February/March 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 2
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.
Chartwell 1932. Early morning. The first olive moments of daylight, anticipating the imminent appearance of the sun over the English Channel, disclose a wide, misty, treeless plain descending to the South Downs and the sea. This is the great green Weald of Kent. It is a peculiarity of the Weald’s terrain—demonstrated in the shrouded past by Romans, Saxons, and Normans—that it would be quite defenseless should an enterprising foe cross the Channel. Were any force to prepare for an invasion, its campfires on the far shore would be visible from here. But now, fourteen years after the Armistice of 1918, the Weald is an idyll of peace, and the explorer on foot finds that it possesses camouflaged delights. Its smooth breast, for example, is not entirely unbroken. The pastureland, sloping upward toward London, is cleaved by a shallow valley. This comb rises to a timbered crest. There, among eighty-two sheltering acres of beech, oak, lime, and chestnut, stands the singular country home of England’s most singular statesman, a brilliant, domineering, intuitive, inconsiderate, self-centered, emotional, generous, ruthless, visionary, megalo-maniacal, and heroic genius who inspires fear, devotion, rage, and admiration among his peers.
At the very least he is the greatest Englishman since Wellington, a quaint survivor of Britain’s past who grapples with the future because he alone can see it. Yet even as events in Central Europe confirm his warnings, the House of Commons, which didn’t heed them and now ignores them, shouts him down, silencing the old lion who asks but for one more pounce, knowing that if he misses his spring all that he cherishes, including freedom and Western civilization, will be irrevocably lost.
Now in his fifty-eighth year, he is already regarded as an anachronism. He first became a household word as a gallant young British officer, a loyal subject of Queen Victoria, handsome and recklessly brave, serving in battles on India’s northwest frontier, with Kitchener at Khartoum, and in the Boer War—all symbols of the nation’s imperial past, which he fiercely defends despite flagging allegiance elsewhere in the realm. He is mocked for failures that were not his, notably his strategy to force the Dardanelles, which, under competent officers, could have brought the Allied Powers a brilliant, relatively bloodless victory by 1916 but was bungled by timid British commanders at the scene and inadequate support in Whitehall. He seems less a figure of the twentieth century (which he loathes) than of the nineteenth or, reaching even farther back, of Renaissance versatility. The wide sweep of his interests and activities embraces literature, painting, philosophy, hunting, polo, military science, the history of the United States—even architecture, bricklaying, and landscaping. Indeed, many of the shining ponds, pools, and happy waterfalls between the Weald and the manor were created by him, wearing hiphigh Wellingtons and excavating the rich earth with his hands.
Tree-locked and silent at dawn, Chartwell’s grounds further testify to his stamina. On the south side of the house a garden walled by pleasant red brick—walled by him—invites his guest inside the “Mary Scot,” a brick playhouse that he built for his ten-year-old daughter Mary. Between the playhouse and the great house lie his orchard of fruit trees and a tennis court of barbered grass he shaped for his wife, Clementine. Eastward the flushed sky reveals a lawn terrace; northward his heated swimming pool and a pool inhabited by black swans and “Churchill’s goldfish” (actually golden orfe). He is planning to cement into Chartwell’s north wall, overlooking the pool, the family’s coat of arms and its Spanish motto, so appropriate in these years of Churchill’s political exile: Fiel Pero Desdichado (“faithful but unfortunate”).
Interspersed among other gardens on the grounds are various lesser buildings, including a painting studio. A white cottage with two bedrooms houses Maryott Whyte, Mary’s governess—“Nana” to the little girl but “Cousin Moppet” to the others; she and Nellie Romilly, Clementine’s sister, are two of Mrs. Churchill’s relatives sharing the household tasks. Another cottage is planned; Winston expects to finish it in 1939; then he and Clemmie will move into it, leaving the mansion to their son, Randolph. It is startling to realize that you are less than twenty-five miles from Hyde Park Corner. There men on soapboxes tell crowds that society is rushing toward catastrophe. In seven years it will be upon them, but here all is serene. The sound of heavy guns, the roar of hostile bomb-laden aircraft overhead, arrowing toward London, is unimaginable. Quietude lies like a comforting veil over the householder’s small masterpiece, and his Daimler 35/120 six-cylinder Landaulette seems an intrusion. He would do without it if he could; he despises automobiles, and if he encounters a traffic jam on one of those infrequent occasions when he himself is at the wheel, he simply drives on the sidewalk.
The house is a metaphor of its squire. It is above all staunch. On the outside the red bricks meet neatly, within the walls are upright; studs join beams with precision, doors fit sensibly. Like the householder, it is complex and, like him, steeped in the past. Most of the existing structure was built late in the fifteenth century, but annals record an owner in 1350, and the oldest part of the building, now occupied by Churchill’s study, dates from twenty years after the Battle of Hastings, making it ten years older than Westminster Hall. After acquiring it for 5,000 in the early 1920s, he spent 18,000 on renovations. The front is stately, almost classic in its simplicity. The back of the mansion is craggy, a consequence of the master’s many accretions.
At daybreak the air is fresh and cool, but by midmorning it will be uncomfortably warm, and the mullioned, transomed windows are open. There is an exception. Those in Churchill’s bedroom are puttied shut. He likes the country, but not country air; drafts, he believes, invite common colds, to which he has been susceptible since childhood. There is also the matter of noise. Any noise, especially if high-pitched, is an abomination. The jangling of cowbells will destroy his train of thought. But whistling, notes W. H. Thompson, the Scotland Yard detective who serves as his bodyguard from time to time, is the worst: “It sets up an almost psychiatric disturbance in him—intense, immediate, and irrational. I have seen him expostulate with boys on the street who were whistling as he passed....”
Daybreak brings movement to Chartwell’s grounds. Sleep still envelops master, mistress, and their four children—Diana, twenty-three and about to be married; Randolph, twenty-one and already a problem (he has been drinking double brandies since he was eighteen); titianhaired Sarah, dreaming of fame on the stage at eighteen; and in the bedroom above her, little Mary, who mercilessly taunts Sarah about her beaux. The pets are up and about, however. Trouble, Sarah’s chocolate-colored spaniel, Harvey, Randolph’s fox terrier, and Mary’s Blenheim spaniel, Jasper, a gift of the Duchess of Marlborough, are investigating the rose bushes and anointing them. Winston’s pet cat, a marmalade named Tango, stretches himself; so does Mickey, a tabby cat; a fox trots up from the studio; horses begin to snort, a small black goat strides across the orchard, a goose waddles about aimlessly, a pig peers hopefully toward the kitchen. Presently people appear. Because today is a special occasion—all the children are home—the cook is Mrs. Georgina Landemare. These days Mrs. Landemare is here on and off, but like many other Westerham folk, she will eventually be absorbed by Chartwell and the needs of its master. Already there are eighteen servants, including Mr. Kurn, an assistant gardener who now arrives from his home in nearby Westerham to prowl the grounds in his daily search for the cigar butts Winston discarded yesterday, to use in his pipe.
Most of the staff are natives of Westerham. Both his secretaries, Grace Hamblin and Violet Pearman (“Mrs. P.”), live within walking distance. Since childhood they have known Frank Jenner, the Westerham taxi driver who sometimes carries Churchill to Parliament and back and also serves as Chartwell’s handyandy, and Harry Whitbread, the laborer who taught Churchill to lay bricks and returns from time to time to work beside him. All of them, regardless of political persuasion, are proud of their eminent neighbor, though far from awed. Whitbread lectures him on how workingmen see social issues; Winston is attentive and thanks him afterward. The town delights in Churchillian lore. Once a month Westerham’s barber trims his fringe of hair in his bedroom. Recently a temporary replacement asked him how he would like his hair cut. Churchill replied: “A man of my limited resources cannot presume to have a hairstyle. Get on and cut it.”
Chartwell is Churchill’s sanctuary, his great keep. All his forays into tumultuous London politics are made from this sure base. However harsh the storms in the House, or the attacks on him in the press, here he is among friends and on grounds which, to him, epitomize his island nation. To him the essence of Chartwell is that it is completely, utterly, entirely English.
As one of the last great advocates of the British Empire, he remembers the dictum of Queen Victoria: “I think it very unwise to give up what we hold.” His struggle against England’s pledge to free India has cost him much. But on matters of principle he has never learned how to compromise. He does not know how to give in.
Had he yielded on India, he could have looked to broader, brighter horizons. But he believes in his star. And if he can be spectacularly wrong, he can also be terrifically right. Almost alone he has seen England imperiled by the greatest evil Europe has ever known. If we are to understand his victories and his defeats, we must try to define him, to identify him. One way is to follow him through a typical day at Chartwell. It is worthwhile if only because he will be forever remembered, not only as a great statesman but also as one of history’s great originals.
The spacious cream drawing room overlooks the Weald. Beneath the prismatic gleams of its eighteenth-century chandeliers, an exquisite little clock stands upon a mahogany Louis XVI bureau à cylindre. Now, at 8:00 A.M., it chimes. Above, in the householder’s study, the sound is echoed as another clock also tells the hour. Simultaneously a sibilant rustle of Irish linen breaks the hush in Churchill’s bedroom a few feet away, as he sits bolt upright and yanks off his black satin sleep mask. He, not the sun, determines when he will greet the new day. Fumbling on the bedside table, he rings the bell for his valet-cumbutler or, as Churchill says, “my man.”
