Thursday 12 July 2012

THE GLOWIEST GLOW-WORM - My historical hero, by H.M. Castor

Churchill wears a helmet during an air-raid warning, 1940
(Image: Public Domain under Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code
Source: Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons)

Captain Berkley noted: ‘Reynaud was not impressive. The PM was terrific, hurling himself about, getting his staff into hopeless tangles by dashing across to Downing Street without a word of warning, shouting that we would never give in etc.’
May 1940 - from ‘Churchill – A Life’ by Martin Gilbert (p.649)

I gather that at No. 10 the PM strode about the house, having been aroused by gunfire in North London, wearing his flowery dressing-gown and a tin hat.
Aug 22nd 1940 – the diary of Jock Colville (Assistant Private Secretary), concerning a night-time air raid

[The fire was] great fun & we all enjoyed it thoroughly.
1908 letter to Clemtine Hozier (later Clementine Churchill) about a fire at a house where Churchill was staying. Churchill, in pyjamas, overcoat and fireman's helmet, had helped to direct the firemen in tackling the blaze.

I want to write about Winston Churchill. I want to express why – when researching his life – he has amazed & enthralled me, given me courage, astonished me. I cannot achieve it, I know, within the space of a blog. It was hard enough to try to fit his life into 127 pages for the book I wrote in the spring of last year. I can only implore you, if you’ve never read a biography of Churchill, to do so. (Roy Jenkins’ ‘Churchill’ is wonderful, as is Martin Gilbert’s ‘Churchill – A Life’.) And then, I can sketch out a few thoughts.

History study at my senior school was a patchy affair. I remember, at the age of about 12, doing a project for homework on the Nuremberg trials (which made me feel, I remember, physically sick), but I never gained an overall grasp of the major events of the Second World War. Thus, I came away with a vague knowledge that Winston Churchill had been our vital war leader, that he had been crucial in maintaining morale, had made great speeches… and there was that Battle of Britain bit (but why was all that dogfighting so important? It’s only in the last few years that I’ve found out).

This vague information wasn’t enough. Growing up as I did during the premiership of Margaret Thatcher, through the miners’ strike and the years of high unemployment, social unrest and ‘there is no such thing as society’, living in a Labour-voting household, suspicious of Tory jingoism, I am ashamed to admit – but admit I must – that as a teenager I was a wee bit suspicious of Churchill. After all, he was a Tory, wasn’t he? (The answer to which, though I didn’t realise it then, is: only some of the time. He swapped parties. Twice.)

And then, in 2000, I was commissioned to write a children’s book about him (the first of two, thus far).

And I became enthralled, amazed, gobsmacked by the man. All my suspicions evaporated. I was awed by the chutzpah, the foresight, the courage – not just his physical bravery (astonishing enough, & demonstrated so consistently, decade after decade, war after war) but the mental toughness. The humanity, the drive, the refusal to give up whatever the situation. The willingness to say what he thought, whatever the reaction it brought. His wit, his wonderful way with the English language. His sheer force of personality.

He was not perfect (of course). He was not always right. He had a high romantic view of empire, for example, which made him oppose Indian independence. But, he was, by any measure, a truly astonishing person.

I’m going to hope that, unlike my young self, you know about his brilliant leadership, 1940-45. That you know about his grasp of the international picture, his strategic vision, his boldness, his stunning speeches (and the fact that he later won the Nobel Prise for Literature). All of that should be enough for any single life, but there are so many more reasons to admire him. Here are just a few:

I admire him for speaking out, throughout the 1930s, about the horrific nature of the Nazi regime (including the persecution of the Jews) & about the dangers of German rearmament, in the face of everything from scepticism to ridicule & taunts from some of his colleagues in Parliament. The speech he made in Parliament after Neville Chamberlain had been greeted by jubilant crowds upon returning home after signing the Munich agreement was a masterpiece (and it's important to mention that the person who spoke after Churchill accused him of being hysterical in his fears):

“I will begin by saying what everybody would like to ignore or forget but which must nevertheless be stated, namely, that we have sustained a total defeat." (At this, other MPs made so much noise - shouting "Nonsense!" and "Ridiculous!" - that Churchill had to pause. At last he went on:) "All is over. Silent, mournful, abandoned, broken, Czechoslovakia recedes into the darkness… It is a tragedy which has occurred.”

Wind back a little further – to the First World War. Amongst many other things, I admire Churchill’s insistence on going to the Western Front – albeit for a few months only – after he lost his government post as a result of the Dardanelles disaster. He could easily have avoided it - friends wanted to find him a safe job. But he insisted on going into the trenches. And on taking both his bath and his painting easel with him.

Winston Churchill in 1916 with the Royal Scots Fusiliers
 at Ploegsteert on the French-Belgian border
(Image: Public Domain; source unknown, via Wikimedia Commons - see link here)

I admire, too, the way he earned the respect and love of his initially highly sceptical men.

