“Memories of Winston Churchill”

Anthony Montague Browne
Finest Hour 50, Winter 1985-86

My very kind hosts. Mary and Christopher. Ladies and gentlemen. I won’t start off with a pun. I was truly moved by what Mary said. It was, and I”m not exaggerating, more than I deserved. Certainly the rewards of those 13 years were worth more than the little dust that there was. You expressed yourself very movingly, and I am deeply grateful to you. As for the privilege I had of that association at that time, I don’t think that I would have enjoyed it more, whatever the period of your father’s great life it had been. I am moved by your words. I will say no more about that.

Speaking now between Mary and Christopher. I feel rather like a priest in a small Italian village, getting up to make a sermon and finding not one but two popes sitting there.

But since you insist on a pun, I will give you a pun. It is about not making puns. The jester of a medieval sovereign insisted on making puns and the sovereign finally said. ‘I’ve had quite enough of your terrible puns! One more and I will hang you.’ The jester did make one, and the sovereign duly sent him to the gallows. But at the last moment he repented. and thought he’d been a bit hard as he quite liked the jester. So he sent a galloper to reach him at the foot of the gallows, who told him, “If you promise never to make another pun, you will be spared. And the jester sighed and said, ‘No noose is good news.'”

I am very much honoured by your invitation. The International Churchill Society has achieved an astonishing record for its comparatively short span of life since it was reorganized and restarted in 1981. To maintain and restore Winston Churchill’s many written works, which is one of the objects of the Churchill Literary Foundation, is a true historical service, and a very unusual thing to do. People have tried to do it for commercial reasons, but to keep it going on its own worth is something that the future will be very grateful for. Whether you’re a “phile” or a “phobe,” you ‘ll be grateful.

I won’t say much about the Other Club, which has met here since it was founded by Winston Churchill in 1911 . I think you’ve fixed the scene of this dinner very imaginatively. Christopher, who has been a member much longer than me, will speak about it. But let me say this: At the Other Club there are no speeches. You here tonight have no such luck!

Most great figures go through a period of eclipse after their death, which may or may not be permanent. Winston Churchill, who in his life conformed to no pattern, continues his own tradition. Here we have your activities as an admirable example. There are quite a number of commemorative organisations established during his lifetime. Churchill College was founded at Cambridge with its emphasis on technology; it now has a most distinguished scientific record and numerous Nobel Prize winners. The Winston Churchill Memorial Trust in this country has, since 1966, had more than 60,000 candidates, has awarded traveling fellowships to 2000 people, to study abroad in a wide variety of subjects. There are many clubs and societies here and abroad. I wonder if any other contemporary figure has excited such long international interest of such a benevolent kind. Generally speaking, all these organisations have been mercifully free of the kind of individual who not only feel he has invented Winton Churchill, but patented him too.

Richard Langworth told me that I could use the same speech that I made in Canada in 1982, to the Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver Churchill Societies. But I thought it would be a little rough on anybody who may have been there! It is also unwise to start off bored with one’s own speech. I’m afraid you’re not going to have the good fortune as an audience to which, some years ago. a Commonwealth High Commissioner spoke in this hotel. The toastmaster stumbled and advised the company. “Ladies and Gentlemen, pray for the silence of His Excellency the High Commissioner …” The High Commissioner rose and said, ”Ladies and Gentlemen, your prayers have been answered.”

There is, however, a good deal of advice available on how to make a speech, some of it less useful than the rest. Ernest Bevin, who I believe to be the greatest foreign secretary since the war, once told me that if one was addressing a rowdy audience like the Boilermakers Union, one should lower one’s voice: because boilermakers are occupationally deaf, and they have to shut up if they want to hear you. Alas I am sorry to say that it has not yet fallen to my lot to address a rowdy audience of boilermakers.

I thought I might take a leaf out of Randolph Churchill ‘s book when he was beginning to write the life of his father. He wrote, “He shall be his own biographer.” I intend to base what I am going to say on quotations of Sir Winston. Actually some of his remarks were recorded by several people, who claimed to have heard them personally on different occasions -and they were usually correct. He very often repeated a remark he thought worthwhile if it fitted the occasion.

It is of course the case that he varied his assessment of historical fact in differing situations. In 1940 the head of an important section of the London transport system refused to put his name to a statement that the London transport services were running normally despite an enemy air attack. He said, reasonably enough, ‘It’s just not true.” The Prime Minister was convinced that it was necessary to say something like this for morale reasons. He sent for the gentleman concerned and reasoned with him at great length, all to no avail. His conscience was impregnable. Eventually the Prime Minister dismissed him with a sigh: “I will do violence to no man’s con­ science.” After he left, the P.M. added, “And never let me see that impeccable bus conductor again. “

Quotations are a very rich vein because Winston Churchill’s political life extended from 1900 over 60 years. I will endeavour to draw on it a little to throw a bit of light on the lesser-known sides of his character, because the broad sweep has already been closely recorded not least by himself. His friends were not slow to take note of this. About The World Crisis Sir Samuel Hoare said, “Winston has written a huge book all about himself and called it The World Crisis.’ He himself rejoined. “I have not always been wrong. History will bear me out, particularly as I shall write that history myself.”

In a debate on the newspaper industry when Winston Churchill was Member for Dundee, a colleague of his spoke of a whole list of newspapers: “I finally come to the Dundee Advertiser – I mean the paper, not the Member.”

I still think that we all have reason to be pleased that this particular original source was so prolific. I never kept a diary as such, but I did keep notes of many of his conversations for operational reasons and because they were such fun. In his old age he was at his best in a small circle where he could either be totally silent, or overwhelm everybody. In the autumn of 1955 I dined with him alone 17 evenings, shortly after his retirement. Those 17 evenings alone with an octogenarian were utterly fascinating. All sorts of curious pieces of information came out. I’ll take some al random, because they cover such a wide and capricious field, and indicate the nimbleness and diversity of his mind -even at the age of 81 when he had had two major strokes and was in some ways bored and perhaps a little sad at what had happened.

He told me that when he was a boy his great ambition was to play the cello, and when he was in his teens he felt he ought to go into the church. “I wonder what would have become of me then?” he asked. I suggested he would have crossed the floor and become Pope. He wasn’t particularly amused at the time!

Actually he rarely went to church. When he was approached about this he said he was not a pillar of the church but a buttress – he supported it from the out­ side.

In answer to a question of his final opinion of Lawrence of Arabia, he said, “He had the art of backing uneasily into the limelight. He was a very remarkable character, and very careful of that fact.”

I asked him what he had thought during his celebrated cavalry charge at Omdurman, when the 21st Lancers had gone headlong into a gully filled with quite unexpected and extremely bad-tempered dervishes. He said. “It was very stimulating, but I did think ‘suppose there is a spoil-sport in the hole with a machine gun?”

He did have a puckish approach to solemn occasions as when the Crown Prince of Japan was lunching at Number Ten. Winston Churchill sent for two 15th century Japanese bronzes that his mother had brought back from the Far East. They were of a stallion, gazing at a mare in season. He commented to the Crown Prince that these epitomized to him ‘sex in bronze.” The Crown Prince turned them over and over and inspected them closely. And Churchill muttered, “You won’t find it there …”

To me an enormously agreeable side of his character was his attitude toward animals. Although a Victorian -and they were not notably aware of animal suffering -he had a sensitivity well in advance of his time. He once looked at his pigs at Chartwell and observed, “I like pigs. Cats look down on you; dogs look up to you: but pigs treat you like an equal. One Christmas he was about to carve a goose. Learning it was one of his own, he put down the knife and fork and said. “I could not possibly eat a bird that I have known socially.”

I should not like to mislead you into believing he was a vegetarian, or even a teetotaler. When I was a young subaltern in the South African War, he said that he water was not fit to drink. To make it palatable we had to add whiskey. By diligent effort I learned to like it. And neither want brandy nor need it, but I should think it pretty hazardous to intervene with the incredible habit of a lifetime. And all I can say is that “I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.”

“You can’t make a speech on ice water.”

Who am I to contradict?

On top of what he did say there are an enormous number of quotations attributed to him that he never made. A great figure seems to attract quotations like a magnet to iron filings. One of the celebrated misquotes was about the British Navy. The subject came up and he mentioned naval tradition. I said he had not always held naval tradition in high regard, and quoted his alleged view:
“Rum, lice, sodomy and the lash -those are the traditions of the British Navy.”

