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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
It is lunch on a far grander scale, with more guests, of greater distinction, silvery buckets of iced champagne, Churchill presiding in his grandest manner, and several courses. Among those likeliest to be served are clear soup, oysters, caviar, gruyère cheese, pté de fois gras, trout, shoulder of lamb, lobster, dressed crab, petite marmite, scampi, Dover sole, chocolate éclairs, and, of course, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. Winston never eats tripe, crumpets, sausages, cabbage, salami, sauerkraut, corned beef, or rice pudding. Clemmie, who knows his preferences, has briefed the cook on what is to be the menu. He decides when meals are to be served, he determines who is to be invited, and he is, and always will be, the dominant figure at the table.
If he has been in London recently, different versions of his latest witticism have been repeated in the clubs of Pall Mall and St. James’s, in drawing rooms of the West End and the City’s counting rooms. Asked now to confirm them, he nods as he gropes for a match or the stem of his wineglass, pausing occasionally to correct a verb or alter syntax. His cousin and frequent adversary Lord Londonderry, hoping to drive home a point, had asked him: “Have you read my latest book?” Winston replied: “No, I only read for pleasure or profit.” In Parliament he had remarked upon Sir Stafford Cripps’s “look of injured guilt.” So many cabinet ministers wanted ennoblement that he had protested: “They can’t all have peerages; there ought to be some disappearages.” One member of the Government had protested that this was a slur; Churchill shot back, “I know of no case where a man added to his dignity by standing on it.”
It is difficult to keep up with a host who can set such a pace. Nevertheless the dinner is not a one-man show. David Lloyd George has been in Parliament ten years longer than Churchill and an awesome prime minister for six. Sir Archibald Sinclair—who, when Churchill led a battalion in the trenches, served as his second-in-command—is about to assume leadership of the Liberal party, which, with fifty-nine seats in the House, holds the balance between Labour and the Conservatives. Alfred Duff Cooper and Anthony Eden, both of whom were decorated for bravery in France, hold subcabinet posts in the government and will soon become full-fledged ministers, Duff Cooper at the War Office and Eden as foreign secretary.
Late in life Mary will recall: “The ‘basic’ house party, enlarged by other guests, usually formed a gathering it would be hard to beat for value. There was little warming up; the conversation plunged straight into some burning or vital question. But the talk was by no means confined to politics; it ranged over history, art, and literature; it toyed with philosophical themes; it visited the past and explored the future. The Prof and his slide rule were much in demand on all scientific problems. Sometimes the conversation was a ding-dong battle of wits and words between, say, Winston and Duff Cooper, with the rest of the company skirmishing on the sidelines and keeping score. The verbal pyrotechnics waxed hot and fierce, usually dissolving into gales of laughter.” Then, she remembers, conversation “usually dwindled” as everyone wanted to “share the main ‘entertainment,’” which was almost always “a dramatic and compelling monologue from Winston.” Frequently he would recite “Horatius,” and “this was very popular with the children, as we could join in ‘the brave days of old’ bits.”
In 1932 few share their host’s profound distrust of Hitler, but all meet his conversational standards: “The man who cannot say what he has to say in good English cannot have very much to say that is worth listening to.” None hesitates to speak up when he pauses for breath. Winston is unresentful of this. As Sir David Hunt will recall long afterward: “He has been accused of excessive addiction to the monologue; there was certainly a tendency that way but he was always tolerant of interjections from his listeners if they were relevant or amusing.” Collin Brooks, comparing Churchill in the House with Churchill at Chartwell, notes that “the slow, solemn, weighted pace of his public speeches yields, in the privacy of his home, to a quicker flow.” Winston’s casual quips “sparkle and sting, but the talk is unhurried, with occasional pauses, for effect or to hold his listeners while he gropes for the right word.”
“I know of no case where a man added to his dignity by standing on it,” he shot back.
Brooks sets down two of his observations about politics: “We know all the trite things said of Parliamentary life, and some of them are true. But where, in these days, in what forum, what arena, can a man so test, develop and apply his gifts and his qualities? There is scope for everything—industry, gallantry, inventiveness....Its mode of oratory, we know, has changed, but the House still has a place for those who cultivate the rhetorical graces. Anyone who has anything constructive to offer to his country should endeavor to make his way into the House of Commons, for it is there that the ultimate seat of power is to be found.”