Biographies & Memoirs

Chapter Seven

Glorious Twilight


Clementine Churchill’s belief that the 1945 defeat might prove a blessing was abundantly justified, in many different ways. First, it spared her husband the agony of presiding over a dramatic but inevitable contraction of Britain’s global power. The country emerged from six years of total war exhausted, impoverished, and emotionally numb. Clement Attlee’s Labour government had no inhibitions about giving India its independence. As Churchill had predicted, the vast country split into Hindu and Moslem halves, accompanied by terrible slaughter. But the disintegration he feared did not take place. Indeed, the emergence of India as a great modern economic power, which he believed would take place under British tutelage, eventually began under Indian leadership a generation after his death. An India becoming rich, which Gandhi was sure would destroy her culture and soul, was to Churchill a welcome prospect, a final justification of British rule. So in this respect he was ultimately proved right, and Gandhi wrong. But he was glad he was spared the duty of setting India free. As usual, however, having fought the legislation through all its stages, he accepted the verdict of Parliament. As he said to Nehru, the new Indian prime minister, “It is now your task to lead to prosperity the India I loved and served.”

He was also spared the pain of presiding over Israel’s birth. A fervent Zionist he remained. Ben-Gurion and Weizmann, the founding fathers, were friends. But he could not bear the savage terrorist campaign waged by Irgun and the Stern Gang and against British troops, which preceded Israel’s formation. “I try to put everything concerning Palestine out of my mind,” he said sadly.

As he saw it, his main global task during his period of opposition was twofold. First to arouse the world, and especially the United States, to the dangers presented by the power of Stalin’s Soviet Union. In America he was universally popular. On March 6, 1946, invited by President Truman, who became a firm friend and a warm admirer, to make a major speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, his home state, Churchill responded with a call to vigilance in response to the Soviet peril. “An iron curtain has descended across the Continent,” he said. Whether he invented the term “iron curtain” is a matter of dispute. He certainly popularized it, as well as “cold war”—“A cold war against Russia has replaced the hot war against Germany,” as he put it. But Churchill equally saw his second task was to promote dialogue across the cold war iron curtain. He wanted summits, as always. A favorite saying of his was “Jaw-jaw is better than war-war.” He much resented the accusation that he was a man of war, still more a warmonger. In 1941 he allowed himself to be photographed holding a Thompson sub-machine gun, part of a shipment from America. It was often used against him to illustrate the image of “Gangster Churchill” harped on by Hitler and occasionally by his Labour enemies. But it was a splendid photo, and Churchill loved it. When he made his wartime voyages across the Atlantic by liner, he insisted the lifeboat to which he was assigned be provided with “tommy guns.” “I dread capture more than death,” he said, “and I will go down fighting.”

All the same, he was anxious to lose his reputation for bellicosity. That was why he welcomed the emergence of Ernest Bevin as a tough, resolute, and, if necessary, fierce foreign secretary in 1945, one quite capable of standing up to the Russians and giving them, to use his terminology, “what for.” He also applauded Attlee for his firm handling of Soviet forward moves, especially during the Berlin blockade. He disliked belittling remarks about Attlee (except when he made them himself ). Once, at Chartwell, Sir John Rodgers referred to Attlee as “silly old Attlee.” Churchill exploded:

Mr Attlee is Prime Minister of England. Mr Attlee was Deputy Prime Minister during the War, and played a great part in winning the War. Mr Attlee is a great patriot. Don’t you dare call him “silly old Attlee” at Chartwell or you won’t be invited again.

Churchill considered it fortunate that the war in Korea came while Attlee and Labour were still in power. He told a group of Tory MPs early in 1951, “We had no alternative but to fight, but if I had been Prime Minister, they would have called me a warmonger. As it is, I have not been called upon to take so invidious a step as to send our young men to fight on the other side of the globe. The Old Man has been good to me.” Sir Reginald Manningham-Buller, MP, was puzzled. “What old man, sir?” Churchill chuckled. “Why, Sir Reginald. Almighty God, the Ruler of the Universe!”