Awaiting his man, he peers around, rumpled but remarkably alert in view of the fact that he retired, as is his custom, only six hours ago. Poised thus, he is surrounded by Churchilliana. Elsewhere Chartwell’s decor reflects Clementine Churchill’s understated upper-class elegance, but her husband is a flamboyant swashbuckler, a throwback to the cavaliers or the Elizabethan patriciate with its aristocratic disdain for the opinions of others. Thus this most personal part of the mansion is decorated not with implicit grace, but with explicit flourish—Benares brass, an ornate Fabergé cigar box, engraved plates of gold and silver, and, standing in solitary splendor, a gold-headed walking stick engraved “to my youngest minister,” his wedding present from King Edward VII and a reminder of the 1880s, when Edward was Prince of Wales and Winston’s mother, Jennie, was the prince’s mistress, and also an evocation of the first decade of the new century, when young Winston was a rising power in the Edwardian Parliament.
A minute passes; two minutes. No valet. Winston fumes; the Churchillian lower lip juts out. His bizarre daily schedule deceives visitors who think it disorderly. Those who live at Chartwell know better. Though very odd, it is a schedule—is, in fact, a rigid one. Young F. W. Deakin will soon join the household, leaving his don’s rooms at Christ Church, Oxford, to be the chief researcher (at a mere £300 a year) for Winston’s multivolume biography of his great ancestor John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough. Long afterward Deakin will recall: “He was totally organized, almost like a clock. His routine was absolutely dictatorial. He set himself a ruthless timetable every day and would get very agitated, even cross, if it was broken.” He is very cross now. His valet is often dilatory, though today the blame is not his. Lately the bell has not been working properly. And though Churchill is now bellowing, his shouts are unheard. That is partly his fault. The walls in this part of the mansion are thick. But by puttying all the crevices, he has effectively soundproofed the room.
Raging, he flings aside the counterpane, leaps out, stamps his bare foot like a spoiled child, and then stalks dramatically across the room, crossing the threshold and reaching the landing in pursuit of his man. This happens from time to time, and the effect is sometimes spectacular, for Churchill sleeps naked and remains so on such sorties. He will don a robe when visiting other homes, “in deference,” as he puts it, to his hosts’ “views of propriety,” but at Chartwell he feels free to roam around nude; as one of his servants will later explain, it seems “completely natural to him.” It did not seem natural to a young housemaid who has just left his employ. Looking up the stairwell one morning, she beheld, on the top step, Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill in the buff—all 210 pounds of him, a tall, pink man with a bald, smooth dome and broad if slightly stooped shoulders, glaring down at her, as one of Winston’s secretaries remembers, “like a laser beam.” The girl fled shrieking and was last seen disappearing in the direction of the walled garden. She has sent for her belongings and her pay.
At long last his valet arrives with profuse apologies—a little man with few teeth, a pronounced lisp, and many comical gestures, which the Churchill children delight in mimicking. But their father values him; whatever his flaws, he knows the daily drill. He opens the day properly, carrying in a tray bearing his master’s first meal of the day—orange juice from a bottle (Winston detests freshly squeezed juice) and a cooked English breakfast, with, as the pièce de résistance, a small steak, or a cutlet Churchill ordered set aside at last evening’s dinner for this very purpose. There is also a small dish of jam, usually black cherry. If the jam has been forgotten Winston will lie there propped on pillows, pouting and refusing to touch anything on the tray until the jam appears.
Rising, he moves toward the bathroom with an alacrity surprising for his age and weight and quickly shaves himself with a safety razor while Sawyers draws the first of his two daily baths. Like preparing the breakfast, this requires precision. Churchill will not enter the tub until it is two-thirds full and the bath thermometer registers 98 degrees. Once in, he demands that the temperature be raised to 104 degrees. Sawyers, obedient, again opens the hot spigot. The water has now reached the brim. Winston likes it that way; on his instructions the bath’s overflow drain has been sealed off. This is splendid hydrotherapy, but like his immodest excursions beyond his bedroom door, it invites disaster. He likes to play in his bath, and when on impulse he turned a somersault, “exactly like a porpoise,” a spectator recalls, the tub overflowed, damaging the ceiling below and, worse, drenching the frock of an eminent Frenchman who had called there to pay his respects. Now a special drain has been installed. Churchill lolls in his bath, reciting Kipling, rehearsing speeches or lectures he will soon deliver, or singing, not in the virile baritone familiar in Parliament, but in a soft, high tone. Elsewhere in the great building, Sarah (“Mule,” he fondly calls her) has risen and is playing the most popular hit of the season on her phonograph: Don’t know why there’s no sun up in the sky,/Stormy Weather, since my man and I ain’t together....
Sarah’s father prefers to recall melodies that evoke the England of his youth, long before 1914 and Armageddon, when, as he wrote afterward in his five-volume history of the Great War, “the world on the verge of its catastrophe was very brilliant,” when “nations and empires crowned with princes and potentates rose majestically on every side, lapped in the accumulated treasures of the long peace”—when young patricians like Lt. Winston S. Churchill, Subaltern of Horse in Her Britannic Majesty’s Fourth Hussars, lived like gods here and throughout the vast British Empire. Talleyrand observed that those who did not live under l’ancien régime did not know what true douceur de vivre meant. Being a young aristocrat in the Victorian and Edwardian eras had been fun, and Winston sings the popular music-hall ballads of those days. “Burlington Bertie,” “Ta-rah-rah-BOOM-de-ay!,” “One of the Ruins That Cromwell Knocked About a Bit,” “The Union Jack of Good Old England,” and “She Was Only a Policeman’s Daughter, but Her Bathing Suit Never Got Wet.” He never tires of the great wit of the Boer War:
Nor of booming out Victorian England’s anthem of imperial conquest:
In the England of 1932, glory has become a discredited word. After the “glorious dead” of the Somme and Passchendaele, the word glory soils the air. Therefore, when Churchill warns of a Germany obsessed with a yearning for revenge, crowds heckle him or drift away. He is no tribune of the people now. Although he believes in radical social solutions, he remains a traditionalist in all else. And tradition, he holds, begins at home. The ritualistic unfolding of a Chartwell day, from dawn to Kent’s long, blue twilight is for him a kind of private pageant. He enjoys it; he considers it as efficient as it is delightful, and he never doubts—nor does anyone else sleeping beneath this roof—that he alone is qualified to be the playwright, producer, director, stage manager, and, of course, hero of the performance.
It is time for the star to don his first costume. Emerging from his bath pink and clean, he waits impatiently until his valet has toweled him dry and then slips into one of two worn-out, cherished dressing gowns. The more subdued is dark-blue velvet, with his initials embroidered in gold over the pocket; the other, a riot of green and gold displaying a scarlet dragon coiled sinuously around his plump torso. His valet has been busy during his bath. Churchill will remain in bed until early afternoon, and for a man with his tender skin, this invites bedsores. Therefore his valet has brought a basket of large sponges, which he now deftly thrusts between the sheet and Churchill’s elbows as his master yaws this way and that.
The tray has gone. Remaining within reach are the jam and a weak (three-ounce) Scotch and soda—always Johnny Walker Red—which the prostrate Winston will sip occasionally over the next four hours in the tradition of Palmerston, Pitt, and Baldwin. However, the legend that he is a heavy drinker is quite untrue. Churchill is a sensible, if unorthodox, drinker. There is always some alcohol in his bloodstream, and it reaches its peak late in the evening, after he has had two or three Scotches, several glasses of champagne, at least two brandies and a highball, but his family never sees him the worse for drink. He remarks, “We all despise a man who gets drunk,” and, after an exchange of views on drinking, “All I can say is that I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.”
He encourages absurd myths about his alcoholic capacity, however, partly to furbish his macho image, which needs it because he cries so often in public (“I’m a blubberer,” he cheerfully tells friends), and partly because Europeans still like to think that their leaders are men who can hold their liquor.
Winston tipples off and on all day but never gets drunk. Having tasted this first Scotch, he is ready for Mary’s pug dog, who leaps upon the bed, trembling with joy, tail wagging furiously. Churchill then lights his first cigar of the day. Chartwell’s cigar hoard, which will grow to more than three thousand, comes from Havana, mostly Romeo y Julietas and Las Aromas de Cubas, kept in a tiny room between this chamber and his study on shelves labeled “wrapped,” “naked,” and “large.” Friends and admirers have sent Winston countless cigar cutters, and he carries one on his watch chain. He never uses them, however. Instead he moistens one end of a fresh cigar, pierces it with a long match, blows through it from the other end to clear a passage, and lights it from the candle that always stands by his bed. During the course of a day he may consume ten or more cigars, but he seldom smokes one through. Indeed, most of the time they will be unlit. He simply chews them and never inhales. If one becomes hopelessly frayed, he may wrap it in gummed brown paper, calling this improvisation a “bellyband.”
The morning papers are neatly stacked by the bed, with the Times and the Daily Telegraph on top and the Daily Worker on the bottom. Editorials are read first, frequently with such intense concentration that the newsprint may become hopelessly smeared with jam. That is a servant’s problem, not his; when Winston has finished a page, he simply lets it slide to the floor. All in all he devotes two hours to the press, occasionally stepping into his slippers and striding toward his wife’s bedroom to call her attention to this or that item. It may be a mere statistic representing an increase in Germany’s mineral ore imports, but he sees significance in it. Or she may arrive at his bedside on a similar errand. Although they never breakfast together, each starts the day with the same rite.
