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Obituary: Enoch Powell

Professor Douglas Johnson
Wednesday 11 February 1998 01:02 GMT

Enoch Powell was still opposition spokesman on defence matters when I invited him to lecture at Birmingham University, writes Professor Douglas Johnson [further to the obituary by Patrick Cosgrave and Professor Denis Kavanagh, 9 February]. He arrived well in time and he suggested that we should go for a walk around the university. As he had not yet become an object of student hostility our walk was peaceful and I enjoyed our conversation. He asked lots of questions, we spoke about universities and the study of history and he talked about the King Edward's schools in Birmingham, about Unitarians and Quakers.

But all this came to an abrupt stop when we reached the house on Edgbaston Park Road which bore the sign "Shakespeare Institute". "What's this?" he hissed at me, with noticeable disapproval. After I had explained, he became scathing. "You don't believe in the boy from Stratford, do you?" He was transformed. There was a wild gleam in his eyes, he gesticulated, and quotations from the plays poured out, each one demonstrating that the author was a statesman with experience of power rather than "the boy from Stratford". Eventually I had to interrupt this flow and point to "Joe", the university clock-tower, so called because it had been built at the request of Joe Chamberlain. We walked to the lecture room, with Mr Powell telling stories about Joseph Chamberlain and his two sons.

In 1989 both Enoch Powell and I attended a conference in Paris on "The Rights of Man" organised by several leading European newspapers (the Independent representing Great Britain). One evening we were walking back to our hotel when a man barred Mr Powell from passing. "You're Enoch Powell, the leader of the extreme right in England," he said aggressively in French. "Not at all," replied Powell, also in French. "I was beaten in the elections," and we walked on.

He told me that he was frequently accosted in public by people who wanted to show their disapproval of him. His method was to say, "Oh dear, people are always mistaking me for that fellow." Usually they would then apologise and go away.

That evening we had dinner at the Closerie des Lilas in Montparnasse. I told him that Lenin, Trotsky, Picasso and others went to eat there. He asked questions. He did not seem unduly impressed. But his attitude changed when I showed him the statue of Marshall Ney which stands near to the restaurant in the avenue where he was shot by a firing squad for having gone over to Napoleon during the Hundred Days. Powell remembered that Ney was called "the bravest of the brave". He looked carefully at the statue, repeating the words "the bravest of the brave". Once again he was transformed.

Enoch Powell was amongst the most stimulating and attractive people whom I have ever met.

I worked with Enoch Powell on a number of BBC programmes, literary as well as parliamentary, writes Anne Symonds. His subject was Shakespeare's political views. The titles were, characteristically, The Chord of Patriotism, The Politics of Intrigue and The Love of Honour. He wrote about the pursuit of power and the anatomy of ambition, just at the moment when the Conservative Party was in the desperate throes of seeking a successor to the Prime Minister, Mr Macmillan:

Wherever supreme power is, the same troupe of personalities dances around it like the figures on a revolving lantern . . . The stage used to be called the Court, now they call it a Cabinet. But all the characters are in Shakespeare . . . True, in Shakespeare there is bloodshed, the headman's axe, the dagger and the sword. These political instruments are at present disused but, this difference of detail apart, the rest is drawn from real unchanging life. Only the costumes date.

His admiration for this insight into the machinations of politics forced him to the belief that the country bumpkin from Stratford could not possibly have been the writer of the works that bear his name.

It was not just these plots that fascinated Powell, but the language, too. He seemed at one time interested in pursuing a textual analysis. Take a line in Hamlet, for example: the Ghost refers to "the fat weed that roots itself in ease on Lethe wharf". Powell changed this to "rots itself in ease", which is so magnificently more revoltingly decadent.

His programme, Great Parliamentary Occasions, was published in 1960 as a book. Sadly, it does not include one of the greatest parliamentary occasions this century: his speech in the Hola Camp massacre debate. Powell once wrote that a nation should measure its civilised status by the way it treats its old and its prisoners. In the Hola debate he spoke brilliantly and bravely for prisoners - black prisoners.

He has been criticised for once declaring a wish to have died in the war. But this is a recurring wish of poets. Coleridge mourned his own survival when "Many men so beautiful all dead around did lie." A sentiment repeated by G.K. Chesterton; and Wilfred Owen wrote: "Red lips are not so red as the stained stones kissed by the English dead." The pain of the survivor is seldom logical, but Enoch the great logician could be passionately illogical, too.

Patrick Cosgrave is incorrect in stating that Enoch Powell "became the youngest Brigadier in the Army", writes Graham Cooke. In 1943, at the age of 30, Michael Calvert was promoted to Brigadier. This great fighting soldier commanded one of the brigades that fought in Burma in General Orde Wingate's second Chindit campaign in 1944, the year that Enoch Powell, who was a year older than Calvert, became a Brigadier.

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