Rebecca Tyrrel: 'Powell took up fox hunting for the enticing possibility of breaking his neck'

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Who knew that when Enoch Powell, who would have been 100 years old today, was a member of Harold Macmillan's government in the early 1960s, the Prime Minister rearranged the seating plan at the Cabinet table to avoid his gaze? It hardly goes with the SuperMac image, but Macmillan was caught by a colleague furtively moving the Health Secretary's placement card so as to avoid Powell's "mad eyes".

Powell had that effect on many other people, of course, although after the legendary, race-baiting "Rivers of Blood" speech in 1968, for which Edward Heath instantly fired him from the Shadow Cabinet, he became much the most popular politician in the country. The speech has been credited with winning the Tories the 1970 General Election, while his later resignation from the Party and advice to the electorate to vote Labour in 1974 (on anti-European grounds) has been cited as the cause of Heath's defeat in 1974.

Whether Powell was as mad as those piercing blue eyes, or a disregarded prophet in his own land, has been the source of debate for decades, although the lack of blood flowing through the streets of Britain hints at the former. As perhaps does his drama-queen claim about the major sadness of his life.

Living to open his telegram from the Queen today was not an obsession. Powell's greatest regret, he often claimed, was his failure to die in action. "I should have liked to have been killed in the war," he once said. So it was a bit silly then, Enoch, to become an intelligence officer. Such a famously brilliant intellect (a professor of Greek at 25, speaker of more than a dozen languages) could surely have calculated that the odds against death by faulty wiring on an Enigma machine were long.

In later life, he took up fox hunting, though more for the enticing possibility of breaking his neck – he was a reckless jumper of hedges – than the sport itself. His death wish was eventually granted in 1998. He shuffled off the mortal at the grand old age of 85; disappointingly, it was natural causes that got him in the end. If he was wrong about Britain being plagued with race riots on the scale of the American South, he was accurate in predicting that his words would "go up 'fizz' like a rocket", and depressingly there will be those lighting a metaphorical candle to his memory today.

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