It is likely that the 1945 election result was also a blessing simply in relieving Churchill’s workload. If he had carried on as prime minister without a break, he might not have lived long. That was the medical view. As it was, while attending the House of Commons often and making some memorable speeches, he was able to hand over the main business of the Opposition to younger men: Eden, R. A. Butler, Oliver Lyttelton, and Harold Macmillan. He enjoyed many breaks. He took his painting more and more seriously. After his defeat, Field Marshal Alexander placed at his disposal a superb villa his army had commanded overlooking Lake Como, and Churchill set to, to paint the glorious scenery there. The news of his skill as a landscape painter was spreading. The rich began to collect his work. His canvases fetched high prices in the auction rooms. His excellent book Painting as a Pastime circulated widely and won the approval of the president of the Royal Academy, Sir Alfred Munnings, who wanted anyone of talent to take up painting and thought Churchill a shining example of how high an amateur could rise with proper encouragement and enthusiasm. He contrived to get Churchill elected an Honorary Member of the Royal Academy Extraordinary. Nothing in Churchill’s life gave him greater pleasure. He sent his pictures to the summer exhibition and always, if he could, attended the annual banquet, often speaking there. He and Munnings had a lot in common, especially love of life and color and detestation of “modern art.” Munnings related: “Mr. Churchill said to me, ‘Alf, if you were walking down Piccadilly, and you saw Picasso walking in front of you, what would you do? ’ ‘Kick his arse, Mr. Churchill.’ ‘Quite right, Alf.’ ”

In addition, Churchill took up racing. Clemmie disapproved: “A rich man’s sport,” she said. “Before he bought the horse (I can’t think why) he had hardly been on a racecourse in his life.” Actually, the idea came from his son-in-law Christopher Soames, who had married his daughter Mary and who loved racehorses. The old idol ization of his father stirred in Churchill’s veins: “I can revive my father’s racing colours.” He did, and set up a small stud near New-chapel Green, convenient for Lingfield races and not far from Chartwell. He acquired (among others) a gray colt called Colonist II, which won thirteen races for him, including some big ones, and proved a popular bet among working-class punters before going out to stud. Churchill was elected to the Jockey Club in 1950 and loved that, too. Moreover, owning racehorses, far from ruining him, actually made him quite a bit of money.

But the chief activity of the postwar Churchill was writing. This is the main reason Clementine was right to say the 1945 defeat was a blessing in disguise. He had always believed—he said so explicitly in May 1938—“Words are the only things that last for ever.” Between 1941 and 1945 he had performed great deeds. Now he needed to write the words to ensure that the deeds were correctly described and so made immortal. After the 1945 landslide, he buckled down to the immense and daunting task of writing his war memoirs immediately. The work was pressed forward with all deliberate speed and with all the resources of intellect and energy. Despite its immense length—over 2 million words—the great majority of the book was done by the time he returned to power at the end of 1951. It is a disturbing thought that if he had remained in office it might never have been done at all. If, by carrying on with his overwhelming efforts as premier, especially in the disheartening conditions of the postwar world, he had shortened his life, it would certainly not have been done. The world would have lost a masterpiece, and our view of Churchill might now be distinctly different.

The work was a team effort. Chartwell became a writing factory, with ghostly co-writers, research assistants, historical consultants, and military experts flitting in and out, and with secretaries and typists pounding away by day and taking dictation by night. Churchill called his creative formula “the three Ds—documents, dictation and drafts.” The book was a documentary history as well as a personal memoir. He had from an early age always hoarded papers (as did George Washington), and Chartwell had been refashioned by him partly to house this archive efficiently. What he learned from writing The World Crisis was the need to make the earliest possible use of official papers, and if possible to get physical possession of them as well as the legal right to use them. From the start in World War II, he applied this lesson assiduously. It is likely that many of his wartime writings—memos, orders, assessments, and strategic directives—were written by him with a view to future use in his memoirs. It was one reason he always gave or confirmed his orders in writing. Before he left Downing Street in summer 1945 he and the then cabinet secretary, Sir Edward Bridges, made what has been called “a remarkable bargain.” Churchill asked for no financial, honorific, or other reward for his unique wartime services. What he asked for, and got, was agreement that a vast quantity of the wartime official papers be classified as his personal property. Moreover, he was allowed to remove them to his personal archive at Chartwell. The only qualification was that their publication had to be approved by the government of the day. This bargain meant that Churchill was able to document his account in full from the start. He was right ahead of the field, by miles. There was virtually no competition during the seven years it took him to write and publish the work, especially from the very top. Hitler, Mussolini, and Roosevelt were dead (so were Chamberlain and Baldwin, of course). Stalin wrote no memoirs, thinking—the fool!—that Soviet official history, supervised by him, would do instead. Churchill published well before the various generals, admirals, air marshals, and politicians who had also participated could get their word in. He also benefited from exclusivity. The British documents to which Churchill alone had full access were closed to everyone else except certain authors of official histories on specific and narrow subjects. In 1958 legislation permitted access, subject to the “fifty year rule,” which meant any particular document could not be seen by the public for half a century. In 1967 the period was reduced to thirty years, but by then Churchill was dead, having got his word in first.

