The Book of Enoch

 a review by Matthew Walther (August 2012)

Enoch at 100
edited by Lord Howard of Rising
Biteback Publishing, xxix+320 pp.

Following the contributors’ biographies and the table of contents, the first words to appear in Enoch at 100, a collection of essays edited by Greville Howard, Lord of Rising, are the following from “Powell's place in history,” a leading article published, along with a lengthy obituary and excerpts from Powell’s notorious “Rivers of Blood” speech, in The Daily Telegraph of February 9, 1998:

“For those who saw and heard Enoch Powell, the memory is indelible—the black moustache, the burning eyes, the hypnotic, metallic voice, the precision of language, the agility in debate. These will largely be lost to future generations. But, in a more important respect, Powell will survive more surely than any other British politician of the 20th century except Winston Churchill. His speeches and writings will be read so long as there exists a political and parliamentary culture in which speaking and writing matter. And if there comes a time when such a culture is all but destroyed, those brave few who wish to restore it will find in the thoughts of Enoch Powell something approaching their Bible.”

Two things occurred to me immediately after reading this excerpt. The first was that I do not relish the possibility, however remote, of a motion picture being made about Powell. (Just imagine: John and Pam, starring Mr. Daniel Day-Lewis, who, after two dull hours, struts and frets his ten minutes upon the screen at Birmingham in 1968 and then is heard no more as the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” plays and the credits roll.) The second was that this book is not really “a critical reassessment of Enoch Powell’s legacy” but rather the publishing equivalent of manufacturing 20,000 “Enoch was Right” buttons. None of the essays in Enoch at 100 are “critical,” unless this word means something other than “Given to judging; esp. given to adverse or unfavourable criticism; fault-finding, censorious.” When something like criticism does appear in these pages, it is never sapid: see game show host Anne Robinson’s stale souvenir of Powell (“A Personal Recollection”), the only good thing about which is that, at six pages, it is the shortest piece in this collection. I believe that Enoch at 100 is being advertised as “critical” of its subject only because the author of the book’s milk-warm forward is the Right Hon. Iain Duncan Smith, a cabinet minister in the Coalition Government.

Biteback has unfortunately printed Enoch at 100 on very low quality paper. I found a number of errors and inconsistencies in the text including missing full stops, a truncated contributor’s biography (that of Anne Robinson, which may be interpreted as a kind of augury), and an erroneous claim on page 290 that a speech will “allow Enoch Powell the last word” in the book (the last words in this book, unattributed but presumably those of the editor, come some thirty pages later). The appearances of the above are unforgivable in a book that costs £25.

In addition to twelve original essays, Enoch at 100 collects seven of Powell’s speeches, eleven of his previously unpublished poems, and a thirty page interview with his wife Pamela. The best pieces in the book are by Simon Heffer, Andrew Roberts, and Margaret Mountford. Mr. Heffer, author of Like the Roman: The Life of Enoch Powell, which is not only the best book ever written about its subject but also one of the best political biographies of the last half century, reminds us in “The Role of Government and the State in the Economy” that Powell spent decades trying to impress a single economic truth upon his Keynesian colleagues, namely, that inflation occurs when the purchasing power of money declines. In the preface to Essays in Persuasion, Lord Keynes called himself “a Cassandra who could never influence the course of events in time,” a description that I think more fitting of Powell, often right but almost always ignored, than of Keynes, a poor thinker (though an exquisite prose stylist) who nevertheless became the most influential British economist since Alfred Marshall.

Andrew Roberts’ contribution is called “Enoch Powell and the Nation State,” but, more so than many of the essays in this collection, it addresses Powell broadly, touching not only upon his patriotism and antipathy toward the European Economic Community, but also upon his military career, his religious beliefs (briefly), and even his sense of humor. (One would probably never guess as much, especially after seeing a photograph of him, but Powell could be very funny: “Cardinal Wosley,” he said in 1972, “escaped the scaffold, though only narrowly. It is my personal hope that Mr. Heath will do so too, and by a much more generous margin.”)

