a one for words was Ron. All this and the big blue tractor too. Nine hours a day, six days a week and thirty quid at the end of it …
Street Fighting Man
Among the Left, of course, Enoch was the fifth horseman of the black apocalypse. Even his name, with its Old Testament pedigree, was vicariously baleful. I recall his patrician mug on the cover of many a Private Eye, and artist Gerald Scarfe’s visceral caricature of the metaphorical hornèd one recoiling from a jar of Robertson’s Marmalade (golliwog and all – and, did you know that you can still buy golliwogs in Australia?)
Soon after Enoch’s incendiary oratory, prime and minister Harold Wilson chose a wet and windy Sunday afternoon in Spring to attend a Labour party function at Birmingham’s Victorian town hall. It was just over a month since the memorable mêlée in front of the American embassy in Grosvenor Square, and many of us, students, unionists, anarchists, and a raj taj and bobtail of South Asian organisations, anticipated a confrontation with Birmingham’s finest. We were, predictably, outmaneuvered and outnumbered, and in an early incarnation of what today we call “kettling”, the “wabble of woudy webels” were hemmed in, facing uphill on Bennett’s Hill, a wind-swept side street of Birmingham’s finance district. We learnt there, as we did during those Vietnam demonstrations in Grosvenor Square, that there’s no greater killer of revolutionary passion than the sight of a wall of fat horse’s arses backing towards you with those nervous hooves a’twitching (see: The Twilight of the Equine Gods).
Children of the Revolution
But I digress. Enoch! He was like catnip to the young and not so young of what was then the idealistic, radical, and what with Vietnam and Paris providing the fuel, fired-up left. What was it Old William Wordsworth said? “Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive. But to be young was very heaven”. As Marc would later warble, “you can’t stop the children of the revolution, oh, no…”
Later that year, I had gone up to Reading University, and as one would in those dynamic days – though not so many working class lads like myself – and, as a political ingenue, I was soon involved in sundry sit-ins and soviets. It was what young students did. Enoch Powell, exiled to the back bench, was at lose end. He had yet to be born-again as an Ulster Unionist MP, this most Churchillian – in a turncoat sense – of politicians. And like many career-truncated pollies nowadays, he had embarked on what was then a not so lucrative speakers circuit – and he was addressing the Conservative Club on the subject of … economics!
Naturally, we arrived well in advance, revved up and ready for revolution, and totally packed the lecture hall. The Young Tories were left out in the cold in their tweeds and twinsets (really, that’s what straight folk wore in those days, particularly Reading University which boasted a reputable college of agriculture that attracted the sons and a few daughters of the rural shires). When Enoch entered, there was sheer pandemonium. Cat-calls, wolf-whistles, swearwords, and those corny couplets that folk chant at marches (“Yes, we are all individuals!”). You couldn’t hear a bomb drop. The Antichrist just stood there at the lectern, cool, calm and collected as the vitriol poured over and around him. In retrospect, knowing as I do now that he’d “had a good war” as a decorated, veteran combat officer in World War 2, he was ice-cool under fire. Stock-still, silent, that famous, disdainful mug of his calm and expressionless. As the hubbub subsided, people got bored, tired, and impatient, muttered and mumbled, and shut up. And he gave his prepared speech. On economics. No old Roman aphorisms. No allusions or innuendo. Plain and simple, dry, economics. And gave it well. Cogent, it was, the odd joke, even, and informative. He had our interest, had our attention, and we listened. And when he’d finished, he was given a standing ovation. In recognition of his courage, I would like to think. Like Daniel in the lion’s den and the three amigos in the fiery furnace cool as a cucumber.
I’m Dreaming of a White Smethwick
(An old, never-to-be-forgotten song by Brian Patten)
I’m Dreaming of a White Smethwick,
One I didn’t want to know,
Where they’ll have allwhite, allright children
And the White and White Minstrel Show.
I’m Dreaming of a White Smethwick
Where they’ll have a brandnew dance;
Teach their kids to close their eyes
And forget that once
Strange men came to Smethwick
With slogans whitewashed on their minds,
They campaigned about a while
And left their shit behind.
I saw black father christmasses
Burning in the snow,
Protesting to the Opposition
About what happened a while ago.
The last blackbird’s been shot in Smethwick
And the council’s doing allright,
The M.P.’s in the Commons
Making sure his words are white.
Chorus: May all your days be merry and bright
And may all your citizens be white.
Poet’s Note: As in numerous folk songs, the words may be improvised on to suit the present.
And here are other posts in In That Howling Infinite with regard to the ‘sixties: Springtime in Paris – remembering May 1968; Recalling the Mersey Poets; The Strange Death of Sam Cooke; Looking for Lehrer; Shock of the Old – the glory days of prog rock; Window on a Gone World; Back in the day; The Incorrigible Optimists Club.