A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I don’t tell you this to elicit sympathy or admiring cries of ‘Gosh, you don’t look it!’, I tell you so that you’ll have some idea of when I went to school, which was long before examination hysteria and performance tables – a time when you sat your exams, waited for your results and then moved on in whichever direction your inclination, talents and grades took you, without the outside world taking the remotest bit of interest. I’m not saying it was perfect, because it was far from that, being heavily loaded in favour of middle-class kids from well-off families, but the emphasis then was still on education not results, and many teachers were not averse to heading off down leafy lanes if there were lessons to be learned at the end of them.
One of my English teachers was just such a leafy-lane wanderer. Of the old school, she firmly believed that once children had learned to read, write and count (with or without the use of their fingers) education was all about expanding their minds and teaching them to think for themselves.
A lot was happening in the early summer of 1970: industrial unrest was rife, a dock strike was looming, the Provisional IRA had split from the ‘Official’ IRA and violence was escalating exponentially in Northern Ireland, Ian Smith had declared Rhodesia a republic, and the General Election had seen Harold Wilson’s Labour government suffer a shock defeat at the hands of Edward Heath’s Conservatives.
The sudden, unforeseen rise in popularity of the Tories was being widely attributed to one man – one of the most divisive people in UK politics: Enoch Powell.
Two years earlier, in the spring of 1968, Powell – who was then Heath’s Shadow Defence Secretary – had given a speech to the General Meeting of the West Midlands Area Conservative Political Centre in which he criticized the Government’s immigration policy and voiced his opposition to upcoming anti-discrimination legislation. Popular history knows it as the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech – a reference to a line from the Aeneid, which Powell quoted: ‘As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood’.’
It was the defining moment of his political career. Edward Heath sacked him. The Times thundered its abhorrence. Senior politicians and pundits took lumps out of each other. Out in the real world, meanwhile, there was a huge groundswell of support for him. He was the major topic of conversation in pubs, clubs, playgrounds and sitting rooms. Racist jokes were common currency. He was either the man who dared to speak the truth, or he was just unspeakable. There was no middle ground.
In our English lesson, in that summer of 1970, nothing and nobody was actually further from our minds than Enoch Powell. I forget what we were actually supposed to be studying that day, but it was odds on it was Shakespeare, or possibly Donne. Whoever it was in the books in front of us, our teacher quietly reached into her handbag, which she always kept on the desk, and produced a piece of paper. Unfolding it, she paused a moment to get our attention, then started to read:
When I am gone, remember me,
Not often. But when in the east
Grey light is growing, and the mind
With fears and hope is clouded least.
Then, in the hour that I love best,
And where I still reflected find
All that I ever sought to be,
I will return to you as one
New risen from the grave, as clear
As now you see me, and as dear
As when I slept beneath your breast
Before I saw the sun.
I remember her smiling as she said. ‘Beautiful isn’t it?’ We agreed, of course.
‘And what do you think it means? Is it a young man, about to go off to war, talking to his young lady (she would never have used the word ‘lover’) or perhaps to his mother? What do you think about ‘before I saw the sun’? Does the poet mean that literally, or figuratively?’
We talked about it for a while, analysing it, offering up our own theories, all agreeing it was a poignant and powerful poem but that in order to understand it better we needed to know something about the poet. Finally, one of us thought to ask the salient question: ‘So, who wrote it?’
‘Enoch Powell,’ she replied.
And that was all she said. After that, we returned to Shakespeare, or possibly Donne.
I’m not going to claim it was a ‘eureka’ moment in my young life, but this I do know: discovering that the Unspeakable Enoch wrote intelligent and heartfelt poetry rewired a tiny corner of my brain, and was one of the early stepping stones on the path which would eventually lead to the understanding that between black and white there are a thousand intermediate shades of grey.
‘Collected Poems’ by Enoch Powell was published in 1990 by Bellew Publishing. It’s now out of print, but readily available secondhand.