The Powell Effect

By David Flin

Writing is all about developing interesting characters, and doing interesting things with them. When you’re writing Alternate History, you’ve generally got a whole bunch of interesting characters all ready and waiting for you. These are the real people that walk the paths of the history books; Abraham Lincoln and his fund of ‘homesy’ wisdom; the workaholic Margaret Thatcher; Victor Hugo’s antipathy to the death penalty; or Steve Waugh’s gritty determination.

The characters are ready-made for use. What could be easier?

This is where the Powell Effect can kick in. This is named after Enoch Powell, a famous – some might say notorious – British politician of the 1950s through to the 1980s. He is a widely-used figure in Alternate Histories set in this period, although his use is variable in application. All too often, he is presented as a caricature, a moustache-twirling villain with no redeeming features.

What is especially annoying is that the Enoch Powell of OTL is a complicated and interesting character, full of contradictions. He also had a vivid turn of phrase.

Everyone knows of his “Rivers of Blood” speech, in which he spoke out against immigration.

“We must be mad, literally mad, as a nation to be permitting the annual inflow of some 50,000 dependents, who are for the most part the material of the future growth of the immigrant descended population. It is like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre. So insane are we that we actually permit unmarried persons to immigrate for the purpose of founding a family with spouses and fiancées whom they have never seen … As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see “the River Tiber foaming with much blood.’”

Quite straight-forward, on the face of it. A well-spoken racist with strong anti-immigrant views.

Well, it’s not that simple. This was the same man who gave a speech on the Hola Camp of Kenya, where eleven Mau Mau were killed after refusing work in the camp. Powell noted that some MPs had described the eleven as “sub-human”, and he responded: “I would say that it is a fearful doctrine, which must recoil upon the heads of those who pronounce it, to stand in judgement on a fellow human being and to say: ‘Because he was such-and-such, therefore the consequences which would otherwise flow from his death shall not flow.”

Not so straight-forward now.

Socially, he was surprisingly liberal, supporting homosexual rights when it was unpopular in the Conservative Party to do so, and yet he joined the Ulster Unionists, which was strongly opposed to this.

As a Conservative on the right of the party, one would expect him to be largely pro-USA and anti-USSR. Quite the reverse. He saw the USA as Britain’s enemy, and the USSR as not a threat to Britain.

And yet, when he appears in timelines, he’s so often portrayed as a wild-eyed lunatic. To be fair, he was something of a wild-eyed lunatic, but not usually in the way he is portrayed.

For example, I’ve seen him portrayed as quite willing to set up death squads. In OTL, he was strongly opposed to the death penalty, so it’s hard to see him countenancing death squads without a great deal of exposition to show why he switches so thoroughly.

Enoch Powell is just one of the more obvious examples of abusing historical figures for the sake of the plot of the Time Line.

The point of this is that if you’re going to use historical figures, it is important to try and get them historically plausible. Having the Allies in WWII close the Atlantic Gap through the use of airships, with no justification or explanation, then the readership will sigh, and collectively say: “Hey, wait a minute here.”

We expect differences in technology or politics to have a basis in something presented in the Time Line. For the primary figures of history, such as Winston Churchill, we would expect any changes in their known attitudes to be explained. For example, the reader would have a “Wait a minute” moment if the author has Churchill contemplating coming to terms with Hitler because of a fear that Operation Sealion might be launched.

But when it comes to the second-string historical characters, the historical research seems to be lacking, and characters act out of character. It can be done well. Agent Lavender has a plethora of secondary characters from history, all of which ring true.

It is, however, very tempting to leap to the most obvious element of an historical figure, and use them in a very two-dimensional fashion. This is as bad as using a stereotyped fictional character, and there’s less excuse. It’s also one of the elements that is the most likely to derail the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief. Readers of Alternate History are generally knowledgeable about history, for obvious reasons, and they’ll spot if someone is acting out of character.

It’s simply a matter of doing the research. I never cease to be surprised at how much research some authors do into highly technical details, such as the performance differences between a T35 and a T35-85 (which were significant, and not merely in the size of the gun), or about the precise number of votes cast for specific candidates in obscure by-elections, but who’ll cheerfully write about David Lloyd George drinking like a fish after a parliamentary debate.

Arnold Toynbee once said that history is just one damned thing after another. Well, there’s more to it than that. These things are done by people. Understand the people, and you understand why they do things, and you understand how history is built up. When you understand how the history is built up, you understand how it might be built up differently. Then all you need is a good story, and the ability to write in an engaging and absorbing manner.

What could be easier?

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David Flin is the author of the SLP books How to Write Alternate History, Six East End Boys, Tales from Section D, The Return of King Arthur and Other Alternate Myths, and Bring Me My Bow