He liked it very much, but he had never heard it before.

A quotation that leaps immediately to my mind was an unpublished one he often used when a speech was in preparation: “This speech is hanging over me like a vulture.” He also said, “I’m going to make a long speech because I’ve not had the time to prepare a short one.”

But it ‘s a common error to suppose that brilliance of oratory and facility are synonymous. Winston Churchill’s speeches were the result of very hard work, over a long period. As the day of a major oration drew near, the principal actor suffered severely from first night nerve and went to the occasion pale and irritable. It is not hard to see why: ”Winston Churchill makes a great speech” is hardly news; but “Winston Churchill bores and loses his audience” would almost be a world headline.

I have been reflecting on one or two of his famous speeches and their historical effects. I am not going to refer to what he said in wartime because it was perfectly clear that his object was to rouse and rally the nation. Later on he was so totally concentrated on winning the war that subsequent events faded into relative insignificance in his mind.

You may very well know the story of his observation when Hitler attacked Russia: “If Hitler invaded Hell, I would at least make a favourable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.”

What is striking is that some of these most remarkable speeches were so ill­ received at the time, when they now appear so obviously true. This does not apply just to his disregarded warnings about the rise of Nazi Germany. The subject is, I think, worth examining. There are lessons to be learned from it. We all think of the celebrated Iron Curtain address, in the United States in 1946, as rallying the West. But at the time he was disavowed by the State Department, and his hotel in New York was surrounded by hostile pickets. The reaction in Britain was even more extreme, with some fairly obvious quarters.

Looking back on this incident, it is hard to understand the reaction. Reading the speech now, after 40 years, it seems a statement of simple fact, a sober warning of an obvious and terrible danger, couched in language that is moderate through lofty felicity, and remarkably free from the rancour and profound distaste that most justifiably could have been aroused by our Russian ally ‘s conduct.

Remember, it was only a few years previous that the Russians had concluded that hangman ‘s pact with Nazi Germany, closely followed by their cynical attack on Poland, and then on Finland, and the gobbling up of the Baltic States. Then there was the German U-boat base on Russian soil near Murmansk, that didn’t get much publicity. Molotov had sent a telegram of congratulations to von Ribbentrop when the Germans captured Paris in 1940. The Soviet press gloated over every British defeat – and there were plenty to gloat over. Then at last the cannibals fell out-after Stalin had angrily rejected British warnings of the forthcoming German onslaught. It now seems quite astonishing that the Left Wing can so easily rewrite history, and represent wartime Russia as nobly sustaining the fight to save us in the East.

Who then were those who were so incensed by the Iron Curtain speech? There were among them the professional agents of Communism; but there were also the smug professional liberals, with their pocketbooks full of elevated moral platitudes. There were the self-advertising bigots in the entertainment world, whose blank ignorance of public affairs was matched only by their steely determination to extract personal publicity from them. It is not hard to find their faithful descendants today. Their continuation is at once a tribute to our tolerance, and to our capacity for forgetting folly and injury; and also a puzzlement, for they seem to have survived on a standard of judgment and a knowledge of public affairs that would not see a domestic rabbit safely through a day in its hutch.

Beyond this is something far less predictable and far more important: mass inertia, and distaste for being roused yet again to confront a new threat, coming so swiftly on the heels of the old. The war was barely over and the repeated adrenalin of patriotic exhortation had wearied so many minds. It was the same resentment against the deliverer of this new warning and summons to action that an exhausted man feels against one who wakes him up from the briefest, well­ earned sleep. Worst of all, the warning was palpably justified and undeniably urgent. So much for a historical diversion.

Studying Churchill is rather like looking at one of his paintings. You need to be a certain distance away to appreciate the sweep of his life and the qualities that illuminated it. High among these I put prescience and prophecy. Violet Bonham Carter, the daughter of Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, who had known Churchill nearly all her life, said, “Demons seem to whisper things to him.”

I believe he was very conscious of this. Of course, the quality did not arise from anything supernatural, but from a deep study of history, and an extreme sensitivity to the winds and cross currents of world situations! I think that towards the end of his life this prophetic power was an unhappiness to him. He saw all too clearly what was happening to the civilized world and to the stern values that stand out so clearly in his life’s work. He had a formidable memory and a great liking for poetry, and he used to quote that sad verse of Houseman ‘s: “Moral folly done and said, and the lovely way that led, to the slime pit and the mire, and the everlasting fire.”

