Biographies & Memoirs



On January 27, 1965, Churchill’s coffin was taken from his house in Hyde Park Gate to Westminster Hall, where it lay in state. Over three hundred thousand people filed slowly past the catafalque. At 9:45 on January 30 the coffin was taken from Westminster to St. Paul’s on a gray gun carriage last used at the funeral of Queen Victoria. The state funeral ordered by Parliament was the first for a politician since Gladstone’s. But in its somber magnificence its only precedent was the burial of the Duke of Wellington in 1852. From the funeral, attended by the queen, five other monarchs, and fifteen heads of state, the coffin went across the Thames by boat, then from Waterloo Station by train to Long Hanborough, the nearest station to Bladon, parish church of Blenheim Palace. Churchill was buried in the churchyard next to his father and mother and his brother, Jack, less than a mile from the room in the palace where he was born.

In his ninety years, Churchill had spent fifty-five years as a member of Parliament, thirty-one years as a minister, and nearly nine years as prime minister. He had been present at or fought in fifteen battles, and had been awarded fourteen campaign medals, some with multiple clasps. He had been a prominent figure in the First World War, and a dominant one in the Second. He had published nearly 10 million words, more than most professional writers in their lifetime, and painted over five hundred canvases, more than most professional painters. He had reconstructed a stately home and created a splendid garden with its three lakes, which he had caused to be dug himself. He had built a cottage and a garden wall. He was a fellow of the Royal Society, an Elder Brother of Trinity House, a Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, a Royal Academician, a university chancellor, a Nobel Prizeman, a Knight of the Garter, a Companion of Honour, and a member of the Order of Merit. Scores of towns made him an honorary citizen, dozens of universities awarded him honorary degrees, and thirteen countries gave him medals. He hunted big game and won a score of races. How many bottles of champagne he consumed is not recorded, but it may be close to twenty thousand. He had a large and much-loved family, and countless friends.

So Winston Churchill led a full life, and few people are ever likely to equal it—its amplitude, variety, and success on so many fronts. But all can learn from it, especially in five ways.

The first lesson is: always aim high. As a child Churchill received no positive encouragement from his father and little from his mother. He was aware of failure at school. But he still aimed high. He conquered his aversion to math, at least enough to pass. He reinforced success in what he could do: write a good English sentence. Conscious of his ignorance, he set himself to master English history and to familiarize himself with great chunks of literature. Once his own master, he played polo to win the top award in the world. He got himself into five wars in quick succession and became both a veteran of military lore and one of the world’s most experienced (and highly paid) war correspondents. Then he set his sights on the House of Commons and stayed there (with one lapse) for over half a century. He sought power and got it in growing amplitude. He never cadged or demeaned himself to get office, but obtained it on his own terms. He sought to be prime minister feeling only he could achieve certain things. In 1940 he aimed not only high but at the highest—to rescue a stricken country in danger of being demoralized, to put it firmly on its feet again, and to carry it to salvation and victory. He did not always meet his elevated targets, but by aiming high he always achieved something worthwhile.

Lesson number two is: there is no substitute for hard work. Churchill obscured this moral by his (for him) efficient habit of spending a working morning in bed, telephoning, dictating, and consulting. He also manifestly enjoyed his leisure activities, for him another form of hard work, to keep himself fit and rested and to enable himself to do his job at the top of his form. The balance he maintained between flat-out work and creative and restorative leisure is worth study by anyone holding a top position. But he never evaded hard work itself: taking important and dangerous decisions, the hardest form of work there is, in the course of a sixteen-hour day. Or working on a speech to bring it as near perfection as possible. No one ever worked harder than Churchill to make himself a master orator. Or forcing himself to travel long distances, often in acute discomfort and danger, to meet the top statesmen face-to-face where his persuasive charm could work best. He worked hard at everything to the best of his ability: Parliament, administration, geopolitics and geostrategy, writing books, painting, creating an idyllic house and garden, seeing things and if possible doing things for himself. Mistakes he made, constantly, but there was never anything shoddy or idle about his work. He put tremendous energy into everything, and was able to do this because (as he told me) he conserved and husbanded his energy, too. There was an extraordinary paradox about his white, apparently flabby body and the amount of muscle power he put into life, always.

