“The University of My Life”
Churchill always regretted that he did not have a university education but he covered this disappointment with his famous wit. He once noted that he had received many more degrees than he had passed examinations. Nevertheless, he was extremely well-read. That process began while he was in India, a period which called “the university of my life.”
His reading was prodigious. In the intense Indian heat he devoured Gibbon’s eight-volume Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and twelve volumes of Macaulay. He thought that Macaulay “is easier reading than Gibbon and in quite a different style. Macaulay crisp and forcible, Gibbon stately and impressive. Both are fascinating and show what a fine language English is since it can be pleasing in styles so different.”
He was, however, shaken by Macaulay’s indictment of his famous forebear, the First Duke of Marlborough. In My Early Life, Churchill recalled how he had been misled by Macaulay: “There was no one at hand to tell me that this historian with his captivating style…was the prince of literary rogues, who always preferred the tale to the truth, and smirched or glorified great men and garbled documents as they affected his drama.”
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“The long Indian day…”
Churchill’s regiment, the 4th Hussars, arrived at Bombay Harbour and then travelled by train to Bangalore in southern India. In My Early Life, he wrote, “If you like to be waited on and relieved of home worries, India thirty years ago was perfection. All you had to do was to hand over all your uniform and clothes to the dressing boy, your ponies to the syce, and your money to the butler, and you need never trouble any more. Your Cabinet was complete; each of these ministers entered upon his department with knowledge, experience and fidelity… No toil was too hard, no hours too long, no dangers too great for their unruffled calm and their unfailing care. Princes could live not better than we.
A typical day began with reveille at 5:30 am., “a dusky figure with a clammy hand adroitly lifting one’s chin and applying a gleaming razor to a lathered and defenceless throat. By six o’clock the regiment was on parade, and we rode to a wide plain and there drilled and maneuvered for an hour and a half. We then returned to baths at the bungalow and breakfast in the Mess. Then, at nine, stable and orderly room till about half-past ten; then home to the bungalow before the sun attained its fiercest ray. The noonday sun asserted his tyrannical authority, and long before eleven o’clock all white men were in shelter. We nipped across to luncheon at half-past one in the blistering heat and then returned to sleep till five o’clock. Now the station begins to live again. It is the hour of Polo. It is the hour for which we have been living all day long. As the shadows lengthened over the polo ground, we ambled back perspiring and exhausted to hot baths, rest, and, at 8:30, dinner, to the strains of the regimental band and the clinking of ice in well-filled glasses. Thereafter those who were not so lucky were caught by the Senior Officers and made to play a tiresome game then in vogue called Whist. I sat smoking in the moonlight till half-past ten or eleven at the latest signalled the end. Such was “the long Indian day” as I knew it for three years; and not such a bad day either.”
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Sailing to India
Churchill prepared to embark or India with the 4th Hussars he found his future “utterly unattractive. I look upon going to India as useless and unprofitable exile. I feel that I am guilty of an indolent folly that I shall regret all my life.” To his mother he wrote, “It is useless to preach the gospel of patience to me. Others as young are making the running now and what chance have I of ever catching up.” Notwithstanding these concerns and many other pleas to his mother, he sailed for India on the Britannia on September 11th.
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Winston later called this period “among the most agreeable six months I have ever spent.” He had just come through a particularly trying situation in which he successfully sued and received an apology from a father of a fellow cadet who resented Churchill’s role in an unseemly attempt to exclude the cadet from the 4th Hussars as “unsuitable.”
Although on one occasion he was scolded by the Prince of Wales for arriving late at a social event, his encounters with society were generally quite favourable and augured well for a later political career. Among the famous and powerful he met “The former Home Secretary and future Prime Minister (Asquith); the Leader of the House, First Lord of the Treasury and another future Prime Minister (Balfour); the Colonial Secretary (Chamberlain); the Commander-in-Chief of the British Army (Wolseley); the President of the Local Government Board (Chaplin), the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (James); the President of the Probate Division and Judge Advocate General (Jeune); and the Lord President of the Council (Devonshire).” He also lobbied personally or through friends and family, Sir Herbert Kitchener regarding a Nile expedition, Sir Frederick Carrington regarding an expedition in Matabeleland and newspapers for special assignments
And this was the period which he later recalled as “the only idle spell I have ever spent!”
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Returns from Cuba for a six month stay in England
New York newspapers announced that Churchill and a brother officer from the 4th Hussars had set sail for England on the Cunard liner Etruria. The New York World reported that he was returning “without a wound and with a conviction that there are few occupations more salubrious than that of a Cuban insurgent,” adding that, although Churchill I reached the Cunard dock only five I minutes before scheduled sailing I time, “The pleasant faced young officer submitted as gracefully to the requests of the waiting group of interviewers as though there were hours of leisure on his hands. Churchill concluded that interview by emphatically denying all reports attributing a political significance to his Cuban trip.
Back in England, as he later recalled, he “passed a most agreeable six months; in fact they formed almost the only idle spell I have ever spent.” His definition of idle was peculiar to him. He lobbied Fleet Street for a foreign assignment—Crete, Egypt, Rhodesia—anything to avoid going back to India, an event he believed would delay his political career. He also assiduously developed social and political contacts.
He continued to observe the Cuban scene. Writing in the Saturday Review he noted that the Cuban rebels “neither fight bravely nor do they use their weapons effectively.” Although he thought that the Spanish were bad, “a Cuban government would be worse, equally corrupt, more capricious and far less stable.”
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