Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Guest Blog: Oliver Michell - author of The Tulip Tree

“He’s a pound-shop Enoch Powell and we’ve got to watch him.” 

So Russell Brand described Nigel Farage on Question Time in December 2014. Powell is notorious. He is mentioned on average three times daily in the UK press. His observation, made in relation to Joseph Chamberlain, that "All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs” is misquoted daily in a British newspaper. 

At the 2014 Edinburgh Fringe members of the Oriel Theatre Company stood on rain-swept street corners, handing out flyers for The Tulip Tree and listening to opinions about Enoch Powell. A Welsh Labour supporter remembered arguing with Powell after a meeting and being answered in flawless Welsh. One passerby was convinced that he was a film star. I asked in which films he thought Powell had appeared; it became clear that he was thinking of Sidney Poitier. The number of people who had seen Powell speak in person was striking. Powerful oratory and piercing blue eyes were the only two points of consensus. 

Six months later I was sitting opposite the handbag that Margaret Thatcher had carried while negotiating the Maastricht Treaty. It was on display in the archives of Churchill College, Cambridge, where Powell’s papers are preserved. Spilling across the desk in front of me were dozens of sheets of air mail paper, next to a large envelope with “Jack’s Letters” written on it in his mother’s handwriting. The bumps in the flight out to Australia to take up his professorship of Greek in 1938 were visible in the tiny, precise handwriting. 

The letters are candid. “The plain fact is” he wrote from Australia, “that I have had my cake and eaten it. I have had and finished what is likely to be the one real love affair of my life…Henceforward the only emotions of which I am capable seem to be hatred, ambition and selfishness, and I feel possessed and burnt up with them.” The love affair was with another man. Its consummation could have led to imprisonment. Powell elsewhere tells his mother and father that sexual attraction is an essential element of teaching. In his case, he adds, this applies only to male students. 

At 6am on Easter Sunday, twelve years later, Powell was standing outside a church in the West Midlands. On that day, he was due to change the course of his life in two ways. 

The first was his decision to take communion for the first time in 20 years. From that morning until his death, he would observe the Sabbath as rigidly as he had refused to participate in church services while a Professor of Greek, to the outrage of his colleagues. The second was to write the date on a piece of paper and to begin work on a poem about a tree. The tree was in Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London. Having refused for decades to blossom, the tree had relented and was covered with flowers. A similar change was happening within Powell. 

The cause was a young woman named Barbara Kennedy. She was living at Stretton Hall in Staffordshire, while working as a secretary for her uncle, Reginald Monckton. She had met Powell while hunting with the Albrighton Hunt. 

In February 2015 I attended the Head Meet of what is now the Albrighton & Woodland Hunt. As I watched more than 60 huntsmen and women gather, little seemed to have changed since Powell and Barbara were among their number. The Monckton family still live in Stretton Hall. Much of the land over which the hunt passes has been in the same ownership since the Norman conquest. I was introduced to an audience member of the Rivers of Blood speech. Many people involved with the hunt remembered both Powell and Barbara. 

At least two researchers interviewed Barbara about her relationship with Powell while she was alive. She remembered feeling overshadowed by his intellect and being told off by him for falling asleep during his speeches. 

One detail is clear: their differing perceptions of their engagement. Powell was convinced both that he had proposed and been accepted; Barbara equally so, that neither event had taken place. The strangeness of the disagreement made the story fascinating to me. 

The word most often associated with Powell is not “racist”, but “clever.” He was too clever to become Prime Minister, Powell enthusiasts would insist in the Edinburgh rain; no-one would be able to understand what he said. Yet his engagement to Barbara appears to have been the creation of his imagination. 

For Powell, however, the fantasy was reality. His letters, written after Barbara’s actual engagement was announced, make extraordinary reading. The prose style is that of a multilingual scholar; the understanding of emotional reality is that of a 15-year old schoolboy. He writes that they should meet, so that Barbara might have an opportunity to persuade him to forgive her; her engagement had been publicly announced and wedding preparations were advanced.

“I failed. I was unsatisfactory.” Powell’s assessment was typically laconic. After his own marriage, he did not reply to a letter from Barbara. For me, the enduring aspect of the story is blindness and insight, sitting side by side in one brain, and in such extreme forms. Powell was merciless towards what he perceived as woolly thinking. He often saw self-delusion in others. “Those whom the gods wish to destroy, first they send mad. We must be mad, literally mad”, he famously declaimed on 20th April 1968 in what was later known as the Rivers of Blood speech. When faced, however, with starkly obvious facts, he replaced them with romantic mirage. He likened the consequences of that speech to a slate falling from a roof and striking an unsuspecting passerby. The truth of Barbara Kennedy’s feelings seem to have struck him in a similar way. 

Oliver Michell

The Tulip Tree runs at the Drayton Arms Theatre until Saturday 25th April 2015
Please visit www.thedraytonarmstheatre.co.uk for further information and tickets.

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