Third, and in its way most important, Churchill never allowed mistakes, disaster—personal or national—accidents, illnesses, unpopularity, and criticism to get him down. His powers of recuperation, both in physical illness and in psychological responses to abject failure, were astounding. To be blamed for the dreadful failure and loss of life in the Dardanelles was a terrible burden to carry. Churchill responded by fighting on the western front, in great discomfort and danger, and then by doing a magnificent job at the ministry of munitions. He made a fool of himself over the abdication and was howled down by a united House of Commons in one of the most savage scenes of personal humiliation ever recorded. He scrambled to his feet and worked his way back. He had courage, the most important of all virtues, and its companion, fortitude. These strengths are inborn but they can also be cultivated, and Churchill worked on them all his life. In a sense his whole career was an exercise in how courage can be displayed, reinforced, guarded and doled out carefully, heightened and concentrated, conveyed to others. Those uncertain of their courage can look to Churchill for reassurance and inspiration.

Fourth, Churchill wasted an extraordinarily small amount of his time and emotional energy on the meannesses of life: recrimination, shifting the blame onto others, malice, revenge seeking, dirty tricks, spreading rumors, harboring grudges, waging vendettas. Having fought hard, he washed his hands and went on to the next contest. It is one reason for his success. There is nothing more draining and exhausting than hatred. And malice is bad for the judgment. Churchill loved to forgive and make up. His treatment of Baldwin and Chamberlain after he became prime minister is an object lesson in sublime magnanimity. Nothing gave him more pleasure than to replace enmity with friendship, not least with the Germans.

Finally, the absence of hatred left plenty of room for joy in Churchill’s life. His face could light up in the most extraordinarily attractive way as it became suffused with pleasure at an unexpected and welcome event. Witness that delightful moment at Number Ten when Baldwin gave him the exchequer. Joy was a frequent visitor to Churchill’s psyche, banishing boredom, despair, discomfort, and pain. He liked to share his joy, and give joy. It must never be forgotten that Churchill was happy with people. He insisted that the gates of Chartwell should always be left open so that the people of Westerham were encouraged to come in and enjoy the garden. He got on well with nearly everyone who served him or worked with him, whatever their degree. Being more than half American, he was never class-conscious. When an old man, his bow to the young queen was a work of art: slow, dignified, humble, and low. But he was bowing to tradition and history more than to rank. He showed the people a love of jokes, and was to them a source of many. No great leader was ever laughed at, or with, more than Churchill. He loved to make jokes and contrived to invent a large number in his long life. He collected and told jokes, too. He liked to sing. Beaverbrook said: “He did not sing in tune but he sang with energy and enthusiasm.” He liked to sing “Ta-ra-ra-Boom-de-ay,” “Daisy, Daisy,” and old Boer War songs. His favorite was “Take a Pair of Sparkling Eyes” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers, which Lady Moran, who had a fine voice, would sing to him. He was emotional, and wept easily. But his tears soon dried, as joy came flooding back. He drew his strength from people, and imparted it to them in full measure. Everyone who values freedom under law, and government by, for, and from the people, can find comfort and reassurance in his life story.

Further Reading

Winston Churchill’s life is better documented than any other in the twentieth century. Like Washington, he kept everything from an early age. So did other people. As Kenneth W. Rendell, the greatest living authority on autographs and holographs, says, “Churchill’s appeal [to collectors] cannot be overstated.” The only comparable figure is Napoleon. There are immense Churchill archives at Chartwell; Churchill College, Cambridge; the British Museum; and other centers. New documents and bits of information are always turning up. Every new book on Churchill tends to be slightly out of date before the author has finished writing it, let alone before it is published. I have written about Churchill myself already, most recently in an essay in Heroes, but even my short account contains new items. The eight-volume official biography, the first two volumes by his son, Randolph, the rest by Martin Gilbert, is an exemplary narrative life, which is amplified by a score of supplementary volumes of letters and documents. The whole work is now being reissued, enlarged, corrected, and completed by Hillsdale University Press. Gilbert has also published a number of other valuable books about Churchill. There are many biographies, big and small, and hundreds of books on specialist subjects. The best one-volume biography I have read is by Roy Jenkins. This one-thousand-page volume was written by the late Lord Jenkins when he was eighty, and I salute his Churchillian energy and endurance. Two other books which I particularly value are Lady Violet Bonham Carter’s Winston Churchill as I Knew Him and Lord Moran’s Winston Churchill: The Struggle for Survival. But both contain errors. Indeed, all books about Churchill are fiercely challenged as to facts and judgments in this highly competitive industry. Churchill by Himself: The Life, Times and Opinions of Winston Churchill in His Own Words, edited by Richard M. Langworth (London, 2008), corrects many common errors about his jokes and sayings, though I do not agree with it on every point. In addition to Chartwell, Churchill’s war rooms in Whitehall are now open to the public. There are many Churchill societies and newsletters, especially in the United States, and regular organized tours to places connected with Churchill. Few people who knew him well are left alive, and those who met him, as I did, are a rapidly dwindling band. But people will be writing about him in a thousand years’ time, such is the magic of the man and his doings.

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