I knew the story of Jennie Jerome, the American lady who came to these isles and produced the dominant figure of 20th century British politics, Winston Churchill. It transpires that we returned the favour – what goes around, comes around. Although I was, until recently, ignorant of the story. I shouldn’t have been. Twice we have spent the day at Minterne House and Gardens, in a small village in West Dorset. Not so far from our home in Bournemouth. It’s here that the story began, as a young Pamela Digby, the daughter of Baron Digby, grew up in the family home.
Fifty years ago a chap called Winston Churchill passed away. Many people left this mortal coil that year, as they do every year. But Winston’s send off was a bit more notable than most. He is one of but eleven non-royals to be afforded a full state funeral, joining the likes of Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington to have such an honour bestowed upon him. I suspect that the old chap expected absolutely nothing less.
His funeral remains the most recent state function to have occurred. Mountbatten, the Queen Mother,Margaret Thatcher and his relative through the Spencer line, Lady Di, had to make do with simple ceremonial funerals. There hasn’t been a proper state funeral in my lifetime. Dear Elizabeth isn’t getting any younger though, so I may not have to wait many years. On the other hand, if she goes on as long as her mum, then perhaps I shouldn’t hold my breath. For the time being, I’ll have to just watch old footage of Winston’s do.
It’s an interesting video, don’t you think? I love watching British Pathe films – there’s tens of thousands of them on YouTube. The footage itself offers a glimpse into the past. But it’s the commentary that really adds life to the videos, putting what you see into the context of the era. Did you stifle a giggle at the thought of Churchill being a mere commoner? Technically, he may have been. But the chap was born in Blenheim Palace. Hardly a pauper’s start to life.
The Battle Hymn of the Republic was played at Churchill’s request. It would seem a strange choice only if you didn’t know of his American roots on the maternal side of his family. A British hero of partial American descent? Scandalous. Still, the Yanks helped give us Winston. We contributed to the gift of Obama. We’ll call it even? Another lesser reported fact is that he was also born two months prematurely. Alternatively, he was conceived two months before his parents tied the not. The former was a more acceptable account of events for the society of the day.
What Churchill was really famous for was his rhetoric. His speeches have lasted the ages, and various British media organisations have been asking readers to provide their favourite quote. That’s a risky business. Churchill was, as they say, a man of his time, and spake as such. Even then, some of his comments were extreme. Others were taken out of context. The internet, mostly Islamophobes, have of late taken to quoting his warning of the dangers of Islam. Yet the truth is always more complex that a convenient soundbite.
My favourite quote? It’s controversial only in that it cannot with absolute certainty be truly attributed to Churchill. But it appeals greatly to my interest in language. It’s witty. And, whether the quote belongs to him or not, it is certainly very Churchillian. He was, the story goes, upset when an editor decided to rearrange one of is sentences. It was a breach of linguistic decorum to end a sentence with a preposition.
This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put.
Our recent visit to Banqueting House was the starter, not the main course. The main part of that days feast of history and heritage came just a little later when we visited the Churchill War Rooms. Having lain neglected for decades once it has served its purpose in WW2, the war rooms opened in the 1980s, although they are a little bit hard to find, despite their very central location. But that was the idea, I guess. A large German bomb landing on the heads of Churchill an his war cabinet wouldn’t have been ideal, given the already desperate circumstances of 1939 and beyond.
The Churchill War Rooms are ever so British. The epitome of Britishness, even. The idea that a bunker was needed was appreciated incredibly late in the day, prmopting a last minute rush to come up with a plan. The site chosen was basically the first place they found with a decent bit of depth below the surface, just yards from Downing Street – they didn’t look too hard in other words. It wasn’t deep enough to be bomb proof, so in typically British fashion, they just plonked in a sheet of concrete reinforced steel in slap dash fashion without really going to the effort of working out if it would, well…work.
Would it stop a direct hit from a bomb now? The general consensus was that no, it wouldn’t. Nevermind, shoulders were shrugged, cigars lit and the great war effort carried on from the bunker regardless. It’s just have to do. Whether the bunker would have withstood a direct hit is perhaps a moot point. Churchill lived in the annexe above ground most of the time anyway, and frequently went up on to the roof of the building to watch the German air raids. Winston was many things, but a coward he was not. Brave or just plain stupid? Absolutely. A bit of both, I’m sure.