As he glares at the last pages of the Worker , Mrs. P or Grace Hamblin—later to be joined by Kathleen Hill—enters the room. It is important that she do so boldly, even noisily; her employer is not deaf, but he dislikes surprises. If someone glides in, he will rise wrathfully and roar, “Goddammit!” As she prepares to take dictation, he riffles through the morning mail, swiftly sorting it into three piles: affairs of state, private correspondence, and letters from the general public. As a young author he had written his mother, “My hand gets so cramped I am writing every word twice & some parts three times.” Now he seldom puts a word on paper himself—except when affixing his signature, correcting galley proofs, or writing close friends and his immediate family—and he always uses fountain pens, blue ink for correspondence, red for proofs. The humblest correspondent receives a reply, but the secretary writes it; Winston merely outlines in the most general way what he wants said and she, familiar with his style and his love of anachronistic phrases (“sorely tried,” “most grieved,” “keenly elated,” “pray give me the facts,” “highly diverted”) fills it out. Important letters require more thought and longer searches for the right word. Once the mail has been cleared away, memoranda dictated, and visitors greeted—he will receive anyone except the king in his bedchamber—he may summon Bill Deakin, glance through proofs, and say, “Look this up,” or “Find out about this.” Deakin may be asked to read certain documents aloud. Or Churchill may turn to speeches. By noon the cadences of his prose have begun to trot; by 1:00 P.M. they are galloping; in the words of Mrs. Hill, he would often be “dashing around in shorts and undershirt and a bright red cummerbund while I trotted behind him from room to room with a pad and pencil struggling to keep pace with the torrential flow of words.” One has the impression of a man in a desperate hurry, not even dressed yet, already behind the day’s schedule—which is, in fact, the case.
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.
Among the regulars at the table are two Members of Parliament who remain loyal to Winston in these years of his political eclipse: the handsome young Robert J. B. “Bob” Boothby and Brendan Bracken, a brash adventurer and self-made millionaire notable for his pug nose, granny glasses, disheveled mop of flaming red hair, and the extraordinary rumors, which he encourages, that he is his host’s illegitimate son. Winston finds this gossip highly amusing. Clementine does not. She is the only participant who is never intimidated by her husband’s deep frowns and hissing wrath, and her dislike of Brendan, revealed by gesture, glance, and edged voice, is stark. Churchill admires her spirit—“God,” he later confides in a friend, “she dropped down on poor Brendan like a jaguar out of a tree”—but remains silent. Others at the table wonder why. Undeniably Bracken is gifted and able. But his behavior, even in this most tolerant of homes, is atrocious. Recently he went through Clementine’s scrapbook with shears, scissoring out articles on Winston’s career.
And Winston, for reasons that reveal more about him than Bracken, enjoys the younger man’s company. Men who have done something with their lives interest him—indeed, they are the only men who do. He is particularly impressed by military men; any winner of the Victoria Cross is embraced, and when he meets Sir Bernard Freyberg, the New Zealand war hero, Churchill insists that the embarrassed Freyberg strip so that his host can count his thirty-three battle scars. Similarly, men who have amassed fortunes, while he has struggled year after year with creditors, hold enormous appeal for him. This is part of Bracken’s charm.
It also explains, in part, Winston’s fondness for Baruch, though Baruch’s appeal is broader. He is an American, he is Jewish, he recognizes the menace of the Third Reich, and Churchill is indebted to him for an extraordinary act of shrewdness and generosity. Winston had been badly hurt in the Wall Street Crash three years ago. Had it not been for Baruch, however, it would have been much worse; he could have spent the rest of his life in debt. He is not a born gambler; he is a born losing gambler. In New York at the time, he dropped into Baruch’s office and decided to play the market, and as prices tumbled he plunged deeper and deeper, trying to outguess the stock exchange just as he had tried to outguess roulette wheels on the Riviera. On Wall Street, as in Monte Carlo, he failed. At the end of the day he confronted Baruch in tears. He was, he said, a ruined man. Chartwell and everything else he possessed must be sold; he would have to leave the House of Commons and enter business. The financier gently corrected him. Churchill, he said, had lost nothing. Baruch had left instructions to buy equivalent stocks every time Churchill sold his and to sell whenever Churchill bought. Winston had come out exactly even because, he later learned, Baruch even paid the commissions.
Bracken can’t match that. Being British and in Parliament, however, he can serve his idol in other ways. In the House he is scorned as Winston’s “sheep dog,” his “lap dog,” or—this from Stanley Baldwin—his faithful cheelah, the Hindi word for minion. But uncritical admiration is precisely what Churchill needs. He is in the third of what will be ten years of political exile. No other statesman in the country’s political history has served so long a Siberian exile, and he would have to have a heart of stone not to be grateful for Bracken’s steadfast, unquestioning allegiance. Moreover, this good and faithful servant has the priceless gift of leading Churchill into laughter when he is grim, depressed, disconsolate, or angry. Winston is very much a man of moods—he can be inconsiderate, unreasonable, ill-tempered, or all three at the same time—and Brendan can coax him into a smile merely by nudging him and comparing him to a grouchy character in newspaper cartoons.
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.”
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.
His luncheon guests laugh; it is a good story. But it is more. Winston cannot get through the day without servants, and he assumes that is true of all gentlemen. It was true in his youth, but is no longer. Later John Colville, his assistant private secretary, will ask leave to become an RAF fighter pilot. Winston hates to see a valuable member of his staff go, but it is a request he, of all men, cannot refuse. Alone together, “Jock” and Winston are equals; the first Lord Colville became a peer in 1604. The younger man, like Winston, is a Harrovian; his Cambridge college is Trinity; his club, White’s. Churchill, the quondam hussar, grandly declaims, “The RAF is the cavalry of modern war.” But he is shocked when Colville tells him he will first serve in the ranks as an aircraftsman, 2nd class. Winston protests: “You mustn’t—you won’t be able to take your man!” It hasn’t crossed his mind that a civil servant earning £400 a year—about $32.30 a week—could hardly afford a valet.
Should his visitors include a guest of great eminence, Churchill will offer to show him round Chartwell’s grounds. Otherwise he proceeds with his first afternoon activity: feeding his golden orfe, ducks, and swans. Donning a Stetson—if there is a chill in the air, he will also wear an overcoat—he heads for a broad wicker chair beside the goldfish pool, calling ahead, “Arf! Arf!” or “Yoick! Yoick!”
They rush to greet him, though a servant, a step behind him, has what they want. Twice a month Frank Jenner collects a blue baby-food tin at the local railway station. Within, packed in sawdust, are maggots, the caviar of goldfish gourmets. Churchill offers a lidful of them to the fish; when it is empty he holds out the lid to be refilled. Nearby a wooden box contains bread crumbs. These Churchill feeds to the ducks and swans.
The feeding is an integral part of the Churchillian day. After it, he sinks into the wicker chair, dismisses the servant, and remains, companionless and immobile, for at least a half hour. A table beside the chair bears another weak Johnnie Walker and soda, a box of cigars, a pagoda-shaped ashtray, and a container of long Canadian matches, useful in a rising wind. The squire of Chartwell prefers solitude here. Long afterward servants will recall him reciting Housman and Kipling to himself, or reading, or simply staring out across the Weald, alone with his reflections, a great hunched figure whose cigar smoke mingles with the many scents of an English countryside.
His interest in all creatures on his estate is unflagging. As a young colonial undersecretary he had been an enthusiastic hunter of wild game, but those days are past. Now he holds a kitten to his face and murmurs, “Darling.” It is true that he kicked a large tabby cat who played with the telephone cord when he was speaking to the Lord Chancellor of England, shouting, “Get off the line, you fool!”—and hastily telling the chancellor, “Not you!” But afterward he offered the cat his apologies, which he rarely extends to human beings, cajoling the pet, cooing, “Don’t you love me any more?” and proudly telling his valet at breakfast next day, “My Mickey came to see me this morning. All is forgiven.”
For Churchill, in his reverence for all living creatures, butterflies are sacred. So are predators. He loses two Siberian geese to foxes, but when a fox trap is proposed, he shakes his head, saying, “I couldn’t bear to think of them being hurt.”
Winston is, among other things, a dog’s best friend. Observing one manservant’s poodle limping, he tells him to send it to a veterinarian, and when the pet returns well two weeks later, he pays the bill for £10.10. Chartwell’s animals vex him but once. Mary’s pug, it seems, has never been properly house-broken. Winston mutters darkly: “He commits at least three indiscretions a day.” Mary is worried about her dog. But her father cannot bring himself to intervene, and the pug continues to enjoy his unsanitary ways.
Still recuperating from a traffic accident in New York the year before, when he stepped into the street against the light—England had no traffic lights in 1932—Churchill lays no bricks these days. But he cannot remain idle. He is, Bill Deakin notes, “incapable of inactivity,” and Cousin Moppet writes, “Winston has so many irons in the fire that the day is not nearly long enough.” During one of his Johnsonian lunches, he remarks: “Broadly speaking, human beings may be divided into three classes: those who are billed to death, those who are worried to death, and those who are bored to death.” Though heavily billed (he had just settled £1,600 of his son’s debts) and deeply concerned about the events stirring Central Europe, he is never bored. To Virginia Cowles, a weekend guest, he says: “With all the fascinating things there are to do in the world, some people while away their time playing Patience. Just fancy!”
But this is not always a healthy sign. Periodically Churchill sinks into ghastly spells of depression. Intimates know when he is so stricken because he becomes preoccupied with death, calling it “the greatest gift God has made to us and I have no desire to quit this world, but desperate thoughts come into the head.”
Therefore his incessant activity is often spurred by a determination to outrun the gloom and lassitude of melancholia, or, as he privately calls it, “the black dog on my back.” Most depressives cannot mask their misery. Churchill can, and by driving himself he will succeed, until the last decade of his life, in holding his affliction at bay. According to Anthony Storr, the distinguished British psychiatrist, the exceptional depressive who also becomes a great achiever—a Lincoln, a Goethe, a Bismarck, a Luther, a Tolstoy—responds to the onset of a sinking spell by forcing himself into activity, denying himself rest or relaxation, and accomplishing more than most men are capable of, “just because he cannot afford to stop.” Later, after Dunkirk, Storr will conclude that Churchill’s lifelong “battle with his own despair” endowed him with a power to persuade all England that “despair can be overcome.”