Going back further, to the pre-WWI years, I admire Churchill’s considerable efforts to effect social reform. He wanted to introduce a scheme of unemployment insurance to which the government would contribute, to introduce old age and sickness insurance too, and he set up the first labour exchanges in an attempt to de-casualise labour. (In 1908, it’s interesting to note, he made contact with a young university lecturer named William Beveridge). He wanted to reduce miners’ hours and improve safety & conditions in the mines. As Home Secretary Churchill worked to improve conditions in prisons, to curb excessive sentencing (such as 7 years' penal servitude for stealing lime juice), and he established for the first time a distinction between criminal & political prisoners (a move that was of immediate benefit to many imprisoned suffragettes). He worked also to reduce the numbers of young people in prisons and defended this move in Parliament, saying:

“...the evil only falls on the sons of the working classes. The sons of other classes commit many of the same offences. In their boisterous and exuberant spirits in their days at Oxford and Cambridge they commit offences – for which scores of the sons of the working class are committed to prison – without any injury being inflicted on them.”

Indeed, for someone born at Blenheim Palace, Churchill had an arguably surprising sense of social justice. When, during his time as a Liberal, Churchill & Lloyd George found their raft of social reforms threatened by a Lords revolt over the budget, Churchill wrote to his mother:

“I never saw people make such fools of themselves as all these Dukes and Duchesses are doing. One after another they come up threatening to cut down charities and pensions, sack old labourers and retainers, and howling and whining because they are asked to pay their share, as if they were being ruined.”

And in a letter to the King (Edward VII), Churchill wrote: “It must not be forgotten that there are idlers and wastrels at both ends of the social scale.” The King was furious & called him ‘socialistic’.

Churchill was far from a socialist – the idea would have appalled him (hinting at his huge enthusiasm for the study of history, in 1904 he said in Parliament: "It was always found in the past to be a misfortune to a country when it was governed from one particular point of view, or in the interests of any particular class, whether it was the Court, or the Church, or the Army, or the mercantile or labouring classes. Every country ought to be governed from some central point of view, where all classes and all interests are proportionately represented"). However, Tory though he (sometimes) was, I defy the present Tory government to claim him as their own. The current government’s determination, at this time of financial emergency, to protect the rich rather than the poor, & the strong rather than the weak, would not, I am convinced, be one of which Churchill approved.

Wanting to establish minimum standards of living below which no one should ever be allowed by the state to fall, in 1908 Churchill wrote in a letter (to Herbert Asquith): “Dimly across gulfs of ignorance I see the outline of a policy which I call the Minimum Standard.” But, he thought, if he tried to put it into action, “I expect before long I should find myself in collision with some of my best friends – like for instance John Morley, who at the end of a lifetime of study and thought has come to the conclusion that nothing can be done.” 

Churchill aged 23 or 24, 1898
(Image: Public Domain; source: BBC via Wikimedia Commons - see link here)

Churchill’s belief – crucially – was always that something could be done. However dire the predicament, something could always be done. The individual could make a difference. When fears of a Nazi invasion of Britain were at their height, Churchill’s suggestion for a slogan was: ‘YOU CAN ALWAYS TAKE ONE WITH YOU.’

He thought big – he thought audaciously. When he was at the Home Office, his most senior official was Edward Troup, who later said: “Once a week or oftener, Mr Churchill came into the Office bringing with him some adventurous or impossible projects; but after half an hour’s discussion something was evolved which was still adventurous, but not impossible.”

The White Queen might have believed six impossible things before breakfast - Churchill tended to do them.

And, before his arena for the doing-of-impossible-things was politics, Churchill was doing impossible things in the army (which he had entered after his father decided that he wasn’t intelligent enough to be a barrister).

Assuming what Roy Jenkins called “an almost divine right to be present at every scene of military action in the world”, he went to extraordinary lengths to put himself in personal danger. And when he couldn’t go to a theatre of war as a soldier, he managed to go as a war reporter instead.

His attitude to danger seemed a mixture of insouciance and fatalism; en route to fighting with the Malakand Field Force in 1897, aged 22, he wrote to his mother:

“I have faith in my star – that I am intended to do something in this world. If I am mistaken – what does it matter? My life has been a pleasant one and though I should regret to leave it, it would be a regret that perhaps I should never know.”

This attitude, wedded to his longing for adventure, led to some breathtaking Boys’-Own-style episodes, the most famous of which was his extraordinary experience as a war reporter during the Boer War in 1899. After an attack on the armoured train in which he was travelling – during which Churchill took charge of getting the train running again, as well as the rescue of the wounded – he was captured by the Boers, and put in a POW camp. He managed to escape, though without map, compass or means of transport, and with a 300-mile walk to safety in front of him. Against all the odds – after hiding in a train & down a mine – he made it to British-held territory… and promptly asked to be allowed to go straight back to the front.

Churchill as Morning Post correspondent during the Boer War, 1899
(Image: Public Domain; source: BBC via Wikimedia Commons - see link here)

Churchill wanted fame, and a reputation for personal courage – and his efforts to get both annoyed many people. In his brilliantly entertaining autobiography ‘My Early Life’ (which was first published in 1930, and incidentally includes a fascinating chapter entitled ‘The Sensations of a Cavalry Charge’), he acknowledges this with humour, self-deprecation, and no hint whatsoever of apology:

‘Now I began to encounter resistances of a new and formidable character. When I had first gone into the Army, and wanted to go on active service, nearly everyone had been friendly and encouraging.

