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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
Thus, when Churchill rises to speak in the House, he holds in his hand not notes on the issues he means to address but the entire text of what he intends to say. To be sure, he may say a few words suitable to the occasion, commenting on the remarks of previous speakers, but the rest is a set piece, though few know it; because his delivery gives an illusion of spontaneity and the text includes stage directions (“pause; grope for word”) and (“stammer; correct self”), each of his speeches is a dramatic, vibrant occasion.
It would be pleasant to report that his relationship with his staff is genial, that he treats them as he would his daughters, and that he is particularly patient with new secretaries. In fact he treats them like servants. A. J. P. Taylor calls him an “atrocious” taskmaster, and his attitude toward his employees is difficult to understand or, at times, even to excuse. He can summon each of his pets by name, recite poetry by the hour, and remember the exact circumstances under which he learned of an event fifty years earlier, but he knows the names of only three or four of his eighteen servants and stenographers. They are “the tall Miss with blue eyes” or “the man with ginger hair.”
Newcomers find his lisp an obstacle—they simply do not understand what he is saying—but he makes no allowance for that. “Chips” Gemmell will remember that during her first session she “sat there terrified; I couldn’t understand a word he was saying, and I couldn’t keep up with him. I thought, this is a nightmare. This isn’t happening. So I went plop, plop, quite convinced it wasn’t real.” Winston didn’t read her typescript until the team assembled in the study the following evening. He glanced through the first two pages, his face passing through deeper and deeper shades of red and his frown growing more savage until he rose, flung the sheets on the floor, stamped his feet and screamed: “You haven’t got one word in fifty right! Not one word in fifty! NOT ONE WORD IN FIFTY!”
She froze. So did Elizabeth NeI, when, on the evening of her secretarial baptism, she found her machine had been set at single, not double spacing. With Churchill rattling along, uncharacteristically fluent at this early hour, she had no time to switch. After she had passed him the first page, she will recall, “he went off like a rocket. I was a fool, a mug, an idiot: I was to leave his presence and one of the others was to appear.” Later she was given a second chance, and, still later, a third. She was understandably nervous, and “my apprehensions were seldom ill-founded. More often than not it would come skimming back to me with a few red alterations on it, sometimes to the accompaniment of remarks disparaging to my education and sense of hearing.” Yet their misunderstandings are completely understandable. Who can blame a stenographer who types lemons when he means the Greek island of Lemnos, mistakes fretful for dreadful, or perfervid for perverted? Winston can and does; he rages and stamps his feet. (Foot stamping is his outlet with women, a substitute for obscenities; if only men were present he would cut loose with a string of short Anglo-Saxon oaths “mostly beginning,” as he put it, “with the earlier letters of the alphabet.”)
Occasionally the secretaries guess at a word, trusting to chance rather than provoke certain wrath by asking, “What did you say, sir?” Any break in his creative flow is intolerable to him. When a girl reaches the bottom of a page, she must remove paper, carbon, and second sheet, then insert a new set and roll it into place. Winston makes no allowance for this. He barks: “Come on! Come on! What are you waiting for?” The crackling of carbon and the flimsy second sheets is almost as intolerable to him as whistling. He splutters: “Don’t fidget so with that paper! Stop it!” His tantrums would be more bearable if he apologized afterward or complimented them on work well done. He never does either. When one of the secretaries carries on the night after one of his outbursts, he may mutter, “There. I knew you could do it.” Or if one bursts into tears: “Good heavens, you mustn’t mind me. We’re all toads beneath the harrow, you know.” Once a manservant stood up to him. The result was a blazing row. At the end of it, Churchill, his lower lip jutting, said, “You were very rude to me, you know.” The servant, still seething, replied, “Yes, but you were rude too.” Churchill grumbled, “Yes, but I am a great man.”