Fifty years ago next month Enoch Powell, shadow Conservative defence minister, delivered an unprecedented speech by a mainstream politician at Birmingham’s Burlington Hotel. His speech stoked ancient hatreds and fanned the flames of racism across the country. In dire tones he warned of the dangers of Britain being overrun by immigrants ‘like a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre’; and sonorously declared ‘As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood.’
The stories in my forthcoming book ‘Our City: Migrants and the Making of Modern Birmingham’ and the wider evolution of the city refute the doomsday diatribes of Powell and the continuing dire warnings of his acolytes on the far Right.
Reading these stories and looking round the West Midlands today, it is clear that Powell’s speech comes from another age. His old Wolverhampton seat is now held by a black female MP: there were none in Powell’s day. In May, Prince Harry is going to marry a mixed race American, obviously in Powell’s eyes a danger to the royal bloodline. Meanwhile in Wolverhampton the football club looks for promotion to the Premiership with a squad composed of six Portuguese players, six Africans, several other Europeans and a handful of English players two of whom are black and one is of Sikh Punjabi origin. The world has moved on.
The book will help more people understand the path we have travelled and how our inter-cultural cities need to develop further. 250 pledges of financial support for the book have now been made and well over £9,500 raised. Can you help a bit more? Many have put information about the book on social media. Do keep it going. But nothing beats word of mouth or a direct personal mail. So please contact those of your friends and networks that are most likely to be interested in the book using this link. https://unbound.com/books/our-city/
This is more likely to result in new funding pledges – and at the end of the day, that is what is needed. If you can do that, it would help the campaign.
PS I attract a short extract from Chapter 7 of the book on challenging racism in memory of Cyrille Regis, the West Bromwich centre forward who died earlier this year and who was an early trailblazer against racism in football.
Football Extract. Chapter 7. Countering racism.
The big significant breaks in both football and popular culture began in the late 1970s. There had been occasional Jewish footballers over the years; Irish footballers –from both North and South – were fairly common; but until the mid-1970s there had been hardly any major black footballers aside from the South African Albert Johannsen who played for Leeds in the 1960s. West Ham began the trend with the selection of Clyde Best but it was West Bromwich Albion located on the borders of North West Birmingham, who established the phenomenon with the purchase and selection of three players –centre forward Cyrille Regis; winger Laurie Cunningham; and full back Brendon Batson – who between them electrified top flight football in the late 1970s. All were Londoners, signed from lower Division clubs, Cunningham and Regis in 1977, followed by Batson the next season. The flamboyant Ron Atkinson had taken over from former manager Ronnie Allen mid-season and he quickly recruited Batson, who had been his club captain at Cambridge United. It was the first time a top flight club had fielded three black players and their success squashed the classic stereotypes that black players had ‘no bottle.’ Atkinson branded the trio his ‘Three Degrees’ after the black American pop band and their collective presence acted as the trailblazer for other clubs to follow.
I had seen the future ten years earlier. It was the classic wet winter’s night in Walthamstow. I had gone to see Walthamstow Boys play in the national Under 15s competition, then the pinnacle of schools’ football where all the top League scouts picked up the emerging talent. Two of our school were in the team – Harry a solid centre half and Dave a centre forward with two good feet were already training with Queens Park Rangers - and I went along to watch them. But it was Brendan Batson from the nearby McEntee Tech who stood out. Tall and elegant, he ran upright in the manner Michael Johnson was later to make famous, able to control the ball in an instant. With an acceleration to take him clear of opponents, he stood head and shoulders above everyone else on the pitch. He ran the game from mid-field. Through the winter and spring he ensured that the small London borough got to the final and shared the spoils with the mighty Manchester. I was even more impressed when I learnt that Batson was on Arsenal’s books, even if surprised to find that they saw him as a centre-half. I watched his progress through the youth team and reserves and then a handful of performances in the first team. But he was too far ahead of his time. It was to be another two decades before David Rocastle and Michael Thomas as black players could make it through the Arsenal youth ranks into the 1989 League winning team. Batson fell by the wayside: the rumours were he was ‘a bad influence’, code for smoking marijuana. After just ten League appearances often as a substitute he got transferred for a miserly fee to Cambridge United from whence Atkinson rescued his career.
All the black players, no matter how talented, received hateful and vicious abuse from opposing fans in those years. It remained a staple diet of football matches through most of the 1980s. It was to be another decade before the black breakthrough was confirmed and terrace racism began to abate. Aston Villa were to win the League in 1981 and then the European Cup in 1982 with a squad of fourteen, all white, mainly local players. Yet when they won the League Cup just a decade later – with Atkinson as their manager – it was to be with a black back four and a goal-scoring black striker, Dalian Atkinson, who tragically died as a victim of a police taser incident as this book was being written. Today a quarter of professional footballers are black and the local Sunday leagues and junior teams reflect the multi-racial reality of the city. Yet challenges remain. While today black footballers have found their place on the pitch, they are yet to be seen in the manager’s hot seat, let alone in the boardroom. Their absence serves as a reminder that there’s always another hilltop over the next ridge.
 See Anthony Clavane. Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here? The Story of English Football’s Forgotten Tribe. Quercus. 2012.
Join 302 other awesome people who subscribe to new posts on this blog.