Since his physician has banned brick laying, he heads for his studio, telling a servant to fetch his brushes, easel; and palette. He intends to paint “one of my beloved cats” or to re-create on canvas a still life from photographs taken from their latest visit to Cannes or Marrakech. “If it weren’t for painting,” he tells a friend, “I couldn’t live. I couldn’t bear the strain of things.”
Winston designed the studio. Inside, it is startlingly small, fourteen feet square, but it is very lofty, providing maximum light. In constructing it, he put wooden slats along the interior walls; incompleted canvases went there. Eventually the slats will become shelves, supporting some five hundred finished paintings. He rarely paints people, and no violence, but the full body of his work provides a view of his travels: the Acropolis, Stromboli, the canals of Amsterdam, Scandinavian fjords, Pompeii, the Asuan Dam, the Tomb of Cheops, Rome, Rotterdam, Passchendaele, Ypres, Vimy Ridge, Messines, Menen, Waterloo, Scapa Flow, Ulster, Balmoral, Devonshire, and Kent. Cathedrals fascinate him. So do ruins; he had to be dragged away from Pompeii. And he finds waterfalls irresistible. He spent days at his easel by the roaring Jordan. On his finished canvas you have an illusion of moving water; you can almost catch the sound of it.
His painting methods are purely Churchillian. Confronted by a virgin canvas, he moves rapidly and decisively, giving the scene a swift appraisal and then slapping on the oils, reacting instinctively to a single theme: a villa, a temple, sailboats at low tide. Detective Thompson of the Yard, after hours of watching him at his easel, writes: “I would think that the man’s inner spirit is superbly calm and that he paints from it—never from the mind or intellect.” Thomas Bodkin, Director of the National Gallery of Ireland, thinks successful professional painters might learn a lot from Winston: “He does not try to say two things at the same time....The dominant motive is never obscured by irrelevancies.” After a careful examination of Winston’s canvases, Sir John Rothenstein, director of the Täte Gallery and one of England’s most eminent art critics, judged them to be “of real merit which bear a direct and intimate relationship to his outlook on life. In these pictures there comes bubbling irrepressibly up his sheer enjoyment of the simple beauties of nature.”
If he has chosen not to paint this afternoon, he may summon a “Miss” and enter the study to make a start on the day’s work, an article for an American magazine, perhaps, or a piece for Fleet Street. Sometimes, while reading in his bedchamber, he will listen to BBC music, provided it is his kind of music—Pinafore, Penzance, and The Mikado—or to French military marches.
MGM pioneers the renting of films to those who can afford them, other studios follow, and Alexander Korda sees to it that Winston has his pick. His taste in films, as in music, is middlebrow —Lew Ayres in All Quiet on the Western Front, Fredric March in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Richard Barthelmess in The Dawn Patrol, and Charles Laughton, Winston’s favorite actor, who will appear next year in The Private Life of Henry VIII. His taste in literature is more eclectic. Here his interests are professional. His leisure reading, serious and frivolous, strengthens his grasp of his mother tongue. In Chartwell’s library you can glimpse the landscape of his mind. Among the books he has read, and often reread, are Paget’s The New “Examen,” Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, J. A. Froude’s History of England, Sir Richard Burton’s multivolume The Arabian Nights, the King James Bible, and C. S. Forester’s studies of Napoleon, Josephine, Victor Emmanuel, Louis XIV, and Nelson. Later he will devour Forester’s Hornblower novels and William Winwood Reade’s The Martyrdom of Man. He likes to dip into books of verse and later quote them at meals. Kipling, Housman, and Rupert Brooke are favorite poets. If in the mood for mere amusement, he plucks out novels by the Brontës, Fielding’s Tom Jones, Scott’s Rob Roy, Trollope’s political novels (particularly The Duke’s Children), P. G. Wodehouse’s fatuities, or the tales of Kipling, R. L. Stevenson, and Somerset Maugham, the only contemporary novelist whose skills he admires.
Mary has just emerged from the local school, where she is a day boarder; Cousin Moppet will now read to her. Like the others she hails him as “Pa- pah.” After replying, he may examine his firearms. He likes them; he has never forgotten the Mauser that saved his life at Omdurman in the last great charge of British cavalrymen. He is also an extraordinary marksman, perhaps because a weapon never argues back. Automobiles quarrel with him; he is the worst driver in England. When he tried to fly he nearly killed himself; if he takes to the dance floor all other couples leave it. But with his Mannlicher, .32 Webley Scott, or Colt .45, which require only a keen eye and a steady hand, he is a dead shot. Later, at the age of seventy, he will challenge the accuracy of Guards officers and General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower. Of Winston’s ten shots, one will hit the fringe of the bull’s-eye; the other nine will be dead center. The elite Guardsmen will scatter theirs. Poor Ike will miss the target completely.
Now Churchill may withdraw and don a silk sleeping vest for a siesta, a custom he had adopted in 1895 as a young war correspondent in Cuba, where the climate imposed it. The temperature in his bed chamber is always exactly 74 degrees Fahrenheit. Yet he insists on the vest. Slipping into it, and drawing the sleep mask over his eyes, he slides between fresh linen sheets.
He never requires a few seconds to drift off. The moment his cheek touches the pillow, before his valet has even left the room, Winston is slumbering. He can do this almost anywhere. In automobiles or aboard planes he carries a special pillow; he dons the mask, curls his head down into his chest like a mother hen, and enjoys absolute rest until the journey’s end. At Chartwell his siesta may last two hours. Refreshed, he joins his family at 5:00 P.M., usually playing cards with Clemmie or Randolph in the drawing room. Bridge is rarely played because he never wins. He prefers bezique, a forerunner of pinochle played with six packs of cards. Bezique can be traced to the 150Os. Its antiquity qualifies it for Churchillian amusement.
As the drawing-room clock strikes 7:00 P.M., he mounts the stairs for his second daily bath. During these ablutions he likes an audience, old companions who at appropriate moments will laugh, murmur approval, express indignation, and understand his arcane references to political upheavals on the Continent and parliamentary intrigue in London. If no close friends are among his guests, he may summon Deakin and review their progress with the Marlborough biography. As a last resort Winston will send for a “Miss” to sit outside and take dictation during pauses in his soaping, rinsing, and splashing. Before his valet guides him into his dinner jacket, he signs the day’s mail and then dawdles, putting on another record, or fashioning a bellyband, or singing “Abdul Bulbul Amir” to the thirty-eighth verse. Dinner, the day’s main event; is scheduled for 8:30. He may reach the drawing room by 8:45.
It is lunch on a far grander scale, with more guests, of greater distinction, silvery buckets of iced champagne, Churchill presiding in his grandest manner, and several courses. Among those likeliest to be served are clear soup, oysters, caviar, gruyère cheese, pté de fois gras, trout, shoulder of lamb, lobster, dressed crab, petite marmite, scampi, Dover sole, chocolate éclairs, and, of course, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. Winston never eats tripe, crumpets, sausages, cabbage, salami, sauerkraut, corned beef, or rice pudding. Clemmie, who knows his preferences, has briefed the cook on what is to be the menu. He decides when meals are to be served, he determines who is to be invited, and he is, and always will be, the dominant figure at the table.
If he has been in London recently, different versions of his latest witticism have been repeated in the clubs of Pall Mall and St. James’s, in drawing rooms of the West End and the City’s counting rooms. Asked now to confirm them, he nods as he gropes for a match or the stem of his wineglass, pausing occasionally to correct a verb or alter syntax. His cousin and frequent adversary Lord Londonderry, hoping to drive home a point, had asked him: “Have you read my latest book?” Winston replied: “No, I only read for pleasure or profit.” In Parliament he had remarked upon Sir Stafford Cripps’s “look of injured guilt.” So many cabinet ministers wanted ennoblement that he had protested: “They can’t all have peerages; there ought to be some disappearages.” One member of the Government had protested that this was a slur; Churchill shot back, “I know of no case where a man added to his dignity by standing on it.”
It is difficult to keep up with a host who can set such a pace. Nevertheless the dinner is not a one-man show. David Lloyd George has been in Parliament ten years longer than Churchill and an awesome prime minister for six. Sir Archibald Sinclair—who, when Churchill led a battalion in the trenches, served as his second-in-command—is about to assume leadership of the Liberal party, which, with fifty-nine seats in the House, holds the balance between Labour and the Conservatives. Alfred Duff Cooper and Anthony Eden, both of whom were decorated for bravery in France, hold subcabinet posts in the government and will soon become full-fledged ministers, Duff Cooper at the War Office and Eden as foreign secretary.
Late in life Mary will recall: “The ‘basic’ house party, enlarged by other guests, usually formed a gathering it would be hard to beat for value. There was little warming up; the conversation plunged straight into some burning or vital question. But the talk was by no means confined to politics; it ranged over history, art, and literature; it toyed with philosophical themes; it visited the past and explored the future. The Prof and his slide rule were much in demand on all scientific problems. Sometimes the conversation was a ding-dong battle of wits and words between, say, Winston and Duff Cooper, with the rest of the company skirmishing on the sidelines and keeping score. The verbal pyrotechnics waxed hot and fierce, usually dissolving into gales of laughter.” Then, she remembers, conversation “usually dwindled” as everyone wanted to “share the main ‘entertainment,’” which was almost always “a dramatic and compelling monologue from Winston.” Frequently he would recite “Horatius,” and “this was very popular with the children, as we could join in ‘the brave days of old’ bits.”
