ACTION THIS DAY: FINEST HOUR 124, AUTUMN 2004
BY MICHAEL MCMENAMIN
125 Years Ago: Autumn 1879 • Age 4
“I took to the woods”
Winston was “menaced with Education.” In My Early Life, he wrote: “The approach of a sinister figure described as ‘the Governess’ was announced. Her arrival was fixed for a certain day. In order to prepare for this day Mrs. Everest produced a book called Reading without Tears. It certainly did not justify its title in my case. I was made aware that before the Governess arrived I must be able to read without tears. We toiled each day. My nurse pointed with a pen at the different letters. I thought it all very tiresome. Our preparations were by no means completed when the fateful hour struck and the Governess was due to arrive. I did what so many oppressed peoples have done in similar circumstances: I took to the woods. I hid in the extensive shrubberies….Hours passed before I was retrieved and handed over to ‘the Governess.'”
100 Years Ago: Autumn 1904 • Age 29
“I have never known such a fog”
Churchill continued to speak up against the government of his old party on Free Trade and other issues in a series of speeches in Wales and Scotland a century ago.Speaking at the Grand Theatre in Llandudno, Wales, on 19 October, he attacked the growing expense of government with rhetorical questions still being used by politicians today:
“In a period of little more than five years the cost of governing Great Britain has increased half as much again. Is the government half as good again? In the same period we have practically doubled our expenditure in its most unproductive branch—the expenditure upon armaments. We have doubled our armaments; have we doubled our security?”
Then he attacked the Tory plan to revive a sagging economy through more taxes: “Mr. Chamberlain…admits that there is depression in the country, and he goes about exaggerating it and making it out a hundred times worse than it really is….But what is Mr. Chamberlain’s remedy? Is it to take off the taxes that are doing the mischief? Not at all. It is to put on a great number of new taxes. He would propose to put taxes on hundreds of articles that come into this country, and he would also propose to put a heavy taxation upon those primary articles of food—bread, meat, butter, cheese, eggs, and so forth—which is bound to afflict
most harshly the very poorest people in the country. That is his remedy.”
Churchill’s speeches were entertaining, frequently drawing laughter. Here is the opening of a speech he gave on 28 November in Manchester: “As you can see, the weather has caused me to be late this evening. I have never known such a fog since I listened to Mr. Balfour making one of those perfectly plain pronouncements on the fiscal question.”
Later in the same speech he poked fun at his likely Tory opponent in the next general election, William Joynson Hicks, who supported protectionism and imperial preferences in principle but had agreed with the Prime Minister that “the time was not ripe for the taxation of food.” Churchill called this “nonsense,” saying, “He said that he agreed with Mr. Balfour, and that the time was not ripe for the taxation of food [laughter]. But if Mr. Joynson Hicks believes that Mr. Chamberlain’s object is desirable and his method right what nonsense it is to say that the time is not ripe…. What would have been said of the Manchester Regiment or the Lancashire Fusiliers if, when they were ordered to make an attack upon a position, they replied, ‘We have unabated sympathy with the object but we think that the time is not ripe’? [loud laughter].”
A day later, speaking at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, Churchill had them rolling in the aisles as he made fun of the Conservatives’ recent loss of several by-elections: “I noticed last week that a Minister, speaking somewhere—I forget his name—[laughter] I have to make a great many speeches, and I really should never get through my work if I filled my mind with a lot of trivial and insignificant details [renewed and loud laughter]. But he was a most important Minister [laughter], and I noticed that he said in his most important speech [laughter] that by-elections were an unsatisfactory and inaccurate test of public opinion. I can quite understand that he finds them an unsatisfactory test.”
75 Years Ago: Autumn 1929 • Age 54
“I was not thought clever enough”
Churchill was counting his September earnings: £16,100, consisting of an advance for Marlborough, royalty payments for The Aftermath, future articles, and investment profits of £5,200. Writing to the ever cost-conscious Clementine, Churchill had further stock market investments in mind: “So here we have really recovered in a few weeks a small fortune….This ‘mass of manoeuvre’ is of the utmost importance & must not be frittered away. But apart from this, there is money enough to make us comfortable & well-mounted in London this autumn.”
