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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
From 1931 to 1939, Churchill published eleven books and more than four hundred articles.
Sometimes, as Cecily “Chips” Gemmell will recall, the opening hour is “ghastly.” There is no diverting him. A stenographer peers through a window and observes blithely, “It’s dark outside.” Churchill, giving her a bleak look, replies pitilessly, “It generally is at night.” His creative flow is blocked; he will prowl around, fling himself into a chair, bury his head in his hands and mutter, “Christ, I’ve got to do this speech, and I can’t do it, I can’t.” On these occasions, Detective Thompson notes, Winston is “a kicker of wastebaskets, with an unbelievably ungovernable bundle of bad temper. It is better to stay away from him at such times, and this his family seeks to do.”
But the help has no choice. In time a word will come; then another word; then a lengthy search for the right phrase, ending, after a prolonged mumbling to himself, with a chortle of delight as he finds it. But his pace is still halting; Sir John Martin, one of his principal private secretaries, will later recall it as a “long process, while he carefully savored and chose his words, often testing alternative words or phrases in a low mutter before coming out loudly with the final choice.” He is trying to establish rhythm, and once he has it, his pace quickens. Beginning where he will begin in the House, he opens with what Harold Nicolson calls a “dull, stuffy manner, reciting dates and chronology,” but as he progresses he takes a livelier tone, introducing his familiar quips and gestures. Most writers regard the act of creativity as the most private of moments, but for Churchill it is semipublic; not only is the staff on hand, but any guest willing to sacrifice an hour’s sleep is also welcome. Here he paces. In the House of Commons pacing is impossible, so he has adopted a different mode of delivery there. Harold Nicolson notes: “His most characteristic gesture is strange indeed. You know the movement a man makes when he taps his trouser pockets to see whether he has got his latch-key? Well, Winston pats both trouser pockets and then passes his hands up and down from groin to tummy. It’s very strange.”
In Parliament his wit can flash and sting, but Members who know him well are aware that he has honed these barbs in advance, and only visitors in the Stranger’s Gallery are under the impression that his great perorations are extemporaneous. They are the product of toil, sweat, and frequent tears. On the average he spends between six and eight hours preparing a forty-minute speech. Frequently, as he dictates passages that will stir his listeners, he weeps; his voice becomes thick with emotion, tears run down his cheeks (and his secretary’s). Like any other professional writer, he takes his text through several drafts before it meets his standards, but even in its roughest stages it is free of cant and bureaucratic jargon. Where Stanley Baldwin has said “a bilateral agreement has been reached,” Churchill makes it “joined hands together.” The “League of Defense Volunteers” becomes the “Home Guard.” One sure way of rousing his temper is to call a lorry a “commercial vehicle” or alter “the poor” to the “lowerincome group.” He wages a long, and, in the end, successful campaign to change the civil service’s standard comment “the answer is in the affirmative” to a simple “yes.” A Churchillian text includes such inimitable phrases as “the jaws of winter,” “hard and heavy tidings,” and—neither Pitman nor Gregg is equal to this—”a cacophonous chorus.” In both conversation and dictation he uses words with great precision and insists that others do the same. On a trip, his physician comments: “I hope you did not catch cold sitting on the balcony in the chill night air.” His patient, smiling mischievously, corrects him: “Portico, not balcony, Charles.”
One of his secretaries remembers that they were required to take down every audible word from him; he often changes his mind in midpassage, but he may change it back. If he says “I was going” and adds after a pause “I decided to go,” they type: “I was going. I decided to go.” They spell one another from time to time, not because they are exhausted; he wants to see what he had said in cold type. He will revise it in his red ink, redictate it, and scrutinize it again. Occasionally he will add a paragraph. When at last he has a final version, it will be typed, on a machine with outsized type, on small pieces of paper, eight by four inches, the whole lot klopped and strung to a tag. The speech will be set in broken lines to aid his delivery—“speech form,” or “psalm form,” as Lord Halifax called it: