Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz
Gough Whitlam & Enoch Powell
At the 1938 ceremony for the conferring of degrees in the Faculties of Arts and Law at the University of Sydney, the address was given by the newly appointed professor of Greek, Enoch Powell.
Although only 25, Powell came very well credentialled. The only son of ambitious schoolteacher parents, he was reading Ancient Greek by the age of five. An absolute swot, he’d gone on to master Platonic and Ionic, win a fellowship at Cambridge on the strength of his Thucydides, score a double-starred first in Latin and Greek and grow a moustache so as to convey an impression of his hero, Nietzsche.
The young professor’s students at Sydney included a 21-year-old graduate of Canberra Grammar named Gough Whitlam. Popular and outgoing, Gough was a flagrant classicist with an urge to burnish his erudition. But he also revelled in the social life of the university. The busy whirl of reviews, magazines and debates left him with little patience for the “dry as dust” lectures of a teacher “just out of nappies”, who was so pedantic he could make Herodotus sound boring, and so uncomfortable in the presence of women that he could scarcely look at them. Whitlam called him a “textual pervert” and dropped out of his classes.
For his part, Enoch rather liked teaching: “One gets into a didactic mode.” He assuaged the “heartache of exile” by producing a lexicon and dreaming of death in battle. Firmly anti-appeasement, he believed that war was inevitable and imminent and he was keen to do his bit. In June 1939, he resigned and returned to England.
Failing to die in the war, he decided on a political career and became the Conservative member for Wolverhampton. In a 1968 address to his constituents, he made an allusion to Virgil. Like the Roman, he foresaw “the River Tiber foaming with much blood” if coloured immigration was not curtailed. The Race Relations Act would give the black man the “whip hand” over the white man. Known forever after as the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, it got him sacked from the shadow cabinet and made him an instant martyr and arguably the most popular politician in the UK.
Powell returned to Australia in early 1974 for some television interviews. He used the opportunity to hector his former student for criticising the South African regime. Prime Minister Gough Whitlam did not deign to respond, in Ancient Greek or any other known language.