hears memories of a flawed genius
PRODIGIOUS quantities of brown snuff were smeared over the nose and upper lip of the elderly character with the bowler hat in one hand and the brolly in the other. He wore a morning suit which had seen better days. Why he picked on me was not clear. I had just left St Margaret's Church after the funeral of Enoch Powell and was standing quietly between the entrance and the side door of Westminster Abbey.
"Scourge of our times, that lot," he said, waving wildly at the phalanx of press photographers who stood on the green, safely behind the barrier erected by the Abbey authorities. "They have a role to fulfil," I countered stiffly. "Pity they don't do it with more decorum," he fulminated and stormed off.
Quite how they had transgressed was unclear. Perhaps simply by being there. What antique etiquette he was measuring them against can only be guessed at.
There had been odd touches of a vanished order all round the church - an old man in a wing-collar who looked like a contemporary of Lloyd George, a peculiar young man with greased back hair in a leather jacket and an ancient gent with a bristling moustache and a row of medals so long it looked as if he might over-balance. Otherwise it was all heavy jowls, broken cheeks, leather-spotted skin, half-moons and horn-rims, balding pates, stiff movements, walking sticks - the old order in its ancient dignity.
The Disappeared of the previous political era were in evidence. Lady Thatcher was missing (on a lecture tour in America) but a plumper-faced John Major emerged from the church alongside his predecessor's consort, Sir Denis, followed by Lord Parkinson, Michael Howard, Peter Lilley, Michael Portillo, William Waldegrave, Nicholas Budgen, Alan Clark and Sir John Nott. There was, noticeably, no William Hague. And the Government, who should have been represented by the Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam (Mr Powell's last seat was in Co Down) sent only her No 3, Tony Worthington. The only other Labour figure was Tony Benn.
The funeral service was one of simple dignity, even if it was shot through with little ironies. The cortege bearing the union-flag clad coffin of the great traditionalist was led by, of all things, a coped woman cleric who carried a cross, bearing the image of Christ Triumphant. The reading from Ecclesiastes by Mr Powell's daughter, Susan Day, began "To Every Thing there is a Season" and then included "a time to keep silence" -advice the politician singularly failed to heed in his lifetime. And one of the hymns was by Cardinal Newman, who unlike Powell saw change as growth which he was not afraid to embrace.
The obsequies reflected the catholicity of Enoch Powell's life. The choir, in red cassocks and white surplices, preceded the coffin at its entrance with Sentences of high Anglican austerity by William Croft followed by a dramatic extract from Henry Purcell's Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary . The reading, from John's Gospel, was an oddly-edited extract, as befits the scholarship of a man who in his retirement re-translated Matthew's Gospel and concluded that the Crucifixion never happened. There was a kontakion, a liturgical refrain unorthodoxly inserted from the Orthodox Byzantine-rite. There was a hymn which reflected "I loved the garish day, and, in spite of fears, pride ruled my will" and a reading of "Loveliest of trees", from the A E Housman poem A Shropshire Lad which, even into his Eighties, Enoch Powell could not recite on radio without breaking into tears. After the Nunc Dimitis in a setting by Herbert Howells and an organ sonata by Elgar, the coffin was taken to Warwick to be buried in the cemetery of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment in which the politician had enlisted as a private in 1939 and concluded as a brigadier in Army Intelligence.
His was, of course, a glittering talent which faced its real test in the world of politics. Powell was, said Lord Biffen in the funeral address, "a romantic but essentially isolated politician ignoring the skills of compromise essential for high office." That was before 1968 when Powell concluded that the prospective size and concentration of New Commonwealth immigration would lead to unacceptable tensions and violence in British society.
"The speech," said Lord Biffen with considerable understatement, "had a profound national impact". Of the outcry which ensued, Biffen added only that the dead man's nationalism "was not an emotion of nostalgia or romanticism and certainly did not bear the stamp of racial superiority or xenophobia". It was simply that he believed that Britain, having lost an Empire, should now champion the nation as the best focus for loyalty and authority.
Perhaps. But history may offer a less charitable verdict.
How the church lost its way over Powell, page 21Reuse content