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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
Bracken is one of his two most striking disciples. The other is in many ways Brendan’s opposite. Born in Germany of an American mother, Frederick A. Lindemann took his doctorate at the University of Berlin in 1910, continued his scientific studies in Paris and Brussels, confirmed Einstein’s refinement of Planck’s quantum theory, and, as a member of the Royal Aircraft Establishment in the Great War, organized London’s kite-balloon barrage. More spectacular was his solution to the Royal Flying Corps’ greatest problem in 1916. British pilots were dying daily in nose dives. At the Royal Aircraft Establishment in Farnborough, Lindemann worked out, with mathematical precision, a maneuver which, he said, would bring any aircraft out of a spin. The pilots said it wouldn’t work. “The Prof,” as Churchill always calls him, taught himself to fly, took off without a parachute, deliberately sent the aircraft down in a spin, and brought it out so successfully that mastering his solution became required of every beginning flier. After the Armistice he was appointed Professor of Experimental Philosophy at Oxford and recognized as one of Europe’s leading physicists. Now, in 1932, “the Prof” has just published his Physical Significance of the Quantum Theory. His Oxford colleagues believe that his best work is behind him; Professor Derek Jackson notes that the younger generation regards him “as more of a theoretical physicist devoid of experimental ability.” Churchill disagrees, and so will history. At a time when Stanley Baldwin is preaching his defeatist gospel, that there is no defense against aerial bombardment, Lindemann has begun to study the preliminary findings of Robert Watson-Watt, a Scottish physicist, on the locating of unseen aircraft by the use of radio beams. Radio Direction Finder, or RDF, will become Lindemann’s great mission in the 1930s; it will save England in 1940 and, after its readoption by the Americans (they had done the earliest work in the field, then dropped it), will be rechristened Radio Detection and Ranging, or radar. By then Lindemann, as Lord Cherwell, will be devoting his wizardry to splitting the atom.
Lindemann’s achievements cannot be impeached, but in his own way he can be trying. Even by Chartwell’s standards, he is odd. Indeed, he seems to be everything Winston is not. Tobacco in any form is anathema to him. He lives largely on egg whites and is a vegetarian and teetotaler, except when, as a guest here, he bows to his host’s insistence that he consume exactly thirty-two cubic centimeters of brandy a day. He always wears a bowler, even on a warship or in the cockpit of an RAF fighter. His valet, Harvey, who drives his huge, unwieldy limousine, is his double, matching his attire of the day shirt by shirt, sock by sock, and bowler by bowler.
The Prof will follow Churchill anywhere. Winston’s motives for cultivating him are very different. Lindemann’s many talents include a matchless gift as an interpreter of science for laymen. In the words of Sir John Colville, Lindemann can “simplify the most opaque problem, scientific, mechanical or economic,” translating technical jargon into language that provides a “lucid explanation” and sacrifices “nothing of importance.” Churchill loathes scientific terminology. He never even mastered public school arithmetic. The Prof provides him with the essential facts when he needs them without disrupting his concentration on other matters.
Like radar, Lindemann’s “beautiful brain,” as Churchill calls it, will prove worth several divisions in the struggle to save England from Hitler. Less than ten years from now he will arrive at No. 10 Downing Street with clear, accurate charts that, by replacing statistics, present displays showing England’s stockpiles of vital raw materials, the rate at which ships are being launched on the Clyde, and Britain’s production of tanks, artillery, small arms, and warplanes in terms the prime minister can understand.
Assuming Chartwell’s guest book is a reliable index, the only ladies who will be invited to lunch in Churchill’s heaven will be escorted, and they will be expected to confine themselves to smiling when their host makes a clever remark, nodding vigorously when he has expressed an opinion, and expressing no opinion of their own. But this is not sexist, because it also applies to gentlemen guests. Winston means to dominate them and cheerfully acknowledges it; his own idea of a fine meal is to dine well and then discuss a serious topic—“with myself as chief conversationalist.” It isn’t even conversation; unlike Lloyd George he is a poor listener, has little interest in what others have to say, and, if he is not the speaker, withdraws into silent communion with himself while his interior monologue, the flow of private rhetoric, soars on. Mary will recall that “small talk or social chitchat bored Winston profoundly—but he rarely suffered from it, since he completely ignored it, pursuing his own themes.”