Arthur F. Powell, OBE

Memorial Celebration, 14th March 2009

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Dr Charles Powell
Dr Charles Powell

Dr Charles Powell

My father was never an easy person to fathom, and being his son I’m probably the last person who should attempt to give you an account –objective or otherwise– of what he was really like.

Nevertheless, in the few minutes available to me, I wanted to share a few thoughts with you about the things he believed in, the things he enjoyed, and the things that mattered to him most.

I have always thought of my father, first and foremost, as an intellectual. In case you think that I’m paying him a belated compliment by saying this, let me remind you that, while here on the continent of Europe this is a term that has almost exclusively positive connotations, in Britain this has hardly ever been the case, at least not amongst the general public.

Interestingly, my father didn’t do terribly well at school. (Perhaps I shouldn’t be saying this in the presence of pupils past and present, including of course his own grandchildren!) My feeling has always been that he had very little time for the subjects that made up a very traditional academic curriculum in the late 1920s or early 30s, and was always much more interested in the abstract ideas and concepts that he was only able to explore later on in life.

This probably explains why he always had a soft spot for bright Runnymedians who weren’t necessarily very successful academically: the often artistic, invariably undisciplined types who drive teachers spare but later blossom into sophisticated, worldly adults.

Like many other intellectually-inclined people, my father had a tendency to believe that knowledge is best derived from thought, rather than experience. He was the sort of person who almost prefers to read about a place, rather than actually visit it. I think this is best illustrated by his reading habits: although as a young man he consumed quite a lot of poetry (largely, I suspect, with a view to impressing possible girlfriends), in later life he mainly enjoyed works of non-fiction, and only rarely talked about the novels he had read.

Had he been able to lead a different life, my father would probably have been happy to dedicate himself to studying Philosophy. His library at home reveals his life-long interest in the history of philosophical thought, a subject he briefly taught some fortunate 6th formers at school (myself included), and in particular the study of religious beliefs. He never identified with any particular religion himself, but was always respectful of those who did, and never ceased to be intrigued by the fact that religious beliefs have inspired much of the best architecture and music ever produced by man.

My father’s undying respect for the beliefs and values of others was one of the defining features of his personality, and it explains his visceral dislike of racism, xenophobia, chauvinism and distinctions based on social status. My brother referred earlier to the notion that, in my father’s mind, Runnymede was akin to an island; an island, I would add, where children would learn to reject prejudice and intolerance.

Many people throughout the world identify these liberal values with what is best about Britain. My father fought for his country in the war, and was happy to have done so. However, I think he felt that British society in the 1950s was not quite living up to its promise, and had become somewhat drab, predictable, and even claustrophobic. This probably explains his decision to move abroad, as well as the fact that he never regarded himself as a typical ‘expatriate’; indeed he always did his best to avoid those Englishmen who live elsewhere as though they were still back at home.

Of course this is not to say that he wasn’t grateful for having been born British. To borrow a line from actor Hugh Grant in the film ‘Love actually’, how could he not be proud of all the things that this small but proud nation has given the world: “Just think of Shakespeare; Churchill; The Beatles; Sean Connery; Harry Potter; David Beckham’s right foot; David Beckham’s left foot, come to that ...”

On a more serious note...

To be honest, I think my father probably loved Italy best, and he often reminisced about his early married life there with my mother. He never forgot the view of the bay of Naples from their terrace, with the island of Ischia reflecting in the Mediterranean, and Mount Vesuvius looming menacingly in the distance.

Having said this, my father was also captivated by Spain very early on, and never ceased to admire its architecture, its landscapes, its overwhelming blue skies, its people, and its language.

As an accomplished linguist, he took great pride in his knowledge of the language and the breadth of his vocabulary. I can still picture him now, sitting next to me in the car, the last time I drove him to one of our Sunday family lunches. When we drove past a freshly white-washed wall that caught his eye, he turned to me with his eyes half-closed and whispered “impoluto” (meaning immaculate, or unblemished), as if rolling the word about on his tongue and tasting it in his mouth.

As my brother intimated earlier, my father was a man of many parts, and I have probably over-emphasized some to the detriment of others. He was always quite relaxed about these things, though, so I hope he will forgive me.

I would like to conclude with a poem by Joyce Grenfell, whose famous radio monologues my father greatly enjoyed.

It’s called: Life goes on

If I should die before the rest of you,
break not a flower nor inscribe a stone
nor, when I am gone, speak in a Sunday voice
but be the usual selves that I have known.
Weep, if you must; parting is Hell
but life goes on, so sing as well

Für Elise
by Ludwig van Beethoven
Played by Christian Leiva

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