On 22 September, Churchill went sword-fishing off Santa Catalina Island and caught one after only twenty minutes. In a private rail car provided by U.S. Steel magnate Charles Schwab, WSC and his party journeyed across the United States from Yosemite Valley to Chicago, arriving there on October 2nd. They were met by Bernard Baruch, in whose private rail car they traveled to New York on October 5th.
Churchill was a guest at Baruch’s Fifth Avenue mansion and on October 18th traveled to Washington and visited Civil War battlefields. He returned to New York on October 24th, where he stayed at Percy Rockefeller’s apartment on the day the market crashed.
Churchill later recorded what he saw: “Under my window, a gentleman cast himself down fifteen storeys and was dashed to pieces, causing a wild commotion and the arrival of the fire brigade….I happened to be walking down Wall Street at the worst moment of the panic, and a perfect stranger who recognised me invited me to enter the gallery of the Stock Exchange. I expected to see pandemonium; but the spectacle that met my eyes was one of surprising calm and orderliness….It was refreshing to exchange this scene of sombre and, for the moment, almost helpless liquidation for a window high in a titanic building. The autumn afternoon was bright and clear, and the noble scene stretched to far horizons. Below lay the Hudson and the North Rivers….Beyond lay all the cities and workshops of the New Jersey shore, pouring out their clouds of smoke and steam….No one who gazed on such a scene could doubt that this financial disaster, huge as it is, cruel as it is to thousands, is only a passing episode in the march of a valiant and serviceable people….”
In England in mid-December, Churchill spoke to students at Bristol University, offering the following advice: “I never myself had the advantage of a university education. I was not thought clever enough to profit by it to the full. I was put to be trained in technical matters at a military college, and almost immediately afterwards things opened out very quickly into action and adventure….During years appropriate to study and the accumulation of knowledge, I was a pack-horse that had to nibble and browse such grass as grew by the roadside in the brief halts of long and wearying marches. But see how very lucky you all are. You are a most fortunate crowd of quadrupeds, to use a neutral term [laughter]. You are admitted to a spacious paddock with the very best herbage growing in profusion You are pressed to eat your fill….Take full advantage of these years when the wisdom of the world is placed at your disposal, but do not spend too much time in buckling on your armour in the tent. The battle is going on in every walk and sphere of life.”
50 Years Ago: Autumn 1954 • Age 79
“Don’t bring politics into private life”
Churchill continued to resist importunings to step down as prime minister. On 26 September his presumptive heir, foreign secretary Anthony Eden, wrote to Churchill saying that he was reluctant to stay at the Foreign Office “until within a few weeks of the General Election”— which seemed to be Churchill’s unexpressed intent.
Churchill reshuffled his cabinet in October, with Eden still at the Foreign Office, Macmillan at Defence and his son-in-law, Duncan Sandys, at Housing. Churchill still gave no hint of whether or when he might step down as prime minister.
November 30th brought a celebration in Parliament of Churchill’s eightieth birthday. He was presented with a portrait painted by Graham Sutherland, an unflattering likeness which Churchill’s daughter, Mary Soames, called “a cruel and gross travesty of Winston, showing all the ravages of time, and revealing nothing of the warmth and humanity of his nature.” Accepting the gift, Churchill told Parliament that it was “a remarkable example of modern art. It certainly combines force with candour,” after which he paused and laughter greeted his appreciation.
Churchill’s reply was equally magnanimous: “This is to me the most memorable public occasion of my life. No one has ever received a similar mark of honour before….It is indeed the most striking example I have ever known of that characteristic British Parliamentary principle cherished in both Lords and Commons: ‘Don’t bring politics into private life.'”
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