In 1932 few share their host’s profound distrust of Hitler, but all meet his conversational standards: “The man who cannot say what he has to say in good English cannot have very much to say that is worth listening to.” None hesitates to speak up when he pauses for breath. Winston is unresentful of this. As Sir David Hunt will recall long afterward: “He has been accused of excessive addiction to the monologue; there was certainly a tendency that way but he was always tolerant of interjections from his listeners if they were relevant or amusing.” Collin Brooks, comparing Churchill in the House with Churchill at Chartwell, notes that “the slow, solemn, weighted pace of his public speeches yields, in the privacy of his home, to a quicker flow.” Winston’s casual quips “sparkle and sting, but the talk is unhurried, with occasional pauses, for effect or to hold his listeners while he gropes for the right word.”
Brooks sets down two of his observations about politics: “We know all the trite things said of Parliamentary life, and some of them are true. But where, in these days, in what forum, what arena, can a man so test, develop and apply his gifts and his qualities? There is scope for everything—industry, gallantry, inventiveness....Its mode of oratory, we know, has changed, but the House still has a place for those who cultivate the rhetorical graces. Anyone who has anything constructive to offer to his country should endeavor to make his way into the House of Commons, for it is there that the ultimate seat of power is to be found.”
And: “Our weakness today is not in the decline of Parliament itself, but in the diminished interest which the press gives to it. It is, indeed, heartbreaking for any man to go down day after day in these turbulent times to deliver speeches which, by the content, if not by their form, are of great importance, and to realize that they are heard by but a few hundreds of his fellow Members, and read by but a scattering of people who habitually read Hansard.”
Here one senses a flicker of bitterness. Rising from his seat below the gangway, the loneliest Member of Parliament, he is scaling heights of eloquence never witnessed by any living Member, yet Fleet Street takes little note of him. His sole hope of awakening England to the peril ahead lies in arousing the British public. But if the press and the BBC find him unnewsworthy, he will sound his tocsin in vain. Even Lloyd George, Sinclair, and Eden are optimistic about the Nazi leader. To them Winston’s prophecy that Hitler will lead a criminal regime is, at the very least, irresponsible.
But he did not invite them here to rail at them. He introduces other themes, and, being completely uninhibited, will from time to time burst into song. One guest recalls attending the theater on the evening the general strike of 1926 ended. He sat directly behind Winston and Clemmie. Now he wonders whether Churchill remembers the show. Churchill not only remembers Lady Be Good, starring the Astaires; he can, and does, croon the lyrics of all its tunes. His memory is extraordinary. Lady Violet Bonham Carter, née Asquith, will remember how “he could quote back to me words of which I had no recollection, and when I asked: ‘Where does that come from?’ he replied: ‘You said it’ or ‘You quoted it to me’—sometimes remembering the time and the place. He could not forget what he liked, except occasionally on purpose, when his own past utterances conflicted with his present attitudes.” To illustrate a point he quotes a poem he read in Punch fifty years before and has not seen since.
After the ladies have left and the other men gathered around him for port, brandy, and cigars, he will sit until 10:00 P.M. or later, talking of his school days, the great political issues of the past, the MPs who fought over them, battlefields of his youth, strategic innovations in the American Civil War. Using saltshakers, cutlery, and brandy goblets, he can reenact any battle in that war, from Bull Run to Five Forks, citing the troops engaged on either side, identifying the commanders, describing the passage at arms, the aftermath. Reflections on any conceivable subject succeed one another in his racing brain. The plight of mankind, he muses, is “all the fault of the human mind being made in two lobes, only one of which does any thinking, so we are all right-handed or left-handed; whereas, if we were properly constructed, we should use our right and left hands with equal force and skill according to circumstances. As it is, those who can win a war well can rarely make a good peace, and those who could make a good peace never win.”
At least one guest finds it difficult to picture Churchill as a peacemaker, noting Winston’s account “of how he first came under fire when he was twenty-one, of his boyish delight in the proximity of danger, of his glee that he was actually ‘seeing the real thing.’ The hazards and discomforts of war, Winston argues, strengthen a young man’s character.” Certainly they had strengthened his. But war was very different then. The industrial/technological revolution had not yet cranked out the appliances of death—machine guns, shrapnel shells, land mines—which were taking so frightful a toll in the twentieth century. More than four hundred thousand young British soldiers had been killed in the Somme and Passchendaele campaigns, neither of which had reached its objective. In 1932 few Englishmen know that as a young war correspondent he had written: “War, disguise it as you may, is but a dirty, shoddy business, which only a fool would play at,” or that he declared after the Armistice in 1918: “War, which was cruel and magnificent, has become cruel and squalid.”
But in his youth he had thought it magnificent. In his first book he wrote: “Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result,” and “There are men who derive as stern an exaltation from the proximity of danger and ruin, as others from success.” It is this very trait—and his longing to be on a battlefield, watching what he called “the fun of the good things”—which worries all but the most devoted of his followers. His critics call him a “genius without judgment,” a man with a “zigzag streak of lightning in the brain,” the only cabinet minister who gloated when Britain declared war on Germany in 1914.
Although inept commanders were responsible for the Royal Navy’s failure to force the Dardanelles in 1915, and generals to blame for the subsequent slaughter on Gallipoli Peninsula, Churchill has been scapegoated and discredited on military issues, even when his arguments are unanswerable. So men shrug and turn away when he points out that their only hope of avoiding another general war on the Continent lies in following his advice—shoring up England’s defenses—or, that failing, in turning to a leader who possesses not only vision and intellect but also a capacity for cruelty, brutality, cunning, faith in the superiority of his race, and a positive relish at the prospect of grappling with a nation of warriors led by a demagogue who represented everything he loathed.
The great difference was that Hitler wanted war and was actually annoyed by Britons and Frenchmen who proposed to give him what he wanted without a fight, while Churchill, though a born warlord, was prepared to sacrifice all save honor and the safety of England to keep the peace. Mein Kampf is a difficult book, but no one who has struggled through it can doubt that the author is a killer obsessed with bloodthirstiness. Churchill, on the other hand, after telling his guests that he has already begun research on a major project that will follow Marlborough, a four-volume History of the English-Speaking Peoples, gloomily adds: “I doubt if I shall finish it before the war comes. And if I do, the part about the English-Speaking Peoples will be so decisive I shall have to add several more volumes. And if it is not decisive no more histories will be written for years.” His yearning for peace was so great that one guest briefly wondered whether he, like so many others, was prepared to pay any price for it. At the time, Churchill was making strenuous efforts to weld together the smaller European states under the League of Nations covenant, confronting Germany with a coalition rallied under the banner of collective security. Brooks asked him, “Suppose you create it, and supposing a strong note goes to Hitler, and the Germans completely ignore it—what do we do then?” There was a pause. Brooks “expected a further exposition of the new diplomacy. What I received was a pair of blazing eyes, a kind of grim chuckle, and the words: ‘What do we do then? What do we do then! Fight the beggars!’”
Eleven o’clock. Churchill sees his overnight guests to their rooms and, as they retire, begins his working day. Only since entering his employ has Bill Deakin discovered, to his astonishment, that his employer lacks a large private income, that he lives like a pasha yet must support his extravagant life with his pen. The Churchill children are also unaware that, as Mary will later put it, the family “literally lived from book to book, and from one article to the next.” Her mother, who knows, prays that each manuscript will sell. Luckily they all do (with the exception of one screenplay for Alexander Korda), and editors and publishers, both in Britain and America, pay him the highest rates. His output is prodigious. During backbencher years, from early 1931 to late 1939, he published eleven volumes and more than four hundred articles, many of them hack work (“Sport Is a Stimulant in Our Workaday World,” “The Childless Marriage Threatens Our Race,” “What Other Secrets Does the Inventor Hold?”). His average annual earnings are £20,000, or $96,000. During the same period he has delivered, or will, 368 speeches, representing more than a solid year of work for which he is paid nothing.
He rejects some commissions: a history of Parliament, because the sum was inadequate; nearly thirty thousand dollars for a speaking tour in the United States, because the mounting crises on the Continent kept him in England; and £50 from William S. Paley, president of the Columbia Broadcasting Company, for an appraisal of Nazi activity in Austria. Paley had asked CBS representative William L. Shirer to make the approach. Shirer, appalled by the paltry sum, phoned Winston at the House of Commons. Churchill said he would do it for £500. Paley decided it wasn’t worth it, and a fragment of history was lost.
Winston’s Chartwell study is a writer’s dream. Entering through the Tudor doorway with its molded architrave, one looks up and up—the ceiling has been removed, revealing vaulting rafters and beams that were in place long before the Renaissance. One’s second impression—and it is strong—is a reminder of the greatest enigma in Churchill’s life. Despite his parents’ disgraceful neglect of him in his early years, a bronze cast of Jennie’s hand lies on one windowsill. The desk and the bureau-bookcase with Gothic glazing were Lord Randolph’s. The most prominent painting on the walls depicts his father writing. On the conscious level Winston reveres the memory of both his parents, but the resentment has to be there. His suppression of it is doubtless a heavy contributor to his depressions, and his combativeness arises from the need to find another outlet for his anger. Significantly, he works, not at his father’s magnificent mahogany desk with gleaming claw feet, but at a high Disraeli desk of unvarnished deal with a slanting top, designed by Winston and fashioned by a local carpenter—a reminder that Victorians liked to write standing up.
