If there is a list of less than attractive characteristics, my hero is on that list – alcoholic, psychopath, megalomaniac, autistic, faults and addictions, these labels are all heaped upon his well-known head.
He didn’t have an easy start in life – his American mother, a famous society beauty was too busy socialising to spend any time with him, or visit him at school; while his father was too busy with his brilliant career, and finally too embittered by his terminal illness to have any time for him at all, and never once visited him when he was packed off to boarding school at seven. His mother required him to write to her in French and frequently returned his letters unread, saying his French was so appalling that she had no intention of reading them. The wounds and scars from beatings on his back, administered by a sadistic head master between the ages of seven and nine, finally convinced his parents to send him to another school.
The one person who loved him was his nanny. He loved her until the day she died, and was with her at her death-bed. At his schools, he was unpunctual and unconventional, and no-one had a good word to say for him. He failed his military exams, and when he finally made it into Sandhurst was broken-hearted that his father had died before seeing that at last he had succeeded in achieving something. Because his father had died young, he always felt that he would too, and since he always felt that he had come into the world to fulfill some great purpose, he felt he didn’t have a lot of time, and had to hurry!
He had a brief and brilliant military career, earning medals and commendations, and took part in the last great cavalry charge in history at Omdurman against sixty thousand dervishes. Leaving the army he became a newspaper correspondent, and while reporting on the Boer War was captured and had a famous escape, which brought him to the notice of the world. Back in England he went into politics like his father, and having by then educated himself with massive reading programmes, and developed a great gift for words and oratory, he was very successful. In the First World War he unfairly took the blame for the disaster at Gallipoli, though he was merely one of a group of people who’d been behind the scheme, there being no scope for dictatorship by second ranking politicians in the English constitution.
His career apparently ruined, he went and fought in the front line on the Western Front. After the war, returning to politics with some success, he was then vilified and disliked by most people, because he warned about the inevitable war with Germany all through the thirties. While in politics, he had worked for an old age pension for every-one and for better working hours for men and women. With an intelligent powerful wife like Clementine, he supported votes for women, but not the methods of the Suffragettes, especially after one militant feminist tried to push him under a train, and his wife only just pulled him back in time. During this time in the wilderness he supported his family by writing and lecturing.
When war was declared in 1939, no-one in politics really wanted him, from the King down, in spite of him having been proved right about Hitler and the dangers of appeasement. But the people did, and he became prime minster at the time of the greatest danger England or the world had ever faced.
For the next two years, Winston Churchill held the free world together. He not only united his country in the face of fighting a war they could well lose, against a foe whose brutality and inhumanity had already been demonstrated all over a devastated Europe, but he sustained the people in all the defeated countries. They risked their lives to listen secretly to his speeches on their radios, knowing that if they were discovered they would be shot.
“There goes the British Empire”, the American Ambassador heard a workman say as Churchill conducted him around the smoking ruins of a city hit by the Luftwaffe the night before. He was there to report to President Roosevelt on whether he thought the British were going to be able to stand up to Hitler. When the US finally came into the war when Japan attacked them, Churchill knew that with America’s might they could win the war, however long it took. But for two years he alone bore the whole burden of the war on his shoulders, and people waited to hear his speeches to raise their spirits and inspire them to hope even in such hopeless circumstances.
When night after night, London and all England’s other great cities were bombed, its citizens sometimes buried in mass graves, as in Coventry, and irreplaceable architecture, homes and churches destroyed, Churchill’s words kept the nation and the free world going.
People who worked with him were devoted to him. He was very affectionate and treated his staff like his family, inviting them to share all his family meals when they came to stay every weekend, while Churchill worked – usually until 3am. They were part of the family, playing cards, croquet and going for walks. He had a wicked wit. When Lady Astor said to him at dinner, “If I was your wife, I’d put cyanide in your coffee,” he famously replied, “If you were my wife I’d drink it”. When Bernard Shaw sent him a ticket for the first night of Pygmalion, writing : “Bring a friend if you have one”, Churchill replied: “ Cannot make first night, but will come to second, if you have one”. He described an opponent (fairly accurately) as ‘a modest little man, but then he has much to be modest about!’
His capacity for work was prodigious as was his eye for detail … he sent a memo to the top navy, army and air force men telling them to give dignified names to operations, saying if a mother heard that her son had been killed in a battle with a silly name like ‘Operation bunny hop’, it would diminish the dignity of her dead child. He began every memo to his staff: “ Pray… could you …etc.” He cared about people, and was devoted to his wife and family after his miserable childhood. He was a talented painter as well as writer, who won the Nobel prize for literature for his four volume series ‘The History of The English Speaking Peoples.’
He was often inconsiderate and sometimes arrogant, but never mis-used power, his proudest boast being that he was the servant of Parliament and the English people who elected him. And when his party lost the election as the war was ending – in spite of the love the people had for him – he told every-one that they had to respect the will of the people.
And in old age he could still laugh at himself … when a nervous MP whispered to him that his fly buttons were undone, he replied ‘Never fear, the dead bird never leaves the nest.’ His beloved private secretary Sir John Colville said that he never saw him drunk, though champagne and brandy were his favourite tipples. And as for the other labels … I’m sure he’d rebut them with that old English saying; ‘ Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me…’
What a man! I think he’d prefer: What an Englishman! And yet he was deeply proud of his American ancestry too. When his dark- eyed, dark- haired mother died, it was reported that her face bore: “all the hallmarks of a native American inheritance”. His descent from another great Englishman and soldier, John, Duke of Marlborough, was the inspiration for his belief in his destiny … which could be summed up quite briefly – to save the free world.
Food for Threadbare Gourmets
Hot summer days, and heaps of fresh vegetables – many from the gardens of my lovely neighbours. So today, it’s crudités with that lovely mayonnaise made with my new mixing stick in the last recipe. Fresh batch today with garlic added, making it aoli, to be eaten with hard boiled free range eggs, fresh raw baby carrots, tomatoes warm from the sun, new potatoes from a neighbour’s garden – cooked with fresh mint – cucumber and a jar of artichokes. We’ll start with some sweet corn dripping with hot butter, the corn almost pearly, it’s so fresh … fresh purple plums with that dusty bloom on their skins to end with … a summer feast ….
Food for Thought
History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days. What is the worth of all this? The only guide to a man is his conscience. The only shield to his memory is the rectitude and sincerity of his actions. It is very imprudent to walk through life without this shield, because we are often mocked by the failure of our hopes and the upsetting of our calculations; but with this shield, however the fates may play, we march always in the ranks of honour.
Extract from his tribute to his old opponent Austen Chamberlain on his death, by Winston S Churchill 1874 -1965 politician, writer, painter, visionary leader