Piers Brendon, Churchill’s Bestiary: His Life Through Animals, Michael O’Mara Books, 2018, 320 pages, £20. ISBN 978–1789290509
Review by JOHN CAMPBELL
At first sight this book looks like just another addition to the pile of trivial and redundant Churchilliana seemingly published on the assumption that anything with Churchill’s name in the title can be expected to sell. But on this occasion first impressions are entirely wrong. In Churchill’s Bestiary Piers Brendon has compiled a book which is scholarly, original and beautifully written, and casts fresh light on an important and underestimated side of Churchill’s protean character.
In twenty-five short and witty chapters Brendon details Churchill’s dealings with the whole animal kingdom alphabetically from “Albatross” and “Antelope” to “Wolves” and “Worms.” On the one hand he describes Churchill’s real-life physical relationship with each species, whether as pets to be pampered or prey to be hunted; on the other it exhaustively cites his vivid and sometimes imaginative use of animal similes and metaphors to describe his political opponents, characterised as rats, snakes, jackals, ostriches and so on. These are usually pejorative (“the whipped jackal, Mussolini” or “the foul baboonery of Bolshevism”) but not always. One surprising omission is Churchill’s description of his great friend F. E. Smith as “possessing all the canine virtues in a remarkable degree—courage, fidelity, vigilance, love of the chase.”
Churchill’s sentimental fondness for animals is well known. We are familiar with the picture of him lying in bed dictating speeches with a budgerigar (Toby) on his head, a marmalade cat (Jock) on his lap and beloved miniature poodle (Rufus) asleep at his feet. But his anthropomorphic fascination with his fellow-creatures extended well beyond cats, dogs and horses to embrace fish, birds and butterflies, all of which he bred with variable success at different times in his life. He became quite obsessed by the goldfish and other decorative fish which he kept at Chartwell before and during the war, feeding them by hand and calling them “darling;” and later developed a serious passion for tropical fish. He had three tanks of them at Chartwell and five at Chequers, and would watch and talk to them for twenty minutes a time. When he donated his collection to London Zoo in 1955 it comprised a hundred and fifty species.
He also “populated Chartwell with a large number of exotic ducks,” with which he claimed to have an exclusive rapport; geese which he treated as pets; two swans called Juno and Jupiter, to whom he later introduced eight black swans which kept escaping, requiring elaborate efforts by the Kent police to recapture them. Even during the war he found time to take a close interest in the welfare of the ducks in St James’s Park.
Less well-known is the fact that he bred pigs, sheep and cattle on farms which he bought near Chartwell. He kept two milking herds “which he valued for their financial worth, their ornamental quality and their pedigree quality;” and he took a keen interest in breeding, rearing and even bottle-feeding his lambs, believing again that he had a “telepathic” relationship with special favourites which would come when he called.
Horses, too, were a constant part of Churchill’s life. As a young subaltern in India he played polo obsessively, calling it “the emperor of games,” and badgered his mother to help him purchase his own ponies. As a Cabinet minister he continued to play, and keep ponies, until a serious accident in 1922 forced him to give up. He continued riding to hounds well into middle age. And in 1949 he took up horseracing, re-registered his father’s colours and established a stud at Chartwell, paying close attention to breeding and training even during his post-war premiership. He did not give it up until the year before his death, by which time he was “one of the most successful breeders and owners in Britain” with seventy winners in fifteen years.
Churchill was himself compared to all sorts of animals. In 1939 he was described as “padding up and down his room at the Admiralty like a caged lion;” in 1940 he was widely portrayed as the British bulldog epitomising resistance to Hitler; in 1941 he was “a warhorse scenting battle” during air raids. Wearing a silk vest in bed, he looked to Jock Colville “just like a rather nice pig;” Diana Cooper too thought that in his famous boiler suit he looked “exactly like the good little pig who built his house of bricks.” Earlier in his career he had been more often characterised as a rogue elephant or a rat (prompting his memorable riposte “Any fool can rat, but I flatter myself that it takes a certain ingenuity to re-rat”). In old age, however, he was more like “a benevolent hippo” or a great whale, wallowing and spouting in his bath. Brendon even likens him to a squirrel, because he hoarded his papers.
Churchill identified with animals and admired them, even as he enthusiastically hunted, stalked and shot them; but he was well aware of the contradiction between loving animals and killing them. He admired the gallantry of a fox which gave him “a great gallop of 35–40 minutes;” and he wrote guiltily after shooting a rhinoceros in Africa in 1900 that “if there is such a thing as right and wrong between man and beast—and who shall say there is not?—right is plainly on his side.”
Altogether this is a delightful book filled with anecdotes of the comic and eccentric side of Churchill: the extraordinary lengths he went to obtain two duck-billed platypuses from Australia in 1943 , which sadly died on the voyage over; the saga of his own pet lion, called Rota, presented to him the same year, which was kept at London Zoo but which he visited with much publicity; or his insistence that a magnificent cashmere goat (the mascot of the Royal Welch Fusiliers) should accompany him to a summit with President Eisenhower in Bermuda in 1953. As so often with Churchill one is amazed at his insatiable curiosity and energy; one wonders how he ever found the time. The answer seems to be that watching and talking to his animals lent him calm and perspective amid the storms of politics and war.
John Campbell’s books include major biographies of F.E.Smith, Aneurin Bevan, Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher and Roy Jenkins.