The most original and engaging essay in Enoch at 100, Dr. Margaret Mountford’s “Enoch Powell as a Classicist,” has almost nothing to do with Powell’s political career. Dr. Mountford shows us how close Powell came not to being a politician at all, and one may be tempted to think that he would have been a happier man if, after military service, he had returned to his professorship at the University of Sydney. Dr. Mountford, while respectful of Powell’s accomplishments (she points out that his lexicon to Herodotus and his edition of Thucydides, both of which had been published by the time Powell was thirty, are still used by British students of Greek), dispels this illusion. She quotes contemporary reviews of his work, the tone of which suggests that Powell’s fellow classicists saw him as a sort of Wunderkind, a gifted young scholar whose abilities, though great, were hopelessly enslaved to a tunnel-like thought process capable of leading him to all sorts of untenable conclusions.

Many of the other contributions tend to rely too much upon quotes from Powell’s speeches. The ratio of quoted to original material in Nicholas True’s blandly titled “European Union” is about three to one (not counting his footnotes, which quote Powell at yet greater length), and similar proportions can be found in the essays by Michael Forsyth, Andrew Alexander, and Richard Ritchie. Worse yet, many of these essays reproduce whole paragraphs from speeches that appear in their entirety elsewhere in the book. Neither Tom Powell’s account of the events surrounding “Rivers of Blood” nor Alistair Cooke’s examination of Powell’s relationship with Ulster suffers from such defects, however. (Nor does Anne Robinson’s brief memoir, but in her case this is actually unfortunate.)

Mr. Forsyth argues that Conservative MPs who do not wish to make the House of Lords a hecatomb on the altars of soixante-huitard ressentiment should look to Powell for a model of opposition. Now, probably they should, but it seems to me that if they really wish to take up Powell’s banner against the meliorist faction in their own party, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Peter Bone, John Redwood, etc., are obliged to do more than simply prevent the Lords from becoming an elected assembly; for Powell would, I think, have accepted nothing less than the abolition of life peerages and the reestablishment of the right of all hereditary peers to take their seats in the Lords.

Here is a rule by which one hopes editors of the futures will live: if a minor poet near the end of his life collects his verse into a single volume, one should assume that anything that remains outside the collection in question is probably not worth printing—ever. Such, anyway, is the case with the eleven previously unpublished poems by Powell that appear in Enoch at 100, pieces of private and occasional verse tossed almost indifferently between the final essay by Alistair Cooke and the last of Powell’s speeches. When Bellew Publishing brought out Powell’s Collected Poems in 1990, the reviewer in The Daily Telegraph wrote something that has become a critical commonplace: Powell’s post-War verse is much better than his early work, which suffers from being overly derivative of A.E. Housman, whose lectures Powell attended at Cambridge. As with most critical commonplaces, there is something, but not everything, to this assertion. Like the 63 poems of A Shropshire Lad, the fifty short lyrics that appear in Powell’s First Poems are nearly all in tetrameter. These early poems, like Housman’s, are all short, usually containing no more than two or three stanzas of four lines each. But Housman is not the only poet under whose influence Powell seems to have been working. In a poem like “The Isle of Macnannan Mac Lir,” one finds Powell indebted to the early Yeats of “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” and “Who Goes with Fergus.”

Below is one fairly representative early poem by Powell, “The Convict”:

So soon the summer comes again,
And still I languish here,
My ankled fastened with the chain
I wore last year.

Now green and golden stand the trees
That other folk may see;
And warm and scented brings the breeze
To touch the free.

On hills I shall not climb, the haze
Of evening lingers red,
And grey at morning gleam the ways
I shall not tread.

For all the merry summer through,
As dead as dead men's bones,
I shall sit and penance do,
A-breaking stones.

