A professor of Greek 'just out of nappies'

September 1, 1995

Classical scholar the Rt. Hon. Enoch Powell tells Martyn Kelly about his first published work, at the tender age of 24.

There was, in the late 1920s, a classicist at Oxford by the name of John U. Powell. At the same time there was a schoolboy in Birmingham, another J. Powell, who had decided to make his name in the same field. "I am going to be a classical scholar and writing articles much better than his," he later told Patrick Cosgrave, his biographer. "I must make sure that there's no confusion between us." And so it came to pass that the young man became known by his middle name of Enoch and, in time, sat the examination for a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge.

The examination that he had to sit involved translating a passage from Bede. He translated it into Platonic Greek but still had plenty of time left. "In the remaining hour and a half I tore it up and translated it again into Herodotean Greek - Ionic Greek (which I had never written before) - and then, still having time to spare, I proceeded to annotate it. One of the notes was reported to my school by the director of studies at Cambridge: 'I use, without undertaking to defend, the form recommended by Dindorf for Herodotus.' I think that it was regarded as rather a portent."

As an undergraduate Enoch Powell rose at 5.30am and spent an hour and a half translating Herodotus into the English of the Authorized Version of the Bible. This was a process that he started while still at school: "There was a prize for knowledge of a book of Herodotus awarded at the school and that was why Herodotus was one of my main interests and research subjects." Another prize at King Edward's School, Birmingham, provoked his interest in Thucydides, a dissertation on whom won him a fellowship at Trinity. "I think there is a lesson here: that one can encourage the youth by prizes."

At Trinity he came under the spell of A. E. Housman, the poet and classicist. Not only did Powell imbibe Housman's style of poetry, he also learnt from him about textural criticism, the constant striving to understand the real meaning of a passage from myriad copies and mistranslations. It was to serve him well, not just as a scholar but also in Intelligence during the war and in teasing apart legislation line by line in the House of Commons afterwards. "I can't read without attempting to understand: that's the root of textural criticism: the determination to understand and the willingness to be surprised."

His interest in Thucydides took him, in 1932, to the library of the Selly Oak Colleges in Birmingham where, he heard, they had a collection of papyri. These turned out to be unpublished and unmounted, so Powell caught a tram to meet the original owner of the papyri, the classical scholar, paleographer and traveller James Rendel Harris, by then in his eighties and blind. "It was one of the important encounters of my life. He was a great personality. He was enthusiastic and told me the story of how he came by these papyri." As curator of the Rylands library in Manchester, Rendel Harris told Powell, he had travelled to the Middle East accompanied by two spinsters. As the felahin quarried nitrate from the alluvium of the Nile delta they were continually unearthing papyri. It was forbidden, however, to export these from Egypt. Rendel Harris made his purchases surreptitiously and then used the hat boxes of his female companions to smuggle the papyri out of the country.

Powell took the papyri to the British Museum which mounted them for him. "I think they were alarmed to see them in the hands of an inexpert." He then set to work to sort them out and classify them. The resulting collection (The Rendel Harris Papyri, 1936, Cambridge University Press) provides a fascinating glimpse of the administration of Egypt in the first and second centuries ad. Alongside fragments of the classical authors - Homer, Euripides, Thucydides and others - are cheques, recipes (alas incomplete), letters, magic spells and a prayer: "O my Lord God Almighty and St Philoxenus my patron, I beseech you by the great name of the Lord God, if it is your will and you are helping me to take the banking business, I beseech you to bid me learn this, and speak."

Powell was 24 years old when the collection was published ("It wasn't hissed off the stage") but had already decided that the time had come to move on from Trinity. He had started applying, not for lectureships or readerships, but for chairs. "Redbricks looked favourably on my applications until they discovered I was 23." Then a vacancy arose at the University of Sydney, which did not seem to mind having a professor of Greek "just out of nappies" as Gough Whitlam, one of his students and later prime minister of Australia, pithily put it. "He said that he gave up my lectures because they were 'dry as dust'," recalls Powell. None the less Powell enjoyed teaching: "I am sure it is a bad training for public speaking: one gets into a didactic mode."

But the storm clouds were gathering in Europe for a conflict Powell had been anticipating since 1934. He was appointed to the chair of Greek and classical literature in Durham in 1939 but, before he could take it up, war was declared. He made his way home and volunteered, though, having eschewed the Officers' Training Corps while at school, the only course open to him was to join as a private. I drew a comparison with another scholar who, albeit in different circumstances, joined the army in the ranks. Powell was silent for a moment then replied: "It's the first time I've ever been put in the same bracket as T. E. Lawrence." I insisted that I meant it as a compliment. Another pause: "I take it as such."

Despite his inauspicious start in the army, Powell ended the war as the youngest brigadier in the Army ("I was obscenely promoted"). He was directed into Intelligence, where the intellect that had helped him while poring over Herodotus and Thucydides enabled him to extract the essence from decoded enemy messages. "I am a naturally critical reader. I can't read without asking myself 'is that sense?'. It's a cast of mind."

By the end of the war he had decided not to go back to university. By this stage he was in India and his mind was made up. "I was immensely impressed by the government of India. I didn't see the necessity of our losing India at the time, although I subsequently understood this. It seemed to me that the thing I wanted to do was to get into a walk of life through which I might aspire to govern India. And this was obviously politics. So, on the day I landed in Wiltshire, I got the telephone directory and turned up 'C' for Conservative. I rang up Conservative Central Office and said I want to work for the party. And they said yes."

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