Not even the cynicism of our self-obsessed, nihilistic age can dilute the potent, symbolic magic of Winston Churchill – writer, journalist, adventurer, soldier, statesman and, in 1940, saviour of Britain.
With the death of Sir Winston Churchill in 1965, England and the remnants of the British Empire lost a truly legendary figure. I use the [admittedly] clichéd word ‘legendary’ because it is almost as if Churchill belongs to a separate, long-ago era and way of life; as distant, perhaps, especially to modern people, as Queen Boadicea, King Arthur, Hereward the Wake or Robin Hood. Why should this be so, when the man in question died only 50 years ago? But what a half-century this has been: one in which the Victorian-Edwardian values which shaped Churchill have been trodden into the mud, and in which the adventurer-soldier-‘man of letters’ has been rendered extinct by a brave new world of dull, materialist, conformist human beings, presided over by autocue-reading politicians – masters, not of the ringing phrase, but the everyday, demotic language of a nation that feels sometimes as though it has surrendered!
To say my ‘farewell’ to Churchill (I was born in the year of his death – 20 years after VE Day), I travelled on January 30 to the south bank of the Thames, to the Pool of London and the vista of Tower Bridge, the Tower of London and HMS Belfast at its resting place, to watch the Havengore (the vessel that carried Sir Winston’s body those many years ago) as it passed upstream once more in a symbolic re-creation of Churchill’s last journey. My companion for this Churchillian pilgrimage was CIoJ Journal Editor, Andy Smith. Together with many other onlookers, of all ages and backgrounds, we felt a tingle of pride to see the great road-crossing of Tower Bridge raised as the Havengore sailed through. The dockside cranes of the 1960s have long gone, replaced by the faceless plate-glass architecture of the modern business cityscape, but enough of the romance of London’s river has remained to make the scene one that the ghost of Churchill might recognise. I was reminded of the words of H G Wells, from his novel, Tono-Bungay:
As I passed down the Thames I seemed in a new and parallel manner to be passing all England in review. I saw it then as I had wanted my readers to see it. The thought came to me slowly as I picked my way through the Pool; it stood out clear as I went dreaming into the night out upon the wide North Sea…
And now behind us is blue mystery and the phantom flash of unseen lights, and presently even these are gone, and I and my destroyer tear out to the unknown across a great grey space. We tear into the great spaces of the future and the turbines fall to talking in unfamiliar tongues. Out to the open we go, to windy freedom and trackless ways. Light after light goes down. England and the Kingdom, Britain and the Empire, the old prides and the old devotions, glide abeam, astern, sink down upon the horizon, pass – pass. The river passes – London passes, England passes…
As you can see, Wells was actually travelling in the opposite direction from that taken by the Havengore – but the impressions and the feelings evoked by these words seemed to be the perfect accompaniment to the day.
Bundle of contradictions
During the morning we history-obsessed chaps had a curious encounter, with a female functionary of the modern BBC (the very body which attempted to prevent Churchill from broadcasting during the crisis of the Appeasement years!). In her matter-of-fact way, she asked us why we were there and what relevance Churchill could possibly have for us today? Apart from the obvious point, that a defeated and Nazi-conquered Britain would no longer have such a body as the BBC, it was – in all honesty – impossible to give a simple answer to her question, for Winston Churchill was so many things, so many people – a bundle of contradictions – all moulded into one person. I doubted if any American journalist, covering the end of the John F Kennedy or Ronald Reagan years, would have asked an American citizen such a crass question. The fact that the crowds were there was – surely – enough of an answer.
In fact, it is the American historian and commentator who often gets to the heart of the matter, more clearly and honestly, and with an empathy and (possibly) vicarious pride more worthy of Churchill’s name than many English observers. For Robert H Pilpel, in his immensely readable, Churchill in America, 1895-1961, the author (12 years old when Churchill retired as Prime Minister in 1955) felt…
… a warm communion that enveloped me as I started to read, an almost immediate sensation of fraternal intimacy, of being taken into the confidence as a fellow member of the English-speaking tribe. Then there was the wonderful Britishness of expression: the robust roast-beef-and pewter phrases, rolling cadences, portentous Latinate locutions – alien yet eerily familiar, the echo of racial memory. Before long I caught sparkles of irrepressible humour percolating through the majestic narrative façade, as though Puck had escaped from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and infiltrated Paradise Lost.
Pilpel’s fellow countryman, William Manchester (an academic and author) was just as enthralled by Churchill and the unforgettable year, 1940, as he wrote in his magnificent, 970-page The Last Lion – Visions of Glory, 1874-1932:
It was England’s greatest crisis since the Norman conquest, vaster than those precipitated by Philip ll’s Spanish Armada, Louis XlV’s triumphant armies, or Napoleon’s invasion barges massed at Boulogne. This time Britain stood alone… Now the 22,000 Tommies at Dunkirk, Britain’s only hope, seemed doomed. On the Flanders beaches they stood around in angular, existential attitudes, like dim purgatorial souls awaiting disposition… The House of Commons was warned to prepare for ‘hard and heavy tidings’.
As Manchester discovers, perhaps Britain – the island nation and fortress – galvanised itself, not just through the war-words and personality of Churchill, but his very early experiences in the art of warfare as a young soldier at the Royal Military Academy (at which he reputedly argued with the commands he was given during parade-ground drill!)…
Winston had entered Sandhurst ninety-second in a class of 102… But Sandhurst was fun. He particularly liked the exercises in field fortification. They dug trenches, built breastworks, and revetted parapets with sandbags, heather, fascines, and Jones’ iron-band gabions – cylinders filled with earth. Chevaux-de-frise were constructed, and fougasses, a kind of primitive land mine in which the charge was overlaid with stones. Using slabs of guncotton, they blew up simulated railroad tracks [readers of this article must remember that this is an American book!] and masonry bridges; then they erected pontoon or timber substitutes. All the hills around Camberley were mapped. Roads were reconnoitered. Picket lines were established and advance and rear guards posted.
Growling man of war
Those military exercises from 1893 served Churchill well, and represented a prophecy of things to come, 47 years later – when the Southern coast of England became a defensive border of pill boxes, tank-traps, trenches, and seaside towns patrolled by the Home Guard. Yet it is wrong to think of the ‘old man’ only as a growling man of war, obsessed with victory and destiny. He was also a skilled painter – an artist who sought solace and spiritual refreshment in English and North African landscapes; a collector and writer of books – and a keen bricklayer and excavator of lakes; a worshipper of his ancestor (the victor of Blenheim); a gentleman at home in Kent, at his beloved Chartwell, never happier than with his family close to him; and a lover of animals (“pets to be cherished and pampered” writes William Manchester), who were always welcome in the Churchill menagerie. A story is told of one such pet, a goose, which had to be sacrificed for a family dinner. “You carve him, Clemmie,” he said. “He was a friend of mine.”
The title of this article was suggested to me by an old picture-book history of Churchill, which I remember buying from a second-hand bookshop in 1981. (This was from the days when I used to visit Churchill’s statue, on the green at Westerham at Kent, the fine, unspoilt old town which is just a few miles from peaceful Chartwell.) The book showed the war years and many other famous moments from his life; then, the Havengore, the cranes which dipped in salute, and the last stages of Churchill’s journey to his resting place at Bladon, Oxfordshire. And on the very last page, a photograph of Bladon church, in the gloom of a January dusk, and the words… “There were giants in the land in those days…”