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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
In London he will give those who disagree with him a fair hearing; two of his favorite aphorisms are “I would rather be right than consistent” and “In the course of my life I have often had to eat my words, and I must confess that I have always found it a wholesome diet.” But at Chartwell, with a pony of brandy in one hand and a cigar in the other, he is inclined to bully those who challenge him. And the fact is that few dare try. Lords Birkenhead and Beaverbrook could. Birkenhead could cross foils with Churchill and win as often as he lost. It is perhaps significant that he became Winston’s best friend. And the man has not drawn breath who can intimidate Beaverbrook, the great press lord who, when he first met Churchill in 1911, was plain Max Aitken, a Canadian upstart. During one visit here he declined wine with his Stilton. “Port is the brother of cheese,” his host said in lordly reproach. “Yes,” Max flashed back, “and the sister of gout.” But Birkenhead has lain in his grave two years. And Beaverbrook, though Churchill’s once and future ally, will seldom be seen at Chartwell in this decade; the feisty Beaverbrook, for all his shrewdness, shares the almost unanimous conviction of England’s ruling classes that Winston exaggerates the Nazi menace; like his fellow press lords, he believes Hitler’s friendship worth cultivating and assures his readers—he will reassure them every year, even when the sands are running out in 1939—that “there will be no war.”
Lacking peers in colloquy, Churchill rules his table as an absolute monarch. In the quaint manner of Victorian parliamentarians, the gesture always precedes the message. His expression radiates benevolence, his arms are spread to embrace everyone there; then, having opened all hearts, he speaks of today’s guest of honor, usually an old friend. Then his visage darkens, he points a threatening finger, and you await the inevitable consignment of a transgressor—never present—to his doom. Today’s wretch turns out to be the long-dead historian Thomas Babington Macaulay, who dared slander Winston’s ancestor John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough. The great duke’s great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson thunders his verdict: “It is beyond our hopes to overtake Lord Macaulay. We can only hope that truth will follow swiftly enough to fasten the label ‘liar’ to his genteel coattails.”
Guests say afterward that the host is so fascinating they cannot remember what they ate. Harold Laski carries this a step further, observing that many of them, in trying to remember all Winston’s mots, overlook the flaws in his reasoning. Other critics note that Churchill has no small talk, though as Virginia Cowles asks, “Why should anyone want small talk when Churchill is at the peak of his form?” Certainly no one here tries to stop him. Later Lady Longford will write that “his set-pieces were so brilliant that few listeners wished to interrupt. Similarly, they recognized that he was self-centered precisely because he had an interior vision which must be brought to the light of day. They felt privileged to assist.”
Absolutely secure here, he can laugh at himself and encourage others to join him. “Megalomania,” he says, referring to his domineering manner, “is the only form of sanity.” He has just published a collection of his magazine articles under the title Thoughts and Adventures (Amid These Storms in the United States) and, as usual, he sent hand-tooled, morocco-bound copies to friends and acquaintances in high places. Opening an envelope bearing the royal crest, he reads aloud an acknowledgement from the Duke of Gloucester: “Dear Winston. Thank you for your new book. I have put it on the shelf with the others.” And he relishes and retells the story of how Birkenhead, his adversary when Winston was the Liberal Member for Dundee, set a Tory rally roaring with laughter by interrupting his speech to say, “I see, from the Dundee Advertiser—I mean the newspaper, not the politician....” Like a man trying on neckties, Churchill tests his phrases at lunch, watching faces to measure their effect. “An immense responsibility,” he ruminates, “rests upon the German people for this subservience to the barbaric idea of autocracy. This is the gravamen against them in history—that, in spite of all their brains and courage, they worship power, and let themselves be led by the nose.”
The last drop of brandy is gone. He gives the empty bottles a glance, not of regret, but of affection; he will do a painting of them, he announces, and call the completed canvas Bottlescape. Through the meal his visage has been kaleidoscopic: somber, mischievous, bored, proud, arrogant, magnanimous, despairing, indifferent, exalted, contemptuous, adoring. Now it screws up, creasing his laugh lines, and he makes a crowing, expiratory sound in his throat—signs, as his friends know, that he is about to amuse then, perhaps with that odd brand of self-mockery to which British soldiers and parliamentarians alike turn in times of adversity.
They are right. He tells of once taking his annual Riviera holiday without his valet. This, for a patrician of his generation, was a momentous decision. He had never been on a bus or even seen the tube. In traveling alone he felt he was “striking a blow for equality and fraternity,” but misadventures plagued him all the way, and he described each, relishing the details.