His appearance heralded by the “harff, harff” of his slippers, he enters the room in a red, green, and gold dressing gown, the cords trailing behind him. Before greeting Deakin and the two secretaries on duty tonight, he must read the manuscript he dictated the previous evening and then revise the latest galleys, which arrived a few hours earlier from London. Since Churchill’s squiggled red changes exceed the copy already set—the proofs look as though several spiders stained in red ink had wandered across the pages—his printer’s bills are shocking. But the expense is offset by his extraordinary fluency. Before the night is out, he will have dictated between four and five thousand words. On weekends he may exceed ten thousand words. Once his family presented him with a Dictaphone. He was delighted. It seemed miraculous. He could dictate alone; one of the secretaries could transcribe the recording later. After a productive session he went to bed triumphant, only to be told upon wakening that it was all wasted. He had forgotten to turn the device on. Everything was lost. “No more gadgets!” he roared, and stuck to the old system till his death, more than thirty years later.
Churchill has developed what Philip Guedalla calls a faculty for “organizing large works.” If he is researching a speech, a magazine essay, or a newspaper article, he needs little help. But for a major effort—his four-volume Marlborough, or his History of the English-Speaking Peoples—he requires a staff, most of them young Oxford graduates hired at very small wages, to whom he assigns readings and investigations; they then submit précis or memoranda, which he studies between bursts of dictation. For a man approaching sixty, Winston does a great deal of his own fieldwork, touring Marlborough’s European battlefields—he is amazed at their enormousness—but he hasn’t time to rummage through the archives at Blenheim, translate old Flemish documents, or pore over the dispatches of William of Orange. So his staff does it for him. This in no way diminishes his achievements. Dr. Johnson needed a team to assemble his dictionary; so did Samuel Eliot Morison for his fifteen-volume history of U.S. naval operations in World War II. At Chartwell the hands may be the hands of Oxford dons, but the voice is unmistakably that of Churchill. No other Member of Parliament would deliver such phrases as “a gathering of audacious buccaneers,” or “shameless exactations,” or “vehement ebullitions.”
Deakin will remember that he, Winston, and the “shorthand typists,” as Churchill calls his secretaries, would sometimes “work on Marlborough until three or four in the morning. One felt exhilarated. Part of the secret was his phenomenal, fantastic power to concentrate on what he was doing. And he communicated it. You were absolutely a part of it—swept into it. I might have given him some memorandum before dinner, four or five hours before. Now he would walk up and down dictating. My facts were there, but he had seen it in deeper perspective. My memorandum was only a frame; it ignited his imagination.” Winston asked him to write a summary of the election of 1710, and Deakin will recall, “He read this without any comment at all and then dictated what he wanted to write in his book....He translated it into integral power and things he understood in contemporary terms, but it was a transformation that was very special. His penetrating insight revealed insights I had completely missed.”
Because tonight’s major project is a parliamentary speech, the researchers’ tasks are complete before midnight. Those of the shorthand typists—and it is doubtful that secretaries have ever worked under a greater strain—are about to begin. Two will be on hand, to work shifts, and they will have assembled the necessary tools; scrap paper, shorthand notebooks, pens, pencils, rulers, erasers, scissors, paste, rubber bands, copy paper, carbon paper, an assortment of green tags, a copy of Vacher’s Parliamentary Guide, and Winston’s “klop” or “klopper”—a powerful paper punch. Winston despises staplers. Instead the klop perforates a batch of paper; he then threads a piece of string through the hole and attaches it to a tag. In a public address the pages must be in order, and he has an irrational fear that someone will sabotage him, reversing pages. Right up to the moment of delivery he will be nervously checking to reassure himself that they are in sequence.
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:
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.”
At Chartwell this is the last word. Later the servant will say: “There was no answer to that. He knew, as I and the rest of the world knew, that he was right.” Elizabeth NeI, after reciting her very legitimate grievances, adds: “Neither I nor anyone else considered this treatment unfair....I used to wonder how long his patience would last, if he would not one day say, ‘Go, and never let me see you again.’” Phyllis Moir, another member of the secretarial pool, will recall Winston on the phone, telling her to fetch him certain papers: “Mr. Churchill was standing by the telephone, his face very red and very angry, stamping his feet and sputtering with rage. He literally tore the papers out of my hand and savagely stammered an incoherent answer into the mouthpiece.” She adds loyally: “Mr. Churchill is not the sort of man to apologize to anyone, but he would go out of his way to say something appreciative and his whole manner made you feel he was ashamed of his bad behavior.” He expressed his shame by failing to turn on her wrathfully after he had hung up. Instead he asked her if she was enjoying the countryside.
It hardly seems adequate. The blunt truth is that Winston has never considered himself a toad beneath the harrow, and for the best of reasons; he isn’t one. No humble man would outflank a traffic jam by driving on the pavement. He believes he is a superior being, entitled to exceptional forbearance as well as special privilege and not subject to judgment by the rules of polite society. That is, of course, arguable. What is striking is that those who work for him, toiling long hours, underpaid and subject to savage, undeserved reprimands, agree with him. They feel the sting of his whip. Yet he continues to command their respect, even their love. Those who are shocked by Churchill’s treatment of his employees all have this in common: they never worked for him.
Sometime between 2:00 A.M. and 4:00 A.M. he quits, leaving the others to sort out ribbon copies and carbons, clean up the study, and, if the night’s dictation has included manuscript, prepare a packet for the London courier. In his bedroom he divests himself of his trousers and velvet slippers; then, in one great overhead swoop, yanks the rest of his clothing up, away, and across the chamber. In a gesture that is more narcissistic than remedial, he faces the mirror in his bedroom and brushes his strands of hair straight down over his ears, saying to his valet, with dubious authority, “That’s the way to keep your hair.” He asks him for “my eye blinkers,” slips the sleep mask in place, and is presently breathing the deep, slow breaths of the slumberer. His dreams, he tells his family, are often of his father, who died prophesying Winston would be a failure. In 1932 it would be hard to find more than a dozen men of Parliament or Fleet Street who would find that prediction laughable.
Appearing together, the first two volumes of Churchill’s Marlborough: His Life and Times reached an appreciative audience in Britain that did not, however, include members of intellectual and literary communities. Evelyn Waugh wrote pitilessly: “As history it is beneath contempt, the special pleading of a defense lawyer. As literature it is worthless.” Time, describing the author as “the perennial bad boy of English politics,” told its readers: “Historians may be amused by Biographer Winston’s irrepressible stout language (he is a past master in the violent use of rubberstamp phrases) and defiant bias.” To Herbert Read, the eminent Oxford critic, Churchill’s prose revealed “aggrandizement of self,” eloquence which is “false because it is artificial,” and “a false dramatic atmosphere.” A contributor to the Yale Review wrote that Churchill “exhibits all the rhetorical symptoms of an instructor of Freshman English.” Among the literary elite any prophecy that Churchill would one day be awarded the Nobel Prize in literature would have provoked laughter.
Here, as elsewhere, in the bleak interwar years, the explanation lies in the cultural aftershock of the Great War. The four-year holocaust had left behind it, as Sir Isaiah Berlin points out, “hatred for the grand style as such. The victims and casualties of disaster thought they had earned the right to be rid of the trappings of an age which had heartlessly betrayed them.” Churchill’s vision of history was scorned as an ugly pastiche of ponderous Edwardiana. Standards in the world of letters, like social values, had been drastically revised once the British population grasped the full horror of trench warfare in France and Flanders. Literate men identified it with the ornate, elaborate, rococo prose popular in prewar England, and they recoiled from both.
To London’s intelligentsia, even patriotism was obscene. This was particularly true on the left, where intellectuals tend to congregate; at their urging a Labour conference declared that party members no longer regarded themselves as “subjects of the crown or citizens of Britain.” This shocked the middle and even the working classes; their loyalty to the Union Jack was blind loyalty; they would fight for their country, right or wrong. Learned men cannot do that. They were convinced that war was a criminal act; indeed, they felt that anyone who had anything good to say about the nation was an accomplice after the fact.
Intellectuals are well educated, and in those days the best schools and universities were largely reserved for members of the upper class. On the whole the privileged were the Crown’s most loyal (and conservative) subjects, but the defectors were among the brightest, and their bitterness was intensified by the most human and personal of motives. In the First World War, commissions were largely reserved for university men. And the most vulnerable soldiers on any battlefield are the young officers. Man for man and boy for boy, therefore, the patricians had paid a far higher price in blood than the families whose sons served in other ranks. In Oxford, Cambridge, and the public schools, towering marble slabs bore the chiseled names of alumni who had crossed the Channel as infantry lieutenants and company commanders—and had sacrificed their futures that England might have hers. In Haig’s Passchendaele offensive alone, 22,316 junior officers had been killed in action. These youths, the most idealistic generation England had ever bred, had been the boyhood companions of England’s intellectuals, who had passed through the same schools, come down from Oxbridge with Firsts and Double Firsts in the cloudless days before Sarajevo, and whose dreams were haunted by memories of beloved classmates beneath the crosses in Flanders. Among those who had chosen careers in public life were the coming men in’the House of Commons, and it is scarcely surprising that they were drawn, almost irresistibly, toward pacifism and its alternative, compromises with those who—however implausible their reasons—threatened the peace. They were also passionate converts to the twentieth-century world view that life’s casualties, in peace as well as war, are martyred victims of callous society—antiheroes who replaced Edwardian heroes in stage center and are still there seventy years later.
Churchill—whose views on everything had been fixed in his youth and who still believed in heroes, friends, individual responsibility, courage in battle, and the manly virtues—represented everything the humane intellectuals loathed. To them his flamboyance and heroic postures were an affront to the memories of the inglorious dead, his re-creation of formal English rhetoric “too bright,” as Berlin puts it, “too big, too vivid, too unstable for the epigone of the age of imperialism.” Leo Amery said: “He can think only in phrases, and close argument is really lost on him.” C. F. G. Masterman declared that “he can convince himself of almost any truth if it is once allowed...to start its wild career through his rhetorical machine.” Later the Australian critic J. H. Grainger commented, “Much of Churchill’s rhetoric is tiresomely windy.”
