March 12, 2015

Finest Hour 159, Summer 2013

Page 15

By Richard M. Langworth

Finest Hour 50, -Winter 1985, was our largest issue to date, celebrating the most notable year up until then in our young history. On September 17th in London, the Second Churchill Tour hosted Martin Gilbert for a fine speech on “Churchill’s London.” On November 2nd in Boston, the Second Churchill Conference welcomed U.S. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. Both these memorable speeches were reproduced as booklets, while FH 50 covered September 25th, “The Party at the Savoy,” with Lord and Lady Soames and Anthony Montague Browne, Sir Winston’s private secretary for the last thirteen years of his life. Glancing at our other two guests, Anthony compared himself to “a priest in a small Italian village, getting up to make a sermon and finding not one but two popes sitting there.”

Anthony and Shelagh Montague Browne then lived near Newbury in the charming hamlet of Bucklebury, where I drove one day for a visit. Their pretty white house was visible from a good distance, surrounded by nothing but the green hills of Berkshire. I complimented him on the choice of location: “You can see brigands coming for half a mile.” Anthony agreed: “Yes, I feel almost invulnerable.” (Upon returning from Sir Winston’s funeral in 1965, he had found his London flat burgled.)

To a Churchillian who was also an automotive writer my treat was double-barreled. Shelagh’s first husband was racing driver Lance Macklin, who for years was blamed for causing the terrible crash at the 1955 Le Mans Twenty-four Hours that had killed Pierre Levegh and eighty spectators. Shelagh disputed the prevailing opinion: Macklin, driving a relatively slow Austin-Healey, had swerved to avoid Mike Hawthorn’s Jaguar, a defensive move which ended in the greatest loss of life in racing history. Later at the Tourist Trophy, Macklin crashed his car to avoid another pile-up, and Shelagh had prevailed on him to retire from racing. She gave me a fascinating insider’s account.

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After Anthony showed me his enviable collection of Churchill first editions, most of them inscribed to him by the author, we sat down to a marvelous dinner, interrupted by an urgent Churchillian phone call involving a kerfuffle in the press. The circumstances are irrelevant, but it was interesting that Anthony was the first person the caller came to for advice—just as Sir Winston had many times, twenty and thirty years before.

To Churchill, whom he met when he was only 29, Anthony fitted the description, “a friend is someone who knows all about you, but likes you.” I am not going to recite his life story. You can read all about it on the Internet. I will offer only a small act of gratitude. As to what he meant to WSC, you have only to read the 1985 remarks by Lady Soames, overleaf.

“AMB,” as he was known, was a steadfast, enthusiastic friend to the Society and Centre, addressing meetings on three occasions and never failing to lend his advice or reaction to words in our pages that touched his experience. Reviewing a “brightly coloured, if somewhat elliptical” book by one of Sir Winston’s staff, he was polite but firm:

We tend to see history from a different point of view and I am bound to say that where I was present at some of the events described, they struck me rather differently….It was all too easy to succumb to irritation with [the author] at times but his devotion to WSC was genuine and “the Boss” I think had a real affection for him. It was Churchill’s inevitable reaction to stand up for any member of his entourage who was under attack. As Lady Churchill once said, looking at me rather pointedly: “Winston is always ready to be accompanied by those with considerable imperfections.”

His self-deprecating quality stood Anthony well. The son of a distinguished Army colonel, he had steadfastly refused to join the Officer Training Corps until the outbreak of war in 1939, which he had been sure would never come. In 1941, as soon as he was old enough, he joined the RAF. He flew Beaufighters and Mosquitoes, and won his Distinguished Flying Cross for his skill in attacking Japanese lines of communications. After the war he joined the Foreign Office, and was seconded to Churchill in 1952.

Like former Churchill secretary Grace Hamblin, AMB was quick to let us know of any inaccuracy in Finest Hour. When a 2005 cover offered a stylized artist’s rendering of Battle of Britain aircraft, he was quick to react:

The cover is a monstrosity. The aircraft at extreme right is presumably a Hurricane—86% of our aircraft were initially Hurricanes—but it is given the Spitfire’s elliptical wings! The other two aircraft have a portly profile, four guns instead of eight, and appear to be powered by six-cylinder engines instead of twelves. The cockpit of one plane has four panels on the exposed side and resembles neither a Spitfire nor a Hurricane, having no visible radiator. Ugh! There are literally thousands of photos of those aircraft. Might not the artist have seen one of them? Admittedly most of those who flew them are dead. But not all!

Not dead yet! I reminded him of Mark Twain’s crack, “Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” But I didn’t inquire too closely into how he was doing. Friends get to a certain age and when you don’t see them for awhile, you avoid details. He died April 1st of complications following one of those “body part replacements” he once told me he never expected to need, for he was always fit. Yet he reached 89—a good number, only one short of the boss he revered.

His great book Long Sunset— a memoir of his life, dwelling heavily on his years with Churchill—was published in 1995. In it he captured many of the inside stories with which he’d enthralled audiences ten and more years before.

Anthony never missed a detail. A luncheon Churchill hosted for the Crown Prince of Japan, he wrote, went

perhaps too swimmingly, for when the time for toasts arrived, the Prime Minister rose and proposed the health of the Emperor of Japan before that of the Queen. I choked on my glass of port and saw Rob Scott, a senior Foreign Office official who had been captured and grossly maltreated by the Japanese, turn pale with mortification. It was of course an aberration which had the virtue of greatly pleasing the Japanese.

The stories he could tell! At the Savoy in 1985 he reached back into his memory and told us more about that august Anglo-Japanese occasion:

Churchill sent for two 16th century Japanese bronzes that his mother had brought back from the Far East. They were about eight inches high, and represented a mare in season and a stallion, a separate piece, gazing at her. He commented to the Crown Prince that these epitomized to him “sex in bronze.” The Crown Prince took the bronze mare, turned her over and gazed at her intently. The Prime Minister muttered, “He won’t find it there….”

There are passages in books by gifted writers that tend to stamp themselves on the memory. In Long Sunset, one of these comes at the end of the Churchill funeral. It began with characteristic whimsy:

As we filed past the grave for the last time before it was closed, I was astonished to see a small and not particularly distinguished row of medals lying on the coffin. I could only suppose that it had fallen from the chest of one of the military coffin-bearers, and I wondered if it would remain there to perplex archaeologists of many centuries hence.

Coming to his final reflections, Anthony quoted the Boss’s own words, on the death of Richard Coeur de Lion, “…worthy, by the consent of all men, to sit with King Arthur and Roland, and other heroes of martial romance at some eternal Round Table.” He finished his book with the thought that appeared in one form or another in every talk I heard him give:

I tried to say some silent prayers for that brave and generous soul, but they were choked and confused, and came to nothing. I could not mourn for him: he had so clearly and for so long wanted to leave the World. But I was submerged in a wave of aching grief for Britain’s precipitous decline, against which he had stood in vain.

For Anthony Montague Browne I have no hesitation in repeating the valedictory fanfare Randolph Churchill wrote on the death of Brendan Bracken:

“You were always on the good side: you loved truth and honour: you hated cruelty and injustice: fare thee well, my gifted, true and many-sided friend.”

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