The Lion Caged

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He is approaching his daily lunch crisis. The meal is to be served at 1:15; often eminent guests are arriving. And he is never there to greet them. He deplores this tardiness in himself yet cannot break it, though everyone within seething distance of Chartwell knows the explanation: he systematically underestimates, usually by about five minutes, the length of time he needs to do everything, from shaving to wriggling about while his valet dresses him. Its most hair-raising consequences come while he is traveling. Once at Coventry Station a close friend was pacing the platform beside an infuriated Clementine. The conductor was signaling “All aboard” when Winston finally came in sight. The friend told Clemmie, “Winston’s a sporting man; he always gives the train a chance to get away.” Even at Chartwell his dilatoriness is a source of distress for both his family and the manor’s staff. Once a manservant conspired against him by setting his bedroom clock ahead. It worked for a while, because he scorned that offspring of trench warfare, the wristwatch, remaining loyal to his large gold watch, known to the family as “the turnip,” which lay beyond his grasp. Once his suspicions were aroused, however, the game was up; he exposed it by simply asking morning visitors the time of day.

Eventually a communal effort by all available servants propels their master down into the drawing room, which he enters with a beaming here-I-am-at-last expression. If the assembled guests include a newcomer under the impression that it is a normal upper-class British home, that person is swiftly disillusioned by the greetings exchanged among the Churchills. Instead of “Hullo” they utter elementary animal sounds: “Wow wow!” or “Miaow!” In the family, Christian names are replaced by exotic nicknames. Clementine addresses her husband as “Pug,” he calls her “Cat”; the children are “Puppy Kitten” (Diana), “the chumbolly” (Randolph), “Mule” (Sarah), and “Mouse” (Mary).

At the round, oaken dining-room table on the floor below, Churchill chooses to sit facing eastward (making that the head of the round table), looking out across his terrace toward the largest of his artificial lakes. The servants place a silver Georgian candle by his setting. He will need it when, after one of his long monologues, he finds that his cigar has gone out. As he approaches his chair, it is evident that he anticipates the meal with relish. Although he scorns exercise, his appetite is always keen. He cannot, however, be considered a gourmet. Intricate dishes are unappreciated by him; for lunch he prefers Irish stew, Yorkshire pudding with “good red beef,” as he calls it, or an unsauced whiting with its tail in its mouth. Furthermore, he is a confirmed anthropomorphist; he has adopted many of Chartwell’s chickens as pets, has even given them names and speaks of them as his “friends.” So there is rarely fowl.

To Churchill a meal without wine would not be a meal at all. In his eight years as squire of Chartwell he has yet to pass a day without confronting a shining bottle of champagne, always at dinner and often at lunch also. But he confines himself to a single glass now. Apart from his contempt for the fiction that red meat and white wine do not mix, his drinking habits are characteristic of upper-class Englishmen. He regards the American martini as barbaric, and when Jan Christian Smuts arrives and presents him with a bottle of South African brandy, he takes a sip, rolls it around on his tongue, then rolls his eyes, and, beaming at his old friend, says: “My dear Smuts, it is excellent.” He pauses. “But it is not brandy.” At the end of lunch, after a glass of port with a plain ice and a ripe Stilton, he greets the appearance of Hines, real brandy, with a blissful smile and the reaming of a fresh cigar. Brandy, he believes, is essential to a stable diet, and the older the bottle, the better. Although uninebriated, he becomes more genial, more affable, more expansive, radiating reassurance and a feeling of Courage, mon ami, le diable est mort.

And mort et bien mort he is here. Sir John Colville may well be right in arguing that Churchill’s friends are—except for the absence of boors and the garrulous—notable for their variety. They include the witty, the ambitious, the lazy, the dull, the exhibitionist, the talented, the intellectual, and, above all, the honorable. But the most gifted will appear at dinner. And his guests are all friends. In London, even at his pied-à-terre at No. 11 Morpeth Mansions, he is embattled. He needs no snipers here.

But neither are guests confined to lickspittles and sycophants. Himself a celebrity before the turn of the century, before the word had entered common usage, Churchill relishes the company of others in the public eye. His favorite American, the financier Bernard Baruch, visits here whenever in England. T. E. Lawrence, now serving in the RAF ranks under an assumed name, roars up on his motorcycle and, knowing that the spectacle will enchant Mary, appears at dinner in his robes as a Prince of Arabia.