…: all the world looked kind,
(As it will look sometimes with the first stare
Which Youth would not act ill to keep in mind).

The first stare was certainly over. I now perceived that there were many ill-informed and ill-disposed people who did not take a favourable view of my activities. On the contrary they began to develop an adverse and even a hostile attitude. They began to say things like this: ‘Who the devil is this fellow? How has he managed to get to these different campaigns? Why should he write for the papers and serve as an officer at the same time? Why should a subaltern praise or criticize his senior officers? Why should Generals show him favour? How does he get so much leave from his regiment? Look at all the hard-working men who have never stirred an inch from the daily round and common task. We have had quite enough of this – too much indeed. He is very young, and later on he may be all right; but now a long period of discipline and routine is what 2nd Lieutenant Churchill requires.’ Others proceeded to be actually abusive, and the expressions ‘Medal-hunter’ and ‘Self-advertiser’ were used from time to time in some high and some low military circles in a manner which would, I am sure, surprise and pain the readers of these notes. It is melancholy to be forced to record these less amiable aspects of human nature, which by a most curious and indeed unaccountable coincidence have always seemed to present themselves in the wake of my innocent footsteps…'

But those innocent footsteps, infuriating to so many around him, continued on their way. And that astonishing self-belief & complete unwillingness ever to give up, sit still or believe that he could not make a difference… were exactly what was needed in 1940 when Britain stood alone against Hitler.

Churchill remarked once, at dinner, to Violet Asquith: “We are all worms, but I do believe I am a glow-worm.”

Thank goodness for the self-belief and vision of that glow-worm.

H.M. Castor’s new non-fiction children’s biography of Churchill, Real Lives: Winston Churchill - written under the name Harriet Castor – was published by A&C Black last week.

H.M. Castor's novel VIII - a new take on the life of Henry VIII - is published by Templar in the UK and by Penguin in Australia. It is now available in paperback, hardback & ebook format.
H.M. Castor's website is here.


Caroline Lawrence said...

Wow, Harriet! You've sold me!

I was just listening to Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of the Abraham Lincoln book Team of Rivals. She said Churchill had that 'incredible ability to say the right thing at the right moment'. Early in 1942, Churchill was staying at the White House when Roosevelt had some exciting new.

POTUS had himself wheeled into Churchill's bedroom just as the portly Churchill was just coming out of the bathtub with absolutely nothing on. "I'm so sorry," blurted Roosevelt. "I'll come back in a few minutes." But Churchill said, "Oh no, please stay, the prime minister of Great Britain has nothing to hide from the president of the United States."

Mary Hoffman said...

Harriet - what is your view of Dresden?

H.M. Castor said...

I can't pretend to be an expert on the Dresden controversy, Mary, but personally I think it was a horrific mistake (in the sense of a bad decision rather than something unintended). I love that anecdote, Caroline!

alberridge said...

I agree with you about Dresden, Harriet. It was a terrible thing, and (in my opinion) a war crime - but I've spoken enough with those who went through the London Blitz to understand how even an essentially decent person could be tempted into the wish (just once) to HIT BACK.

We're absolutely right to condemn it now, and I only wish we did more to condemn modern and often worse atrocities, such as those implicit in drone strikes. But it would still be a great shame if we allowed it to obscure the greatness of such a man as Churchill. Too often these days we delight in tearing apart the reputations of once idolized men, not realizing that if our predecessors were blind to their faults, we're often no less blind to their virtues.

Your wonderful and honest post does much to restore the balance, and I'm off at once to Amazon to buy your 'Real Lives'.

Mark Burgess said...

Lovely post, Harriet; fascinating stuff and I look forward to reading your book and more about Mr Churchill. On Dresden, I think the restoration of the Frauenkirche is truly remarkable. And on glow-worms, they usually glow around now, though with this ghastly weather I have only seen one (so far) in our garden this year.

madwippitt said...

Yes, fascinating post - and also looking forward to seeing how you manage to fit such a huge personality and crammed life into a single book!

H.M. Castor said...

That was the biggest challenge! The length was set by the publishers, as it's part of a series - just 127pp of fairly large type - so there were many difficult choices to be made... Mark, I've never knowingly seen a glow-worm, & it sounds like I'm unlikely to this year, but I shall think of WC when I do. And Louise, I thoroughly agree with your assessment. When a hagiographical approach has perhaps been taken, it's easy to see why reassessments are made, but - as you say - it can sometimes turn into just as unrealistic a picture, in the opposite direction. Thank you all for your comments!

Anonymous said...

`Indeed, for someone born at Blenheim Palace, Churchill had an arguably surprising sense of social justice.' The author Miss Read (in real life, Dora Saint) attributed this to his American mother, who, she wrote, insisted that the leftovers that were put out for the poor be separated into sweet and savoury. My goodness.

Laurie Graham said...

Top post, Harriet. Great choice. I wish I could claim that my children know about him, but I'm certainly going to make sure my grandchildren do.

jason haris said...

I loved reading this piece! Well written! :)

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