Decide for yourself what you think of Powell as a poet. Certainly if one accepts Philip Larkin’s slightly catachrestic dictum that good poetry read aloud ought to sound like honey rather than broken glass, then it seems to me that Powell, derivative or not, is much better than almost anyone who has won a National Book Award for Poetry recently.

More so than the new poems, or even most of the essays, the interview with Mrs. Pamela Powell (the first that she has granted) should be of interest to those who are already familiar with her husband’s politics. Some shall be surprised to learn that the Powells’ marriage was very happy. Prior to their wedding he told Pamela that she should expect “a life of grueling poverty on the backbenches,” a more or less accurate preemptive assessment of his career. For nearly fifty years, as he did his best to “provide against preventable evils,” apostatizing from the Conservative Party’s post-War Keynesian consensus and expressing opinions about immigration, divorce, abortion, and Northern Ireland that were often, though not always, unpopular among his fellow MPs, Powell’s constant refrain to his wife and children was simply “God will provide.”

This brings me to what I found most disappointing about Enoch at 100: the absence of an essay devoted to religion. Powell, who returned to the Church of England after spending many years as a Nietzschean atheist, was an agonized Christian, an Anglican moored on Dover Beach who but for the grace of God might have been a sympathetic unbeliever à la Henry Adams or Theodore Dalrymple. Unlike so many modern conversion stories, I have always found Powell’s account of his return to Christianity moving, not least because it is concise and lacking (I think deliberately) in mystic affectation:

“One night in Wolverhampton I was coming home from the station. The bells of St Peter’s were ringing for evensong and I went in. It was the first time I had been into a church for worship, to a service, for fifteen years or more. I sat down in a dark corner, just by the south door, hoping I  wouldn’t notice myself, because I didn't know what I was doing and I was rather ashamed of it. As I listened, the language of it all [i.e., that of the Book of Common Prayer] came back to me.”

Here Powell portrays the adventitious operation of grace. (An excellent companion piece to his story is the chapter of The Rage Against God in which Peter Hitchens recalls seeing a depiction of the Last Judgment and considering, for the first time in his life, the possibility of his own eternal damnation.)

Audacious is the adjective that best describes many of the theological and exegetical opinions that Powell expresses in his last published book, The Evolution of the Gospel. A sampler: St. Matthew’s, rather than St. Mark’s, was the first Gospel to be written; the Sermon on the Mount is an “interruption” in the Gospel text, a semi-mystical and ultimately eschatological “document” rather than a set of instructions according to which Christians must comport themselves; the feedings of the four and five thousands should not be taken as accounts of separate events in the life of Christ but as erroneous textual multiplications of a single passage whose meaning is anyway strictly allegorical; Christ did not die on the cross but rather was stoned to death at the order of a Jewish ecclesiastical court. (One finds the latter claim especially bizarre in light of Powell’s insistence upon crossing himself at Church of England services, a practice that all Anglicans up to the middle of the nineteenth century would have condemned as “popish.”)

At the time of his death Powell was writing a book about St. John’s Gospel, a companion volume of sorts to The Evolution of the Gospel. What conclusions would Powell have offered in such a book? That the Logos was a later interpolation by non-Judaic Christians steeped in their Heraclitus and Philo? That Christ’s various healings did not actually take place? That everything after 18:26 is pure mashed potatoes? The mind reels.

Christians should appreciate the sermons, essays, and exchanges with liberal clergymen published in Wrestling with the Angel and Reflections of a Statesmen. Powell argued that neither patriotism nor science were obstacles to Christian belief. He denounced as a fiction the popular belief that Christ was born in a stable and insisted upon a literal resurrection of the body. Always instructive and frequently hilarious were his ripostes to priests and bishops for whom increasing the size and scope of the welfare state was tantamount to creating God’s Kingdom on Earth.