But rhetoric, however anachronistic it may appear, is entitled to a pragmatic judgment. The ancients wrote: “When Pericles speaks, people say, ‘How well he speaks,’ but when Demosthenes speaks, they say, ‘Let us march.’” John Kennedy said, “Churchill formed the English language into battalions and sent it into battle.” A rhetorical style that can transform an entire nation by its power, passages of which are quoted more frequently than those of any other English writer except Shakespeare, which lives after the very names of its critics have been forgotten, cannot be dismissed or laughed out of our literary heritage. At the very least one should try to understand how it was formed and why it did what it did.
Its origins lie in the twenty-one months of autodidactic study Churchill spent as a cavalry officer in the Indian raj, selecting those writers whom he admired either for the originality of their minds or for their mastery of the language, studying their styles, and eventually creating his own: one that arose naturally from his powerful historical imagination, his concept of life as a great, multicolored pageant, and his evocation of striking images that lay somewhere between Benozzo Gozzoli’s painting of the Riccardi palace’s procession and the illustrations in Chatterbox, the children’s annual Winston had read as a boy. In Bangalore he devoured Carlyle, Schopenhauer, Darwin, Aristotle, Malthus, Plato, Adam Smith, Pascal, Gibbon, and Macaulay, and Samuel Johnson (his “Finest Hour” speech of 1940 is splendidly Johnsonian). In letters to his mother he begged her to send him books by the crate. “Macaulay,” he wrote her on January 21,1897, “is easier reading than Gibbon & in quite a different style. Macaulay crisp & forcible. Gibbon stately & impressive. Both are fascinating & show what a fine language English is since it can be pleasing in styles so different.” Still in his early twenties, sweating through the heat of the late Indian afternoon, he “began,” in his words, “to see that writing, especially narrative, was not only an affair of sentences, but of paragraphs. Indeed I thought the paragraph no less important than the sentence. Macaulay is a master of paragraphing. Just as the sentence contains one idea in all its fullness”—here we see his awareness of singlemindedness, which Bodkin admires in his painting—“so the paragraphs must fit on to one another like the automatic couplings of railway carriages.”
In his introduction to Savrola, his first and only novel, he wrote: “I have always thought that if an author cannot make friends with the reader, and explain his objects, in two or three hundred pages, he is not likely to do so in fifty lines. And yet the temptation of speaking a few words behind the scenes, as it were, is so strong that few writers are able to resist it. I shall not try.”
This bears the unmistakable Churchill stamp: two long sentences, disingenuously simple, followed by a wry twist of self-mockery. Great English prose, like traditional verse, is rhythmic and can be scanned. Moreover, the rhythm is determined by the theme. In his subsequent volumes on Kitchener’s Sudan campaign, and the Boer War, he taught himself this very difficult technique. Here is one sentence on Lord Curzon: “The morning had been golden, the noontide was bronze and the evening lead; but all were solid and each was polished till it shone after its fashion.” This encapsulates a man’s character and career, and its tempo, pirouetting on the semicolon, matches Churchill’s judgment of Curzon—viceregal, fastidious, thwarted, flawed.
On the steel nib of a gifted writer, or the tongue of a great speaker, English offers a broad range of eloquence: short and intricate sentences, monosyllabic and polysyllabic words, and stunning combinations balanced by counterpoint. At its best the language blends brief, simple declarative passages with rich Gladstonian exuberance. Gray’s Elegy is memorable for both his simple “The paths of glory lead but to the grave” and the braided “Full many a gem of purest ray serene/The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear.”
Churchill’s mastery of brevity is rare among public speakers, and—despite his immortal offer of nothing but “blood, toil, tears, and sweat”—largely overlooked. His prose is celebrated for the majestic manner in which it rolls and peals, mounting and swelling to successive climaxes. In his second work, The River War, he described the aftermath of Kitchener’s great victory at Omdurman and, sitting on the darkened battlefield, surrounded by Arab corpses, he scribbled on his pad: “Three days before I had seen them rise eager, confident, resolved. The roar of their shouting had swelled like the surf on a rocky shore. The flashing of their blades and points had displayed their numbers, their vitality, their ferocity. They were confident in their strength, in the justice of their cause, in the support of their religion. Now only the heaps of corruption in the plain and fugitives dispersed and scattered in the wilderness remained. The terrible machinery of scientific war had done its work. The Dervish host was scattered and destroyed.” A year later on another field in South Africa, he displayed his grasp of concision: “The night was chilly. Colonel Byng and I shared a blanket. When he turned over 1 was in the cold. When I turned over I pulled the blanket off him and he objected. He was the Colonel. It was not a good arrangement. 1 was glad when morning came.”
In his account of the Great War he showed that concise prose can be as lethal as a stiletto. After a meticulous account of the Battle of Jutland, he pointed out that Britain’s timid Admiral Jellicoe had thrice missed opportunities to annihilate the German fleet. Another historian might have written: “To let three priceless chances slip by is inexcusable.” Churchill used five words: “Three times is a lot.” They pursued Jellicoe to his grave.
Churchillian rhetoric, even at its most purplescent, is also free of padding. Adjectives are used, as Lord Simon notes, only when they serve “as a sort of supercharger to add to the explosive force they qualify.” Like all writers, Churchill has his favorites, and in great moments they appear, like veterans summoned to the colors: tireless, panoplied, squalid, embattled, accomplished, unflagging, sparkling, insurgent, compulsive, furious, acquisitive, inexorable, intricate, irresistible, benignant. Epithets are never used casually; each is vital to a point. Nor is humor protracted; quips are sudden and short: “I told him to improvise and dare, and he improvose and dore”; “I venture to predict that the Right Honorable Gentlemen will vanish unwept, unhonored, unsung and unhung.” In the linguistic fabric he weaves, one thread is alliteration. A lesser speaker would say that forces of evil would be foiled by Britain’s “fullness of power,” but emerging from the Churchillian euphonium it is the “plenitude of power.” One of his most brilliant techniques—so subtle that only the most perceptive appreciate it—is the casual introduction of selfparody. He speaks of his adversaries’ “celestial grins,” of viewing an issue “with stern and tranquil gaze,” and warns that should he be proved wrong, any “chortling” in Parliament “will be viewed with great disfavor by me.”
Another Churchillian strand derives from the majestic, measured diction of the King James Bible. At a time when other men in Parliament were attempting psychological analyses of Hitler, trying to trace his extraordinary behavior to childhood influences, Churchill sharply defined him as “this wicked man.” Every Anglican heart vibrated to that iron string. Elsewhere, after a passage of dazzling syntax, he tied it together with six scriptural words: “Justice is cast from her seat.”
He was a born demagogue—and knew it—and figures of speech came as naturally from him as corn from the stalk. Because he saw society ailing, many of his most memorable similes drew parallels between physical diseases and what, to him, were afflictions crippling society. Describing a futile raj attempt to meet native force with reason, not counterforce, he told Parliament: “The inflammation which could have been brought to a head and then operated on was now dispersed through the whole system.” Of Oriental sects preaching violence he wrote: “Christianity must always exert a modifying influence on men’s passions, and protect them from the more violent forms of fanatical fever, as we are protected from smallpox by vaccination.” His most striking medical image appears in The Aftermath, where, describing the consequences of the Great War, he indicts the Germans for having “transported Lenin in a sealed truck like a plague bacillus from Switzerland into Russia.”
Great speakers instinctively follow certain patterns, not borrowing from one another but drawing from the same well of genius. Cicero, delivering his political orations in metrical patterns, would end each sentence with the same clausula, a ritualistic repetition of a given phrase. One, typically, was esse videatur (“seems to be”); pronounced with a long, broad a in the second word, it was deeply stirring. Latinists didn’t discover this technique until late in the nineteenth century, but Gibbon had picked it up on his own a hundred years earlier. Gibbon’s endings for heavy sentences were prepositional phrases beginning with “of”—“ of a Roman Empire”; “ of a mighty people.” Churchill did the same: “the soft underbelly of the Axis”; “launch this cataract of slaughter, pillage, and despair.” It is remarkable that Churchill, who could read neither Latin nor Greek, was so enriched by masterpieces in both. In a stifling parlor car from Bangalore to Bombay, he first read translations of the speeches Demosthenes had delivered or written for wealthy Athenians. One sentence had leaped from the page: “The supreme purpose and quality of oratory is action.” From that moment onward he was destined to become Demosthenes’ greatest protégé. Lady Violet wrote of Churchill: “Action is the keynote, the life blood of his nature,” and he persuaded A. P. Herbert, MP, that “oratory, surely, is speech in action.”
Copia, “abundance,” is prized by teachers of rhetoric. Written prose need offer the reader no pause for reflection; he can put his book down at any point to ponder a paragraph before taking it up again. Not so oratory; it moves ever forward, and if the rhetoric is all muscle the audience will be lost. Thus soft, supple, resilient tissue is needed to transform a line of sinewy argument into graceful prose. Churchill excelled in cornucopiousness, and he did it, ironically, by using Anglo Saxon words for brawn and sonorous phrases of classical derivation for copia. Indeed, Churchill the rhetorician had the best of both worlds. Unlike so many other alumni of Rugby, Winchester, Charterhouse, Westminster, Shrewsbury, Harrow, and Eton, he had not been seduced into mimicry of the Greeks and Romans. Yet neither did he hesitate to use soaring words of Latin parentage when they suited him. He was the only man in Parliament who could resurrect phrases unheard in the chamber for a generation—“in olden times,” “I venture to say,” “superb, nay, sublime”—without losing his audience.
