The World Affairs Group at Keele
An 85-year-old man who left school at the age of 14, served in the RAF and SOE during World War II, spent most of his peace-time working life as a bookie, and was awarded an honorary degree by Keele University in 1996, arrives each Thursday evening during university term-time at Keele to supervise the arrangements for that evening’s meeting of his World Affairs Group, and to provide that week’s visiting speaker with an excellent pre-session dinner in one of the university’s restaurants. On most Thursdays more than 300 adults from all over the surrounding area will have assembled and taken their places in probably the university’s biggest auditorium, ready for Owen Powell, usually himself in the chair, to start the proceedings on the dot of 7.30. The speaker may be a Professor from a distant or nearby university, current or retired; a former General, Minister, MP, ambassador (past or present), international civil servant, prominent journalist and commentator, trade union leader, tycoon; he or she may be British, German, South African, or almost any other nationality; and the subject of the talk may range (to pick examples at random from the current season’s programme) from ‘British fascism’, ‘Israel and Palestine’, or ‘prostitution’, to ‘Rethinking Global Security’, ‘Anglo-German relations’, and ‘the new politics of northern Ireland’. Last week I chose for my subject, only slightly intending to provoke, ‘The war on civil rights and terrorism‘: Professor Michael Clarke of King’s College London had spoken the previous week on ‘If there is a war on terror, who’s winning?’ (we had made sure beforehand that our respective talks would not duplicate each other). Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, Arthur Scargill, Field Marshal Lord Carver, Baroness Seear, General Rose, AJP Taylor, John Biffen, Sir Stephen Lander, Bill Cash, Mark Fisher, and John Edmunds have been among past or forthcoming visiting speakers.
Each talk is scheduled to last for about an hour (a challenge to both speaker and, especially, audience, even when the speaker is more professional than I and embellishes the talking head with hi-tech visual aids). After a break for coffee, the meeting reassembles for 45 minutes of questions and comments. It’s the universal experience that the questions are of impressively high quality; this is a well informed and serious minded audience, ranging in age from 20s to 80s (or older) and from many different backgrounds. Some travel long distances to attend. Many have not missed a meeting for years. The greater part of the work of recruiting and hosting speakers, drawing up the programme, and master-minding the meetings’ logistics week by week, is done by Owen, much of it from home and on his own, without either internet access or a computer, but with support and assistance from the university’s School of Politics, International Relations and Philosophy, which sponsors the Group.
It all began in the 1970s as an adult education class of half a dozen or so mature students of political history and current affairs. In 1978 one of its members, Owen Powell, with at that time no academic qualifications whatever, suggested that he might arrange a series of lectures by experts on international relations and other topical subjects, for a mature, lay audience. The idea was greeted initially with a marked lack of enthusiasm on the part of most of those whom he consulted, and who said it wouldn’t work and no-one would come; but Keele’s then International Relations Department agreed to provide a home for the lectures. Audiences grew from a dozen or so to around 40, and then rapidly to the current level of over 300, requiring frequent moves to larger venues. Lectures take place weekly from September to May, with breaks for Easter and Christmas. There’s an annual dinner, also with a guest speaker.
Several regular attenders at the Group’s meetings have been so stimulated by the talks and discussions as to embark on degree studies as mature students. Some have graduated at Keele and elsewhere with First Class honours. Owen Powell himself led the way in this: he became a part-time student in his mid-60s, gaining a Diploma in International Relations and later a Master’s Degree by Research in history. When on 30 November 1996 the Vice-Chancellor of the university conferred an honorary degree on Owen Powell, Dr Lorna Lloyd, BSc., PhD, Senior Lecturer in what is now the School of Politics, International Relations and Philosophy, concluded her oration with the words:
Thanks to Owen, Keele has acquired a remarkable asset. The World Affairs Group has strengthened the University’s links with the local community and the world of international relations and, in the process, has extended Keele’s high reputation for intelligent and informed discussion of world affairs.
Amen to that!
The fee for the whole season’s course is currently £25 (£13 for pensioners): the first three lectures of the season are free, as a kind of amuse-gueule, but I’m afraid you’re just too late to take advantage of that: lecture no. 3 takes place tonight, when Dr Daoud Abdullah of the Muslim Council of Britain speaks on "Iraq!" (his exclamation mark, perhaps implying: ‘what else?’). If you live or work within reasonable distance of Keele and want to sign up for the rest of the lectures and discussions, there are contact details at the World Affairs Group’s website, or you can get in touch with me here and I will be glad to put you in touch with the Group’s founder and unique presiding genius — Owen Powell.
13 October 2005
Hat-tips: (1) to Dr Lorna Lloyd, who provided most of the material for this, and her husband Professor Alan James, who genially chaired last week’s meeting of the Group: and both of whom were Jane’s and my delightful hosts during our visit Oop North. Alan James is, among many other things, co-author with Professor G R Berridge of the Dictionary of Diplomacy, indispensable work of reference, to which I was allowed to make a modest contribution as consultant; and (2) to the Sentinel newspaper for its kind permission to reproduce the photograph of Owen Powell. End of commercial.
Postscript (9 January 2006): Members of Owen Powell’s Group, past speakers at it, Owen himself and his wife and family, will all have been delighted that Owen was awarded an MBE in the 2006 New Year honours, for his services to adult education. Few gongs can have been so well earned. (Apologies and regrets for having previously and erroneously reported that the award was an OBE, which would have been even more appropriate.)