The final very British aspect of the bunker? Luck. Jerry never did aim right, and no bomb ever put that slab of concrete to the test. More to the point, and as one of the diagrams in my Flickr set show, the tide quickly turned and it was British bombs doing all the damage. Most Brits would agree that the Germans got what they deserved in WW2, regards bombing. Few, I suspect, genuinely understand how one sided it ended up being. British bombs vastly outnumbered German bombs when the tallying up was completed post war.
The War Rooms are an interesting jaunt through recent history. Being the youngster I am, I sometimes have trouble relating to the war, although my grandfather had plenty of war stories to tell us when we were young. I remind myself that, if time went backward, not forward, then I’d still be 41 of course, but the year would be 1931, and Hitler not even yet in power. Our sense of time is a funny old thing. But these rooms do bring back how recent and how relevant those dark days of the early 40s are.
The bunker is stark and industrial. There’s nothing luxurious about them. All purpose, no pomp. You have to use your imagination a little. Set yourself back a little in time – Churchill strode these sparse corridors, my steps following his. That’s where he held cabinet meetings. There’s where he ate, and sometimes (but rarely) slept. He was just one of a small army of generals, admirals, typists and civil servants who kept the bunker, and the war effort, working.
When I was a wee boy I went to a private prep school in North London, called St Johns. It’s grown since then, when it was a smallish school housed in a beautiful old mansion set atop a lofty hill with panoramic views across London. The grounds included a small pond, some woodland and acres and acres of fields. We played rugby and cricket on those fields. I liked cricket, but loathed rugby. My first day was in September of 1979 and I left in the mid 80s. I just browsed through their website and I see just one teacher remains from my day. He started on the same day I did.
I have fond memories of the school, although I was not a model pupil. School bored me. To tears. Education should have an entertainment factor to it. To keep one interested. Unfortunately, I can count on my fingers the number of teachers who kept my attention. Most of them were from St Johns. It was an excellent school, and I hope it still is. I can still smell the freshly cut grass of the cricket fields. I can still remember the pain of returning from ninety minutes of rugby on soggy pitches in sub zero temperatures. I distinctly remember the agony of trying to warm my frozen hands up by placing them on the radiators in the changing rooms.
Summers were the best. If the sun was warm enough, shirt sleeve order was allowed. Off came ties and jackets, and our sleeves could be rolled up. We might, on occasion, be allowed to wander through the woods down to the bottom fields at lunch time to play. Id’ play football. Every break, every lunch hour. On the fields in summer, but usually in the car park with a plastic airflow ball. I loved football, and was ever resentful that the official school game was rugby.
I’m there in the photo above. Twelve years old? About that. It was posted on the old schools website, now only available on the Web Archive. This photo sums up my school life. Everyone has their books open, hard at work. I have an empty desk, scratching my head as I probably think up that day’s unlikely explanation as to why I’ve done sod all work. You can also tell that my mum scrimped on the cost of a barbers – a classic bowl cut. The boy to my right was my best friend at school. He lived just up the road from me, and we spent many days playing in the woods that sat between our houses. We got up to plenty of mischief. We don’t keep in touch, although we’re Facebook friends. He got married, had kids and seems to be doing very well. The boy in front was also a good friend. I spent a fair amount of time round his house playing console games and football. He was sentenced to double life for murder in the early 90s, and I have no idea what he’s doing these days.
At St Johns we were split into four Houses. We were allocated a place in a house on our first days. There was Lawrence, presumably the one of Arabic fame. Oates, of Antarctic fame. Lincoln, the token American. I can imagine our old headmaster, Mr Norman, being the embodiment of our ‘special relationship’. My house was far more British. My house was Churchill. Although pedants might want to bring up his US ancestry. But in every sense, he was very British. He was a war hero. A national hero. A global hero. Also an irascible racist, fan of eugenics and colonizer. He was a product of his age, and a good example of the complexities of humanity.
He was also a big influence in my life, in many ways. Introduced to him at school, I was always bound to look up to him, take an interest in him and his story. On that first day of school, he’d only been dead 14 years, The war had ended just 34 years earlier. He does embody everything good about Britain in the popular narrative and represents a largely rewritten account of what it means to be British.
He also represents much of what was wrong about Britain in the less popularized accounts of his life. He’s been in the news lately. His face is going to bless the reverse of the five pound note in a few years time. As per the photo above. His funeral has also been news in light of the ceremonial departure of Margaret Thatcher. There have been the predictable comparisons. But in truth, there was no comparison. Of the many positive influencers from my school days, Winston Churchill was most certainly amongst them.