- Historic Sites
The Lion Caged
An outstanding American historian follows Winston Churchill through a typical day during his political exile in the 1930s and uses that single twenty-four-hour period to reveal the character of the century’s greatest Englishman in all its complexity. See Churchill lay bricks, paint a landscape, tease his dinner guests, badger his secretaries, dictate a history, make up a speech, write an article (that’s how he earns his living), refuse his breakfast because the jam has been left off the tray, refight the Battle of Bull Run, feed his fish, drink his brandy, fashion a “bellyband” to retrieve a particularly decrepit cigar, recite all of “Horatius at the Bridge,” take two baths—and await with noisy fortitude the day when he will save the world.
February/March 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 2
His luncheon guests laugh; it is a good story. But it is more. Winston cannot get through the day without servants, and he assumes that is true of all gentlemen. It was true in his youth, but is no longer. Later John Colville, his assistant private secretary, will ask leave to become an RAF fighter pilot. Winston hates to see a valuable member of his staff go, but it is a request he, of all men, cannot refuse. Alone together, “Jock” and Winston are equals; the first Lord Colville became a peer in 1604. The younger man, like Winston, is a Harrovian; his Cambridge college is Trinity; his club, White’s. Churchill, the quondam hussar, grandly declaims, “The RAF is the cavalry of modern war.” But he is shocked when Colville tells him he will first serve in the ranks as an aircraftsman, 2nd class. Winston protests: “You mustn’t—you won’t be able to take your man!” It hasn’t crossed his mind that a civil servant earning £400 a year—about $32.30 a week—could hardly afford a valet.
Should his visitors include a guest of great eminence, Churchill will offer to show him round Chartwell’s grounds. Otherwise he proceeds with his first afternoon activity: feeding his golden orfe, ducks, and swans. Donning a Stetson—if there is a chill in the air, he will also wear an overcoat—he heads for a broad wicker chair beside the goldfish pool, calling ahead, “Arf! Arf!” or “Yoick! Yoick!”
They rush to greet him, though a servant, a step behind him, has what they want. Twice a month Frank Jenner collects a blue baby-food tin at the local railway station. Within, packed in sawdust, are maggots, the caviar of goldfish gourmets. Churchill offers a lidful of them to the fish; when it is empty he holds out the lid to be refilled. Nearby a wooden box contains bread crumbs. These Churchill feeds to the ducks and swans.
The feeding is an integral part of the Churchillian day. After it, he sinks into the wicker chair, dismisses the servant, and remains, companionless and immobile, for at least a half hour. A table beside the chair bears another weak Johnnie Walker and soda, a box of cigars, a pagoda-shaped ashtray, and a container of long Canadian matches, useful in a rising wind. The squire of Chartwell prefers solitude here. Long afterward servants will recall him reciting Housman and Kipling to himself, or reading, or simply staring out across the Weald, alone with his reflections, a great hunched figure whose cigar smoke mingles with the many scents of an English countryside.
His interest in all creatures on his estate is unflagging. As a young colonial undersecretary he had been an enthusiastic hunter of wild game, but those days are past. Now he holds a kitten to his face and murmurs, “Darling.” It is true that he kicked a large tabby cat who played with the telephone cord when he was speaking to the Lord Chancellor of England, shouting, “Get off the line, you fool!”—and hastily telling the chancellor, “Not you!” But afterward he offered the cat his apologies, which he rarely extends to human beings, cajoling the pet, cooing, “Don’t you love me any more?” and proudly telling his valet at breakfast next day, “My Mickey came to see me this morning. All is forgiven.”
For Churchill, in his reverence for all living creatures, butterflies are sacred. So are predators. He loses two Siberian geese to foxes, but when a fox trap is proposed, he shakes his head, saying, “I couldn’t bear to think of them being hurt.”
Winston is, among other things, a dog’s best friend. Observing one manservant’s poodle limping, he tells him to send it to a veterinarian, and when the pet returns well two weeks later, he pays the bill for £10.10. Chartwell’s animals vex him but once. Mary’s pug, it seems, has never been properly house-broken. Winston mutters darkly: “He commits at least three indiscretions a day.” Mary is worried about her dog. But her father cannot bring himself to intervene, and the pug continues to enjoy his unsanitary ways.
Still recuperating from a traffic accident in New York the year before, when he stepped into the street against the light—England had no traffic lights in 1932—Churchill lays no bricks these days. But he cannot remain idle. He is, Bill Deakin notes, “incapable of inactivity,” and Cousin Moppet writes, “Winston has so many irons in the fire that the day is not nearly long enough.” During one of his Johnsonian lunches, he remarks: “Broadly speaking, human beings may be divided into three classes: those who are billed to death, those who are worried to death, and those who are bored to death.” Though heavily billed (he had just settled £1,600 of his son’s debts) and deeply concerned about the events stirring Central Europe, he is never bored. To Virginia Cowles, a weekend guest, he says: “With all the fascinating things there are to do in the world, some people while away their time playing Patience. Just fancy!”
But this is not always a healthy sign. Periodically Churchill sinks into ghastly spells of depression. Intimates know when he is so stricken because he becomes preoccupied with death, calling it “the greatest gift God has made to us and I have no desire to quit this world, but desperate thoughts come into the head.”