This, of course, was very different from speaking in tongues unintelligible to the man on the street. That was the curious practice of elegant Tories who fashioned carefully crafted epigrams, cleverly transposed Latin tags familiar to their peers—Macti virtute este! (“Hail to you!”) began the Lord Chief Justice’s congratulatory message to Stanley Baldwin after a Conservative landslide—and quoted to Parliament the taut lines of Tacitus—Ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant (“Where they make a desert, they call it peace”) and Omnium consensu capax imperii, nisi imperasset (“By the consent of all, well qualified to rule—if he had not ruled”). To them this was magnificent. And so it is; Latin is the most precise, most exquisitely structured of languages, and the clarity of English is derivative of it. But Britain’s millions merely knew it as a dead language.
As the new Germany began to darken learned Englishmen’s reflections on the future, they turned instinctively to the seers of their classical boyhood curricula, and especially to Tacitus’ Germania, inspired by the Roman legions’ fascination with the fierce Teutonic tribes confronting them on the east bank of the Rhine. Tacitus is cold, incisive, analytic, rich with insights but anemic and entirely cogitative. He tells the Franks: “The Germans are ever determined to cross into Gaul, goaded by lust, avarice, and the longing for a new home, prompting them to leave their marshes and deserts, and to possess themselves of this most fertile soil and of you, its inhabitants.” But this antiseptic reasoning cannot compete with the vitality of Churchill’s “The Hun is always at your feet or at your throat,” or “I see advancing...the dull, drilled, docile, brutish masses of the Hun soldiery plodding on like a swarm of crawling locusts.” The fact was that Churchill’s critics were addressing one another, not their constituents, who knew nothing of cases, declensions, and conjugations. His adversaries in Commons knew that beyond the halls of Parliament he was building a following that could threaten their own. He reached hearts with the lightest of touches and seldom failed to break them. Hear him on the burial of Elisabeth Everest, his childhood nanny. When “Woom” visited him at Harrow, he had openly kissed her in front of his schoolmates, “one of the bravest acts,” one of them later recalled, “I have ever seen.” He erected a headstone over her grave and wrote: “Death came very easily to her. She had lived such an innocent and loving life of service to others and held such a simple faith, that she had no fears at all, and did not seem to mind verv much.”
It seemed artless, but anyone who had spent his most impressionable years translating Euripides or Horace every evening—blind to his own magnificent, living language—was unlikely to bring it off. The public school boy, bred in the tradition of “muscular Christianity,” was not only incapable of bringing tears into the eyes of others; he could not cry himself and squirmed with embarrassment when Churchill faced a cheering crowd with glistening cheeks, weeping without shame. The crowd, far from mortified, would rise in a standing ovation. Winston, who had so very little in common with the average Briton, was nevertheless bound to him. A. P. Herbert, an admirer of Neville Chamberlain, observed that Chamberlain “was tough enough....But when he said the fine true thing it was like a faint air played on a pipe and lost on the wind at once. When Mr. Churchill said it, it was like an organ filling the church, and we all went out refreshed and resolute to do or die.” Lady Violet wrote more penetratingly that the “intellectual granaries” of her father and his friends “held the harvests of the past,” while “to Winston everything under the sun was new—seen and appraised as on the first day of creation. His approach to life was full of ardour and surprise. Even the eternal verities appeared to him to be an exciting personal discovery....He did not seem to be the least ashamed of uttering truths so simple and eternal that on another’s lips they would be truisms. This was a precious gift he never lost. Nor was he afraid of using splendid language....There was nothing false, inflated, artificial in his eloquence: It was his natural idiom.”
Actually he spoke other languages, though few knew it. To have acknowledged fluency would have been a squandering of political capital. Instead he deliberately mispronounced foreign names and phrases. Everyone with an ear for the Gallic tongue shuddered when he addressed his allies: Français! Ici moi, Churchill, qui vous parle! But they were flinching at his accent; his grammar and choice of idiom were flawless. And every time he called Marseilles “Mar-sales,” British voters in the lower classes, resentful of upper-class linguistic snobbery, were delighted.
Eventually the issue became political. MPs from the lower classes felt insulted by Greek and Latin epigrams. Churchill knew how to resolve the tension. At midpoint in a speech, he said: “ Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. I shall venture to translate for the benefit of—” He broke off. Every Labourite was perched on the edge of his bench, prepared to leap up in protest, when he broke up the House by finishing, “those old Etonians who are present....”
Those old Etonians who were present chuckled politely. So did the old Harrovians, and those wearing the ties of Shrewsbury, Rugby, and the rest. The other side of the old chamber rollicked with laughter. Now—as later, in England’s hour of maximum danger—it was Labour that rallied to him, while Conservatives remained aloof. He was accustomed to that. In the forty years since he had slipped away from Harrow alone, like a fugitive, he had revisited his old school but once, on a whim. The consequence had been calamitous. The struggle to strip the House of Lords of its political power had reached its peak; he and Lloyd George were leading it, and public school boys, the sons of privilege, regarded him as a traitor to his, and their, class. He hadn’t thought of that. It just happened that he and F. E. Smith—Lord Birkenhead—were motoring nearby, and, on the spur of the moment, Churchill decided to show Smith his old school grounds. The boys, recognizing Winston from newspaper pictures, booed and jeered until, humiliated in the eyes of his best friend, he raced away.
The incident was symbolic. It was the supreme irony of Winston’s parliamentary career that he never won the trust of his own party and social class. Twice he had turned his political coat—from Conservative to Liberal and then (”reratting,” as he called it) back to the Tories. But his greater stigma was peculiar to his country, the times, and the structure of the English patriciate.
In the century before World War II, Great Britain’s political stability derived from a paradox. England was a democracy in which the yeomanry tacitly agreed to be ruled by an oligarchy. Theoretically, aristocrats in Parliament sat only in the House of Lords, but until Labour’s great surge the House of Commons was dominated by the sons of England’s greatest families. In breeding, in education, in manners, mores, dress, and even in the pursuit of leisure, they lived in a different world from their constituents.
Steeped in understatement and erudition, the Old Boys of the upper class who managed Britain’s worldwide Empire in the 1930s viewed Churchill with hooded, sardonic eyes. He was a Harrovian, they had to give him that, but he had been so wretched a scholar that he had never mastered Latin or Greek. His knowledge of Demosthenes and Cicero had been acquired through translation. He spoke only English, the language of the common people. In his youth, England’s great universities were closed to applicants, like Churchill, who lacked a classical education. So he was an alien among elegant Tory MPs who, by the time they had left the Sixth Form in their late teens, had refought the Punic Wars, and completed what their headmasters called the “grand old fortifying curriculum”—a phrase within which lies the mystique of imperial Britannia.
They had been fortified with the conviction that they were the beneficiaries of a legacy reaching back twenty-four hundred years, when learned men had begun constructing an exquisite structure in which the elite of future generations would dwell and rule. It was an article of faith for them that gentlemen who, after passing through the privileged classes’ private educational system, and then being subjected to polishing by polite society, knew every cranny of that edifice—knew, in fact, everything that was worth knowing.
Doubtless the motives of those who disapproved of Churchillian rhetoric were plural—there were so many reasons to find Winston objectionable in the 1930s—but his Victorian style was certainly one. And here, precisely here, lies the irony. Why had their ancestors become obsessed with the ancient world? It was because the Empire had been approaching its high-water mark then, and seers like Benjamin Jowett of Balliol were comparing it to the glories of its predecessors, particularly imperial Rome. Romanticizing their own global possessions, Englishmen saw their role as a continuum of the majestic past.
Churchill, in the 1930s, was still a child of the Victorians. Though indifferent to dead languages and fallen empires, he once more plighted his troth to the salvation of his sovereign’s global realm. Victoria, in whose name he had been commissioned in 1895, would have understood. The old queen would instantly have known which Englishmen were betraying her heritage and who, alone in one of those last stands so dear to Victorian hearts, remained her faithful champion.
He championed not only her realm; he saw himself as the defender and protector of the values Englishmen of her reign had cherished, the principles they had held inviolate, the vision that had illumined their world, that had steadied them in times of travail. He saw life and history in terms of the forces of good against the power of evil, for the two would always be in conflict and be therefore forever embattled. He was accused of inconsistency and of capricious judgment. Actually, as Isaiah Berlin found, “far from changing his opinions too often, Churchill has scarcely, during a long and stormy career, altered them at all.” It was MacDonald and Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain who were driven by the prevailing winds of fickle, uninformed public opinion—uninformed because they chose to keep it so. Churchill’s binnacle remained true. “Death and sorrow will be the companions of our journey,” he told the House; “hardship our garment; constancy and valor our only shield.”
And, he might have added, grief as their reward. He was sure they could take it. Despite his high birth he had an almost mystical faith in the capacity of ordinary Englishmen to endure and reach greatness at the eleventh hour. “Tell the truth to the British people,” he begged the devious prime ministers of the 1930s. “They are a tough people, a robust people … if you have told them exactly what is going on, you have insured yourself against complaints and reproaches which are not very pleasant when they come home on the morrow of some disillusion.”
But His Majesty’s governments in those shabby years believed that there were some things the country ought not to know, and that in the end their policy of duplicity—which at times amounted to a conspiracy—would bring them muddling through. So Churchill, faithful to his star, resolved that he must somehow find a way to persuade Britain and her Empire that they must prepare for one last great struggle; to arm the nation, not only with weapons but also with the strength to suffer and still prevail; to arouse and incite them to jettison the policy of drift and then, with the reins of power firm in his own grasp, to inspire them and create in every English breast a soul beneath the ribs of death.