The city of Birmingham in the UK was in the international spotlight as it staged the latest edition of the World Indoor Athletics Championships in March – with many African successes. This is a far cry from 50 years ago when UK politician Enoch Powell made his infamous ‘rivers of blood’ speech against ‘coloured immigration’. But has the city really changed? By Clayton Goodwin
Last month I decided to play truant. Not very far from London – just over 100 miles away in Birmingham. The attraction was – or was meant to be – the opportunity to observe at first-hand the presentation of the World Indoor Athletics Championships in their up-to-date multicultural splendour and the landmark of a less savoury incident in our not-so-contemporary history.
It was in this West Midlands city 50 years ago this month that Enoch Powell, MP for neighbouring Wolverhampton, delivered his infamous so-called ‘rivers of blood’ speech. That was at the Midland Hotel on 20 April 1968 – appropriately for an occasion of such racial portent, that date was Adolf Hitler’s birthday.
Appropriately, too, for the stormy future the politician foresaw, the weather was the most severe that I have experienced in reporting, at any event or location.
Reporting on the World Indoor Athletics Championships at Sopot in Poland four years ago, on exactly the same weekend in the calendar, I was able to walk in the clear air on the sunlit sand of the Baltic Sea: in Birmingham however, it was as much as anybody could do to steer a steady course in the biting cold and blinding snow-storm, especially when crossing slippery bridges over the iced-up canals to the arena.
Attendance at the competition was restricted by the weather conditions. Among the spectators and the press there were few Africans from either the mother-continent or the diaspora. That didn’t apply to the athletes themselves.
Taking advantage of the absence of several leading Americans and Jamaicans, whose training at altitude was considered inappropriate for these circumstances, and some Britons, who preferred to train in the sunny uplands of the Gold Coast of Queensland for the forthcoming Commonwealth Games, Africans took many of the on-track honours.
Ethiopia’s Genzebe Dibaba was in her element – as usual. It was in Birmingham that she wanted to achieve a hat-trick of victories, as she has won the 3,000 metres event consecutively at two previous World Indoor Athletics Championships.
The expected showdown with Kenya’s Hellen Obiri, who had had a very good year, did not materialise: the Kenyan seemed to be caught tactically between taking the lead or lying back for a later surge. However, Dibaba did have a fight on her hands against local hero Laura Muir, whose long taxi-cab ride from Scotland through the snow to reach the stadium on time was the stuff of legend, and the Ethiopian, but running-for-Holland Sifan Hassan, an athlete with a reputation for coming from the back of the field to snatch medals on the line.
Genzebe may have been under pressure but she had the race, and her third victory, under control. She won with something to spare, and did so again two days later in the 1,500 metres, in which the same two rivals disputed the honours.
It is a pity that the massed Ethiopian supporters who had cheered on the great Haile Gebrselassie at the same championships in the same arena 15 years previously were no longer so evident. The legend’s legacy lingers on as his compatriots Yomif Kejelcha, with Selemon Barega his runner-up, and the young Samuel Tefera took gold medals in the men’s 3,000 metres and 1,500 metres respectively.
Murielle Ahouré of Côte d’Ivoire has been considered to be the glamour girl of short-distance running due to the attention she gives to her lipstick, eyelashes and make-up at the standing block, and to her coquettish charm in front of the camera.
She has been among the top sprinters for some time. Marie-Josée Ta Lou, also of Côte d’Ivoire, has not been far behind her in either physical appeal or success on the track. And that is how they finished in the 60 metres, with Ahouré the winner and Ta Lou just a pace or two behind in second. Such had been the form of the Ivorians in the preliminary rounds that a 1-2 double was predicted, even though such star performers as Elaine Thompson and Dafne Schippers were among their rivals. It was the first gold medal for Côte d’Ivoire ever in the history of the championships.
Mujina Kambundji, a Swiss sprinter of Congolese heritage, showed in coming third the progress which African athletes have made within the framework of European national competition. That has been the result of successful immigration … which leads me, however reluctantly, back to Enoch Powell.
His speech in 1968 decrying ‘coloured’ immigration into the UK, from which he predicted there would be violence to match the river foaming with much blood as portrayed by ‘the Roman’ (the poet Virgil), had great impact. Powell, who had the tall, imposing physical presence of the Guards officer he had once been, was then a former Cabinet Minister and a candidate for leadership of the Conservative Party.
He was riding the wave of racist indignation as a way back to another challenge for the top spot. Instead this speech destroyed his prospects, but not before it had done incalculable damage to community relations. It was made at a time of high tension on this very subject.
Just a fortnight beforehand, US civil rights leader Martin Luther King had been gunned down – emotions were still fervent – and a few weeks later, liberal politician Bobby Kennedy was similarly slain. Enoch was applying a firebrand to a keg of dynamite.
Right-wing commentators rallied to his cause, some polls gave him as much as 74% support in the country, and the dockers, the backbone of the Labour movement, his traditional party opponents, marched threateningly through the streets of London in furtherance of his views. Even now, people who you would not expect to voice such opinions are heard to remark – “Whatever you say about Enoch, you have to admit he was right”. Do you? That is what I intended to find out in Birmingham.
The first observations were reassuring or deceptive. It was difficult to determine which. Black and white people on the street and in the shops made common cause against the weather. If there was tension, I did not see it.
Birmingham has recovered from its reputation for reported violence of a few years ago. The city centre is undergoing a massive make-over in reconstruction. New Street railway station has been modernised. It has the appearance of a combined airport and shopping mall.
In New Street itself, which runs along its side, there is the modern Macdonald Burlington Hotel. That is nothing strange until you realise that this was once the Midland Hotel. There is no record now of its former identity and, from what I could gather, no memory. Nobody to whom I spoke could remember its connection with the infamous speech, or even the speech itself.
I am not naïve enough to believe that everything is sweetness, harmony and light, and just under two years ago Birmingham was the only major city in the country to vote for Brexit, with its anti-immigrant tone – though East Europeans rather than Africans are the present preferred recipients of that odium.
Nevertheless, neither the river here nor anywhere else across the land is foaming with much blood. Enoch was clearly wrong. I am reminded of another political saying, that “all political lives end in failure”. That was said by none other than Enoch Powell himself. At least he was right about that, as it applies to himself.
Now I could return to London in better heart. There are problems ahead and around us, but those of the past were much worse. I am old enough to remember the ‘rivers of blood’ speech and the impact it had, when the very fabric of our society seemed to be in danger. We have been through much danger, and have survived – that is something that ought to be remembered – with thanks and watchfulness. NA