In effect, the period of revisionism did not start until the decade after Churchill’s death. By then many of the verdicts he sought to impose had become deeply embedded in the received version of history, taught in schools and universities, and the heroic epic of Churchill, largely written or inspired by himself, had passed into the public historical memory. Was it truthful? A large proportion of it is documentation, especially the wartime minutes and telegrams. Churchill dictated long passages on key episodes of particular importance to him, which he recalled vividly. There were also extensive drafts, corrected by Churchill, which were written by “the Syndicate,” the team of research assistants under the leadership of Bill Deakin, an academic and the only professional historian on the team, Henry Pownall, and Gordon Allen. Experts and participants—service chiefs, industrialists, and scientists—were summoned to help with special passages. All these people served to correct Churchill’s memory of events when necessary and to balance his exuberance. But his memory was superlative at this stage of his life and remarkably free from any grudges, let alone malice. The production of the work has been compared to results achieved by a big scientific research group directed by a genius who gets the credit. Asked if Churchill really wrote the book himself, Denis Kelly, office manager of the Syndicate, replied that was like asking a master chef, “Did you cook the whole banquet with your own hands?” A careful study of both the work and the way it was put together may reveal manipulations, omissions, and suppressions (for obvious reasons, little is said of Enigma and successful code breaking such as Ultra). But the impression that emerges is that Churchill was a historian of passion, romantic and often inspired to special insights and near poetry, and a writer of dynamic power and energy, as well as a recording angel of striking ruthlessness. By giving his version of the greatest of all wars, and his own role in it, he knew he was fighting for his ultimate place in history. What was at stake was his status as a hero. So he fought hard and took no prisoners. On the whole he won the war of words, as he had earlier won the war of deeds.

War Memoirs was immensely successful, not least because so much in it was new to the reader, and especially fascinating to those who had lived through the years he described. Indeed it was one of the most popular and highly rewarded books ever published. The original deal of May 1947 covering five volumes brought Churchill $2.23 million, the equivalent of about $50 million today. But he also got huge sums from the New York Times and Time Life for serial rights. In 1953 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, only the second historian to be so honored (the first was Theodor Mommsen, who wrote on ancient Rome). At the time of this prize giving, the Daily Telegraph of London, which had serialized the latest volume, stated that volumes one to five had already sold 6 million copies in English and had been serialized in fifty newspapers in forty countries. No book of comparable size—nor many of any size—has so quickly achieved such circulation. The British and American publishers made fortunes from the work, as did Churchill’s agent, Emery Reeves. The Churchill family benefited bountifully not only from the work’s earnings but also by the bargain over the papers, which were donated to the Chartwell Trust and sold to Lord Camrose of the Daily Telegraph. This incorporated a clever legal device to avoid the punitive taxation which would have made the memoirs pointless financially.

Churchill survived the war by twenty years, and spent most of the first decade in active politics. Should he have retired? He thought the people wanted him. They said so, according to the polls. He had always bowed to the popular will when it expressed the national interest. He had said, in 1944, that an electoral defeat might be coming and must be respected: “What is good enough for the people is good enough for me.” After resigning the premiership, he moved from Downing Street to Claridge’s, until his house was ready, and was observed waiting outside the hotel for his car and singing an old popular song from his youth: “North Pole, South Pole, now I’m up the Pole, since I got the sack, from the Hotel Metropole.” At his farewell dinner party at Chequers, where a rehoboam of champagne was drunk, he made some remarks about his future conduct: “I will never give way to self-pity. The new government has a clear mandate which the opposition had no right to attack in principle. The new government will have the most difficult task of any in modern times, and it is the duty of everyone to support them in matters of national interest.” Churchill applied these rules to his own conduct as leader of the Opposition. Labour’s immense program was vigorously contested, but Churchill never threatened to destroy it if he returned to power. His chief contribution, he felt, was to voice the British view all over the world. So memorable speeches were made before immense audiences. At Zurich, he promoted European unity under Franco-German leadership, a prophetic notion. He stressed the importance of the “spiritual” element in such leadership, an aspect of unity which, alas, has been forgotten. A parliamentarian to the very roots of his political personality, he also stressed the importance of the Strasbourg parliament as opposed to the Brussels bureaucracy. Indeed, on August 11, 1950, he addressed a crowd of over twenty thousand in the open at Place Kléber, Strasbourg. The reception was overwhelming: nothing like it had been seen in the city ever before, or since. But alas here, too, Churchill’s wisdom has been ignored and bureaucracy has triumphed in every corner of the European community.

