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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
MGM pioneers the renting of films to those who can afford them, other studios follow, and Alexander Korda sees to it that Winston has his pick. His taste in films, as in music, is middlebrow —Lew Ayres in All Quiet on the Western Front , Fredric March in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde , Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Richard Barthelmess in The Dawn Patrol , and Charles Laughton, Winston’s favorite actor, who will appear next year in The Private Life of Henry VIII . His taste in literature is more eclectic. Here his interests are professional. His leisure reading, serious and frivolous, strengthens his grasp of his mother tongue. In Chartwell’s library you can glimpse the landscape of his mind. Among the books he has read, and often reread, are Paget’s The New “Examen ,” Gibbon’s Decline and Fall , William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience , J. A. Froude’s History of England , Sir Richard Burton’s multivolume The Arabian Nights , the King James Bible, and C. S. Forester’s studies of Napoleon, Josephine, Victor Emmanuel, Louis XIV, and Nelson. Later he will devour Forester’s Hornblower novels and William Winwood Reade’s The Martyrdom of Man . He likes to dip into books of verse and later quote them at meals. Kipling, Housman, and Rupert Brooke are favorite poets. If in the mood for mere amusement, he plucks out novels by the Brontës, Fielding’s Tom Jones , Scott’s Rob Roy , Trollope’s political novels (particularly The Duke’s Children ), P. G. Wodehouse’s fatuities, or the tales of Kipling, R. L. Stevenson, and Somerset Maugham, the only contemporary novelist whose skills he admires.
Mary has just emerged from the local school, where she is a day boarder; Cousin Moppet will now read to her. Like the others she hails him as “Pa- pah .” After replying, he may examine his firearms. He likes them; he has never forgotten the Mauser that saved his life at Omdurman in the last great charge of British cavalrymen. He is also an extraordinary marksman, perhaps because a weapon never argues back. Automobiles quarrel with him; he is the worst driver in England. When he tried to fly he nearly killed himself; if he takes to the dance floor all other couples leave it. But with his Mannlicher, .32 Webley Scott, or Colt .45, which require only a keen eye and a steady hand, he is a dead shot. Later, at the age of seventy, he will challenge the accuracy of Guards officers and General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower. Of Winston’s ten shots, one will hit the fringe of the bull’s-eye; the other nine will be dead center. The elite Guardsmen will scatter theirs. Poor Ike will miss the target completely.
Now Churchill may withdraw and don a silk sleeping vest for a siesta, a custom he had adopted in 1895 as a young war correspondent in Cuba, where the climate imposed it. The temperature in his bed chamber is always exactly 74 degrees Fahrenheit. Yet he insists on the vest. Slipping into it, and drawing the sleep mask over his eyes, he slides between fresh linen sheets.
He never requires a few seconds to drift off. The moment his cheek touches the pillow, before his valet has even left the room, Winston is slumbering. He can do this almost anywhere. In automobiles or aboard planes he carries a special pillow; he dons the mask, curls his head down into his chest like a mother hen, and enjoys absolute rest until the journey’s end. At Chartwell his siesta may last two hours. Refreshed, he joins his family at 5:00 P.M. , usually playing cards with Clemmie or Randolph in the drawing room. Bridge is rarely played because he never wins. He prefers bezique, a forerunner of pinochle played with six packs of cards. Bezique can be traced to the 150Os. Its antiquity qualifies it for Churchillian amusement.
As the drawing-room clock strikes 7:00 P.M. , he mounts the stairs for his second daily bath. During these ablutions he likes an audience, old companions who at appropriate moments will laugh, murmur approval, express indignation, and understand his arcane references to political upheavals on the Continent and parliamentary intrigue in London. If no close friends are among his guests, he may summon Deakin and review their progress with the Marlborough biography. As a last resort Winston will send for a “Miss” to sit outside and take dictation during pauses in his soaping, rinsing, and splashing. Before his valet guides him into his dinner jacket, he signs the day’s mail and then dawdles, putting on another record, or fashioning a bellyband, or singing “Abdul Bulbul Amir” to the thirty-eighth verse. Dinner, the day’s main event; is scheduled for 8:30. He may reach the drawing room by 8:45.