Still, Powell’s apparent denial of Article IV of the Apostles' Creed (“he was crucified under Pontius Pilate”) in The Evolution of the Gospel invites the accusation that his Christianity was, towards the end of his life anyway, decidedly heterodox; and there is some truth in Maurice Cowling’s assertion that Powell “ejected from Christianity everything that Nietzsche had disliked about it.” But Powell insisted that he was “an obedient member of the Church of England.” Perhaps like Elizabeth I, we should not seek windows into men’s souls.

I wish that the essays gave a better impression of Powell’s personal character, which was frequently (and sometimes amusingly) idiosyncratic. He was an anti-Stratfordian, a Marx Brothers enthusiast, a hunter, bird watcher, and a teutophile. He insisted that most of England’s Norman churches were actually Saxon constructions besmirched by Gallic decorative impropriety. He twice refused a life peerage on the grounds that, since he had opposed the Life Peerage Act of 1958, it would hypocritical to accept one. He enjoyed parties but hated smoking. (Keith Wallis, Powell’s chain smoking American assistant, would excuse himself at Tory Party picnics every fifteen minutes and dash off into the bushes for a cigarette rather than smoke in front of his employer.) Among the languages he either spoke or read were French, German, modern and classical Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Latin, Portuguese, Punjabi, Urdu, Russian, Spanish, and Welsh. Powell, the temperamentally middle-class do-it-yourself enthusiast, was out of his cultural and spiritual element in the early years of post-War British politics when pipe-smoking old Etonians in three-piece suits tilted after such obvious windmills as “full employment” and Labour MPs were patriotic chain-smokers who ordered toast and jam at the Savoy.

Probably you are expecting me to discuss Powell’s April 20, 1968 address to the General Meeting of the West Midlands Area Conservative Political Centre: that is, the “Rivers of Blood” speech. I hesitate. Why? Because I do not know what I can say about the speech that has not already been asserted ad tedium. Thesis: “Rivers of Blood” proves that Powell was a racist. Antithesis: Powell once stormed out of a club after the staff refused to serve an Indian colleague. Synthesis: Powell was not a racist but was concerned about unrestricted Commonwealth immigration. Thesis: Powell was mostly correct in asserting that Commonwealth immigration would continue to increase on a massive scale. Antithesis: Powell was wrong to suggest that Commonwealth immigration would lead to civil war. Synthesis: Powell, like every politician who ever lived, was right about some things, wrong about others. Let us skip “Rivers of Blood.”  

I do not think that I am alone in wishing that Powell had written an autobiography: not simply because an apologia pro vita eius seems almost required of a man who lived through four decades of public controversy; but also because it would afford me a further chance to enjoy his prose in all its masculine glory. Many apologists have blamed Dr. Johnson's obfuscation in the Rambler essays on the saturation of his mind with Latin; critics have employed similar reasoning when they have sought to absolve Milton of his literary sins. Powell lacked the imaginative powers of either of these authors, yet, despite his knowledge of classical languages, he managed to write clear, vigorous English free of the Latinisms that George Orwell deplored. Whenever one is tempted, as I was in the first sentence of this paragraph, to make use of a bit of casual Latin (or, worse, Greek), remember that Enoch Powell, who could, in less than two hours, translate a passage from Bede twice (into the Greek of Herodotus and Plato, respectively), responded to such urges with a quick “Get thee behind me, Satan.”

Making predictions is, like reviewing books, something of a mug’s game. I hesitate to compound my offenses. Powell’s namesake, the great-grandfather of Noah, lived for 365 years. Whether the statesman whose legacy Enoch at 100 celebrates shall be remembered more than three and a half centuries from now I cannot say. But I can claim with some confidence that those who, in the words of the Telegraph leader writer, might one day “find in the thoughts of Enoch Powell something approaching their Bible” will be more likely to profit from earlier published collections of Powell’s speeches, essays, sermons, and poems (and from Mr. Heffer’s biography) than from the present volume.

Matthew Walther is an American writer.

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