One reason Churchill hung on was that he loved the House of Commons so much. His speeches were still events, eagerly awaited. But there were also unpredictable “outbursts of charm,” as the parliamentary diarist “Chips” Channon put it. A sector of far-left Labour MPs disliked him and often subjected him to abuse. Once, when he was leaving the chamber, there were shouts of “Rat!” “Leaving the sinking ship!” “Don’t come back!” Churchill paused, turned round, then blew kisses at his assailants. This brought shouts of laughter from all parts of the House. Churchill did not win the 1950 election, but he returned greatly strengthened and full of mischievous glee. When Hugh Gaitskell, then the new chancellor of the exchequer, a “prissy Wykehamist” in Churchill’s view, who stood on his dignity a little too often, was making a solemn economic statement, Churchill began to search his pockets for something. First his trousers. Then his jacket. Then his top pocket. Then all his waistcoat pockets. This extensive search gradually attracted the attention of the House. Eventually Gaitskell, aware he had lost his audience, snapped at Churchill in irritation, “Can I help you?” Churchill replied sweetly, “I am only looking for a jujube.” Again, there was a roar of laughter from all parties.

At the end of 1951 there was another election, and this time Churchill was returned to office with a majority of seventeen. He quickly formed a government, taking over the defense portfolio himself for a time. Other wartime figures made an appearance: Ismay, Cherwell, the Earl of Woolton, Lord Leathers, Alexander. But increasingly, the main work was done by professional politicians like Eden, Butler, and Macmillan. Churchill was keen to introduce new young talent, employing the graceful manner he brought to even the routine jobs of the prime minister, such as the filling of junior offices. Lord Carrington, a young peer with a good war record in the Guards, was out shooting on his Buckinghamshire estate when a message came to phone Number Ten. On his return he found Churchill on the line. “Been out shooting I hear. Game good?” “Excellent.” “I am glad to hear it. Now I want to ask you: would you care to join my shoot?” That was how Carrington became undersecretary for agriculture, the first step in a career which ended as a distinguished foreign secretary. Churchill felt he had no mandate to reverse Labour’s nationalization measures, nor to “tame” the unions, nor to abolish the National Health Service, the creation of his old enemy Aneurin Bevan (indeed the two of them were sometimes seen sharing a whiskey and jokes: they were “incapable of resisting each other’s charm”). Labour’s work was left virtually untouched—Evelyn Waugh complained in his Diaries, “The clock has not been put back one single second.” There were even complaints that Churchill was slow to end rationing and other wartime egalitarian restrictions which Labour had prolonged. The country had to wait till Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s for the deadly burden of Attlee’s “Socialism and Water” to be drained away and replaced by privatization and the profit motive.

Churchill reserved his energy for foreign affairs. While unable to bring about a summit with Russia, he kept the “special relationship” with America in constant repair. He met President Eisenhower in Bermuda and paid an official visit to Washington in June 1954. The young vice president, Richard Nixon, left a vivid verbatim account of his conversation on that occasion covering the French predicament in Vietnam, the war against Communist guerrillas in Malaya, colonialism, imperialism, nuclear weapons, who was running Russia, and many other matters. “He enjoyed himself thoroughly,” Nixon wrote, “and was one of those rare great leaders who relished small talk as much as world-shaking issues.” Assigned the prestigious Lincoln Bedroom in the White House, where the bed was hard, he crept out in the middle of the night to the so-called Queen’s Bedroom, which was empty and where he knew from experience that the bed was luxurious. He told Mrs. Nixon that he had his first whiskey of the day at 8:30 in the morning, but deplored the habit of John Foster Dulles of drinking highballs during dinner: “For the evening is Champagne Time.” He joked about Dulles: “The only bull I know who carries his china shop around with him.” He said, “That man makes a beautiful declension: ‘Dull, Duller, Dulles.’”

