Finest Hour 115, Summer 2002
By Paul H. Courtenay
The Wicked Wit of Winston Churchill, compiled by Dominique Enright, published by Michael O’Mara Books Ltd, 2001. Hardbound, 162 pages, £10/$16.95, member price $10.
At first glance this is an attractive looking little book, but the first sentence of the introduction quickly raises doubts. Ms. Enright tells us that Churchill was born a nephew of the Duke of Marlborough!
From this point the reader’s confidence is undermined, and it is easy to spot other errors of fact before even reaching the twelve chapters of quotations, many of which are close enough, but inaccurately recorded. The author has clearly lifted many of her quotes— often word for word—from an earlier book of this genre which is itself full of inaccuracies and inventions.
A typical misquotation occurs over Churchill’s famous definition of a lie in an early debate over what some had called “Chinese slavery”: “…it cannot in the opinion of His Majesty’s Government be classified as slavery in the extreme acceptance of the word without some risk of terminological inexactitude.” For this Enright substitutes: “Perhaps we have been guilty of some terminological inexactitudes.”
Churchill’s famous “Dogs look up at you, cats look down at you” is stated as, “Dogs look up to men, cats look down on them,” which is a new variation among several; Churchill made this remark many times and had several versions, but this is not among them. A prominent misattribution credits WSC with apologizing for the length of a speech because he did not have the time to prepare a shorter one; this was uttered much earlier by the Duke of Wellington. Some researchers think both may have borrowed the sense of the remark from Blasé Pascal, who wrote in a 1656 letter to a friend: “I have only made this letter rather long because I have not had time to made it shorter.”
Apart from errors, the main fault with this book is its lack of attribution. Several items state the circumstances of their origins, but the great majority give no clue as to their validity and are simply stated to have emanated from the great man; unfamiliar quotations are therefore impossible to verify.
The book is full of apocryphal or, at the very least, invalidated statements, which cannot be verified. For example we are told that, on breaking his thigh at Montecarlo and being borne away on a stretcher, Churchill said to the ambulance man, “Not feet first, please!” We are also informed that when a British actor said he was honored to know he was WSC’s favorite, the reply was said to be: “Yes, and my fifth favorite actor after the Marx brothers.” Cute, but who can prove them?
Another unlikely remark, which has been around for years, is alleged to have been made following a reception in Virginia; on being offered chicken, he asked for a breast, whereupon his hostess informed him that Southern ladies preferred the term “white meat.” The following day he allegedly sent her a corsage with the message, “I would be obliged if you would put this on your white meat.” The remark sounds entirely out of character for Churchill, who almost always treated ladies with Victorian courtesy.
A certain innocence about world events is also apparent. Referring to the meeting with Roosevelt at Placentia Bay, the compiler says that Churchill crossed the Atlantic in a destroyer (that really would have been an adventure).floor to become a Liberal in 1906 (instead of 1904). She correctly quotes his speech, “…I had the luck to be called upon to give the roar,” and the date (1954); but the fact that it was his response to Parliament on his 80th birthday has eluded her.
We also learn that he had exhibited paintings under an assumed name at the Louvre; this was an over-ambitious claim, though he did sell some anonymous works at a Paris gallery.
The compiler is described as a freelance writer, which suggests that she is dashing off something for the market without much familiarity with the subject. Indeed she goes as far as to say, in a chapter on Anecdotes:
“…some of the stories are definitely authentic, but there are no doubt many that have been embellished; or have changed in details such as date, location, even characters, as they have been told and retold. But if the details are not always in accordance with other versions of the story, they have been selected for their Churchillian flavour.”
That says it all.
Mr. Courtenay is FH’s Associate Editor