In his last years I was frequently alone with him and his melancholy was painfully visible. I tried to rally him. I spoke of the extraordinary life he had enjoyed, culminating in the fact that at the end, with all he had said and done, he was almost universally popular and admired. When he went to make the Charlemagne Prize speech in Germany in 1956, as he drove through the streets of Aachen and Bonn he was cheered. It astonished him. After all, it was not very long after the end of the war. I referred to his Nobel Prize for Literature, the vast scope of his activities. How, I concluded, could he be so downcast, when he had achieved so much?

I noted his reply verbatim, and again he said the same thing, similar on other occasions: “Yes, I worked very hard all my life, and I have achieved a great deal -in the end to achieve nothing.” Now this of course is only a small part of the truth. But it is worth considering. What went wrong? Could things have been different? And could Churchill have made them different? I think the answer must be ”yes -but with great difficulty.”

I would like here to quote from a letter which our host Richard Langworth wrote to me, which I think makes a most important point. ”A member of the Society has written to be this: “WSC was an anachronism when he died, and he knew it, and that is one reason why he tired of this earth.”

Personally, I don’t presume to make such judgments. having mainly only Lord Moran to go by. And may I interject I think that is a stumbling block to history. But I believe from what I’ve read that Sir Winston’s depression in old age had nothing to do with feeling himself an anachronism. I think instead that two things really depressed him. The first was the realization, probably as early as Teheran, that he had eliminated one monster only to create another, and a worse one. The second was the continued inability of the English-Speaking Peoples to forge the working relationship on which he placed so much hope. Suez is the obvious first example, but perhaps he had been aware of this failure earlier.”

I think that is a very incisive view. I do indeed believe that the lack of true cooperation between the three great powers had been a terrible and increasing disappointment to him, going back as far as Teheran and Yalta. I was not with him at that time, but this is certainly the impression he gave me in his later years.

I do not think in his heart of hearts that he ever expected anything very different from the Soviet Union, though he had hopes – dismally unfulfilled -of a change of heart after victory. But the euphoria of the early relationship with President Roosevelt during the first years of the war was gradually to die away, as the American administration believed that it could do business with “Uncle Joe.” Some business.

The so-called “special relationship” with the United States was largely of British making, and something of an illusion even from the very start. It was not for nothing that Winston Churchill called the last volume of his war memoirs Triumph and Tragedy.

Then at home, Winston Churchill’s position in his second administration had diminished substantially from the war years. Much of this was utterly inevitable. A peacetime administration is very different from that of a wartime coalition, and age had unquestionably taken its toll. But there were other factors. Churchill once ironically said to me that he envied Stalin. I was rather taken aback at this suggestion. He went on to explain that Stalin had grasped the essential that political power lay in controlling the party machine. Stalin had been general secretary of the Communist Party, like all other Russian leaders, but he, Winston Churchill, had never been popular with the top brass of the Conservative Party, and never had very much to do with it.

Part of the reasons for this arc personal, part historical. Of course he had twice crossed the floor. As he himself remarked, “Any can rat – but it takes a certain amount of ingenuity to re-rat.” But when he came to office in 1940, he was looked upon by many as a dangerous maverick. One of the junior members in Mr. Chamberlain’s Government, who was later to achieve great prominence in this country, but in my view no true fame, said. “This is a black day in England ‘s history . . . We’ve been given into the hands of a drunken adventurer with all the worst characteristics of Charles James Fox [the 18th century political rake].” Yet the same minister six weeks later publicly and to his face compared him with Pitt, who led this country against Napoleon. (I always wondered what it was that he really believed.)

Anyway, the central company machine I do not think really liked Winston Churchill – either in or out of office. This is a weeping statement, and I’m interpreting what I know of his sentiments very broadly. I can easily be shot down: certainly most party workers held him in deep affection, indeed reverence. Nevertheless I think it was partly due to his separation from the party machine that things went wrong. This separation was to some extent deliberate. Having been a coalition Prime Minister, he was after all above the party.