In 1953, after long resisting, Churchill allowed the queen to make him a Knight of the Garter. This was a sign he was thinking of retiring, for he had always declined honors which involved a change of name: he valued being “Mr. Churchill.” There was a stroke later that year. Recovered, he found reasons for hanging on. He thought Eden “not up to” being prime minister physically and emotionally, but he also felt “he deserves his turn. Who knows? All may be well.” In fact, Eden’s brief turn ended in the fatal invasion of Egypt and the equally disastrous withdrawal. Churchill commented, “I would have been afraid to go in. But being in, I would have been even more afraid to go out.”

Churchill, aged seventy-nine, handed over in April 1955. His last speech had been on March 1, a virtuoso effort he prepared carefully and “dictated every word himself.” He said:

Which way shall we turn to save our lives and the future of the world? It does not matter so much to old people; they are going to die soon anyway; but I find it poignant to look at youth in all its activity and ardour and, most of all, to watch little children playing their merry games, and wonder what would lie before them if God wearied of mankind.

However, he added, he was not despondent:

The day may dawn when fair play, love for one’s fellow men, respect for justice and freedom, will enable tormented generations to march forth serene and triumphant from the hideous epoch in which we have to dwell. Meanwhile, never flinch, never weary, never despair.

The last ten years of Churchill’s life were an age of dying embers, with occasional flickers of flame and fiery glows. He finished his History of the English-Speaking Peoples. He painted: “I love the bright colours. I feel sorry for the dull browns.” He thought the best thing about heaven would be the infinitely brilliant color scheme. But he also saw the afterlife as “some kind of velvety cool blackness.” He then paused. “Perhaps I may be reborn as a Chinese coolie. You know, those were the people employed in South Africa whom I referred to in my first ministerial speech in the Commons. I said that to call them slaves would be to be guilty of a terminological inexactitude. Oh, how glorious English words are! However, if I am reborn a coolie, I shall lodge a strong protest at the Bar of Heaven.”

Much of his time was spent in the south of France, at the villa of Emery Reeves, whose pretty wife fussed over him enjoyably. There were many other houses open to him there, notably Beaverbrook’s La Capponcina, which was put at his disposal six months of the year. He made the acquaintance of Aristotle Onassis, the Greek shipowner, and went for eight cruises in all on his capacious and luxurious yacht, the Christina. Churchill was particularly fond of it because it was a converted destroyer with huge, fast engines. For a time he was still adventurous. There is a vignette of him insisting on descending to a Mediterranean beach by a rocky cliff, and then being unable to climb up it again. He had to be hauled up (all five foot seven of him, and 154 pounds) in a bosun’s chair, pulled by a gang of fellow guests which included the ravishing Lady Diana Cooper and the ballet star Margot Fonteyn.

In his eighties Churchill was often forgetful, deaf, and lost in thought. The writer James Cameron, who had dinner à trois with Churchill and Beaverbrook at La Capponcina, describes a silent meal. Suddenly Churchill asked, “Ever been to Moscow, Max? ”—“Moscow” pronounced to rhyme with “cow.” “Yes, Sir Winston—you sent me there, remember?” Churchill went back into silence. At the end of the evening, saying good-bye, Cameron in his nervousness grasped Churchill’s hand too roughly. The old man reacted with fury, blue eyes blazing: “Goddamn you!”

Churchill often stayed at the Hôtel de Paris in Monte Carlo, in a penthouse flat prepared for him. But he liked to dine downstairs with Mrs. Reeves, known as “Rhinestone Wendy.” Evelyn Waugh, also staying there, wrote to Ian Fleming’s wife, Ann:

We sometimes see Sir Winston (at a respectful distance) gorging vast quantities of rich food. His face is elephant grey and quite expressionless. His moll sits by him coaxing him and he sometimes turns a pink little eye towards her without turning his head.

He had a bad fall at the hotel, and that was the beginning of the end. He had been reelected to the Commons in 1959, though he never spoke thereafter, and paid his last visit to the place he loved on July 27, 1964. He celebrated his ninetieth birthday in November and died the following January, the twenty-fourth. His final days were painless and without incident. His last words were: “I am bored with it all.” But then he added, looking at the faces around his bedside, “The journey has been enjoyable and well worth making—once!”


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