Christopher Sansom has recently published his latest novel, Dominion, which envisions a post-war Britain run by a Government of actual named politicians transformed into Nazi placemen. I must begin by saying I haven’t read the novel. But the several reviews I’ve read touched a nerve, partly because I sometimes populate my own fiction with real people who once lived, and partly because Enoch Powell features in Mr Sansom’s collaborationist Cabinet.
I’ll deal with Enoch Powell first. His very name lights the touchpaper of left-wingers. His 1968 speech, slightly inaccurately known as the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, has been described as an explosion of bigotry. Which I contest. Enoch Powell actually turned out to be rather prescient. If he got anything wrong it was declaiming Virgil on a Saturday afternoon in Birmingham city centre. In that respect he misjudged his audience. But I see something mischievous in Sansom portraying Enoch Powell as a man who’d have been willing to work with Nazis. Even in a novel. And especially as Sean Russell, the IRA chief of staff who was an undoubted collaborator, is apparently cast in a favourable light.
On the more general theme of fictionalising the dead, I must say this. While I can see the attraction, for a fiction writer, of playing ‘what if’ I personally would never populate a counter-factual novel with real figures. My own preference is to tell things as they happened (as far as we can possibly know) but perhaps not from the usual viewpoint. Below stairs can be a useful place for a novelist to stand. It’s perhaps not the greatest sin in the world to change the facts but it doesn’t seem fair to the dead who have no right of reply. But then, as Mr Powell’s widow generously remarked, Dominion is only a novel.