Harold Macmillan said that at heart Churchill cared little about parties as such. And I think he was supremely conscious that it would be wrong and degrading to use his own enormous prestige for any narrow party purpose

Another quote of Churchill’s: “I have noticed that whenever a distinguished politician declare that a particular questions above party, he really means that everybody should vote for him.” However, you can’t be above party and at the same time control it, or its patronage, or its influence on the choice of candidates or even of party leaders.

In any case, a degree of separation was real .and the consequences were unfortunate. For just as among the Left here the friends of Russia contrived with a reasonable amount of success to control their parties’ activities. The conservative case was diluted by what I used to call the “marshmallows” because they were soft, sugary, synthetic and pink.

I am a trifle prejudiced. But I do feel that the harm they did was considerable. One sees its reflections to this. day in such straightforward matters as national defence. Law and order. The protection of our unfortunate, beleaguered citizens in Ulster. The harsh truth about these figures is that in their apparently reasonable approach to our problems they were pusillanimous, parochial and petty. Massaging their egos, they were deliberately closing their eyes to our vertiginous decline, and they sought to instill in Parliament and in power, those in their own image. If this sounds rather corny I make no apology. As Churchill said, “the use of recrimination is as a guide to the future.”

But recrimination was a very small part of Winston Churchill’s approach. He was once described as “the youngest man in Europe” and that was when he was in deep middle age. I think it was one of the most interesting aspects of his character. He was perhaps more buoyant in national adversity than at any other time. Perhaps he was happiest when addressing himself to our national defence. I always thought that his very early speeches, in which he followed his father’s theme of reduction in military expenditure, were the most atypical. Not because he was in any sense a warmonger, but because as an historian he was well aware that this is a wicked world. We are not universally loved, and many doubtful characters have very sharp teeth.

Moralists may find it a melancholy thought that peace can find no nobler foundation than mutual terror. As long ago as 1930, he offered this advice:”We have never been likely to get into trouble by having an extra thousand or two of up­ to-date aeroplanes at our disposal.”

As the man “whose mother-in-law died in Brazil cried, when asked how the remains should be disposed of: “Embalm , cremate and bury – take no chances!” l wonder if it is possible to draw on the example offered to us by Winston Churchill’s words and actions for our present distresses. Well, of course, conditions arc very different. The world and Britain’s position in it have changed beyond Sir Winston Churchill’s maddest imagining! -and he was no mean prophet.

Nevertheless, there is one thing we can be quite clear about : He would not have advised us to give up. It may be said -in my case with the pessimism of deep middle age – that some of the qualities illuminated in Winston Churchill’s. life are in danger of fading from our national lives. Among these I would put fraternity .

We all know the French Republic’s slogan, “Liberty. Equality. Fraternity … People are very keen on Liberty and Equality. But Winston Churchill liked Fraternity. Because the other two sprang from it. I suppose the visible threat of war makes Fraternity an obvious necessary quality. We could do with it now.

Winston Churchill also noticed the advantage of stating an obvious theme. In May 1927. he said . “I was always very much struck by the advantage enjoyed by people who lived in an earlier period than one’s own. They had the first opportunity of saying the right thing -over and over again.”

But this does not make fraternity any less admirable or desirable – because it is hard to achieve what has been considered a virtue by our ancestors. Churchill said an awful lot about it, and particularly its application to the English­ speaking world -what I suppose now is called or styled the old Commonwealth and the United States. I came across a passage from a speech made during the dark days of the war which seemed to sum up his view. It actually referred to Canada, but the wider application is perfectly clear:

“Canada is the lynchpin of the English­ speaking world. Canada, with those relations of friendly, affectionate intimacy with the United States on the one hand, and unswerving fidelity to the British Commonwealth and the Motherland on the other. is the link which joins together the greatest branches of the human family – a link which, spanning the ocean, brings the continents into their true relation, and will prevent in future generations any threat of division between the proud and happy nations of Europe, and the great countries which have come into existence in the New World.”

Well. many of those high aspirations have been dashed. But I do think they underline his buoyant outlook and his love for the English-speaking family. I fervently hope that it does not represent solely a spirit of the past.

I don’t think Winston Churchill himself would have felt he was out of time. He might have had a few ideas to present to us today. When he was reminded by a solemn friend of the evanescence of our ideas, of our hopes and our plans and of our mortality. he replied: we are all of us worms. But I do believe that I am a glow-worm.

Thank you very much.

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