Finest Hour 164, Special Edition, September 2014
By Mary Soames
INAUGURAL MEETING, N. TEXAS CHAPTER, INTERNATIONAL CHURCHILL SOCIETY, 19 FEBRUARY 1986
I am excited and honoured to be here at the first gathering of the North Texas Chapter, and if I’ve had anything to do with people wanting to come then I am indeed happy. You will realise how deeply moving it is for me to see how revered, so long after his death, is my father’s memory, which the International Churchill Society does so much to keep fresh and green.
It makes me proud that you have all come here today to meet me. And as you are setting out on your way, may I venture to say to you what I hope the International Churchill Society does? It does a lot of things, of course—but I hope especially it will continue to take a particular care and pride in keeping the record straight.
There are a lot of stories told about famous people, and I find that as time goes on it is rather like the lens of a camera: Virtues and faults come out of focus. Inaccurate statements said in some paper or book are copied lightheartedly, and reproduce themselves all over the place. Few people take the trouble to go back to the source and find out if that really was what happened. I like to hope that the Society will, above all the other things, regard itself as the guardian of the true picture and try always to bring that camera back into true focus.
Sorry to give you a little lecture but I do care about it tremendously. Your president Richard Langworth would forgive me for saying the only time I’ve ever fallen out with him a little bit was when I saw a really horrible effigy of my father being advertised in Finest Hour, and I wrote him a furious letter! [Laughter] Any other society, of course, could trade anything they liked—it’s a free world—but the Churchill Society should be careful what they reproduce, because you are, you can be, the repository of the true story and the true image. Naturally, as his daughter, I care very much about that.
Your chairman has suggested that you would like me to recall my father as a family man, and I shall do so with great joy as well as some nostalgia. It always gives me happiness when I have an opportunity to revive both for myself and for others the vivid personality, the warmth and humanity of my great and beloved father, in the glow of whose memory I shall ever live. Of course his family and close friends were the principal beneficiaries of his warm-hearted and in the main genial temperament. But those who knew Winston Churchill best in public and in private have often testified to the oneness of his character.
His public face was not that much different from the private countenance we all knew. He was a most natural, almost uninhibited person with an engaging frankness of expression and candour of mind which were refreshing to encounter. His spontaneous enjoyment of so many things in life and his many interests and talents made him a very enthralling companion, as those who worked closely with him have often recounted. And I’m so glad that some of you had the opportunity today to meet for a brief moment Sir John Colville and his wife. Sir John has just published his diaries, Fringes of Power. He was my father’s private secretary from the beginning of the war on and off right through the war, and then again when my father was Prime Minister for the second time.
He started, having been in Mr. Neville Chamberlain’s private office, with a real anti-Churchill outlook, and it is to me moving and touching to see, as the days and months go by, how he became a candid and deep admirer, a loyal servant, and a true friend. Long after my father left office, he and Margaret Colville were frequent visitors to wherever my parents were, and in the last days of my father’s life, they were among the people who came to bid him farewell.
You will see in his book—which I do most strongly recommend—the engaging and private side of my father’s life: how he liked to talk to his private secretary on duty (which was often Jock Colville), and his naturalness. Do try and get it. He’s not very nice about me in the beginning, but we have remained friends all the way. [Laughter.]
To have been my father’s child was an enrichment, as perhaps you can imagine, beyond compare. And from my earliest years I found myself admitted to a grown-up world of interest, variety, excitement and fun. My childhood memories of my parents are chiefly centred around life at Chartwell, which I believe quite a number of you have visited. Chartwell was where my father loved most to be in the whole world. He used to say, “A day spent away from Chartwell is a day wasted.” And there I, by far the youngest of his children, was brought up from my earliest days.
Of course, no account of Winston Churchill as a family man can exclude his beloved Clementine, whose abiding beauty, distinct personality, steadfast love, and—last but not least—good housekeeping, made the constant background to her husband’s tumultuous career. Many years after they were married he was to write her: “My greatest good fortune in a life of brilliant experience has been to find you and to lead my life with you.” What a tribute! And for fifty-seven years they lived together, through a period as tumultuous and changing as surely as any in our history. Together, they faced the ups and downs of political life. And for nearly all their lives, they were in the eye of the storms which have rocked our civilisation.
We children were early on to learn the tides and seasons of Parliamentary sessions—the overriding responsibilities of public life which governed our parents’ lives, which took no account of school prize-givings, family feasts or carefully planned treats and holidays. Even when we were quite small, we learned to sense and to respond to the tension of the crisis. My father used to say gravely, “We must all rise to the level of events”—an austere dictum for the young, but I have come to be grateful for it in my life. Public dramas penetrated to the nursery floor. In 1915, at the height of the Dardanelles Crisis which resulted in grievous loss of life and dramatic repercussions, my sister Diana, then aged six, was heard by her nanny to pray with fervour, “Oh God, please bless the Dardanelles, whatever they are.”
For me, clear consecutive memories of my father begin with the opening of that decade which has come to be called “The Wilderness Years”: 1929-39. In 1929, he ceased to be Chancellor of the Exchequer after Stanley Baldwin’s Conservative government was defeated. For ten years after that he was to be out of office. Winston was now in his mid-fifties, Clementine ten years younger, myself eightish, trailing along well behind the big ones, Diana, Randolph, and Sarah. Winston was of course still a member of Parliament, and politics kept my parents much in London. But in the Thirties, Chartwell, which had been bought in the early Twenties, became more and more the centre of their lives.
Looking back with a perspective which one doesn’t have at the time, I think what strikes me most about my father at that period, is what a prodigious worker he was. Our domestic life was geared around his programme. Chartwell was a veritable factory. The lights from his upstairs study gleamed late into the night while, padding up and down that long room with its raftered ceiling, he dictated to his secretary hour after hour. His speeches, whether on platforms up and down the country or from his place below the gangway in the House of Commons, received infinite pains in their preparation. Newspaper articles for both home and abroad poured forth. His political activities alone would have filled a busy life, but apart from all this, he made time for his work as an author and as an historian.
It must never be forgotten that he was not a rich man. He kept us all by his pen. His literary output in those years was truly amazing. Apart from collections and speeches, articles and essays, his major works between the two world wars were The World Crisis, the story of the 1914-18 war and its aftermath; and his monumental Life of his great ancestor, John Churchill First Duke of Marlborough—nine volumes between them. The outbreak of the Second World War found him hard at work on his four-volume History of the English Speaking Peoples, a vivid, panoramic tapestry, from which he broke off to contribute with his own life and actions more memorable pages to that history. After the Second World War he was to complete this work, but only after the six volumes of his war memoirs.
Someone has compared him to Caesar, who waged wars and wrote about them. All the while he was involved in politics, leading his party from the humiliating defeat of 1945 back to power once more. Winston Churchill was seventy-seven and still going strong when he became Prime Minister again in 1951. And if we now recall him chiefly as a statesman and world leader, we must remember that it was for literature that he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1953.
Life was not all toil. Far from it! If midnight oil was consumed by the gallon, daylight and sunshine hours were filled with a multitude of occupations: building walls and cottages, making dams, turning peninsulas into islands, constructing swimming pools, and devising complicated water-works so the little rivulet that ran in at the Chart Well splashed round down through the valley and was pumped up again to start crashing down the hill again.
During the winter of 1934, when my mother was away on a long sea voyage, a friend staying at Chartwell wrote to keep her in touch. She wrote, “Winston has so many irons in the fire that the day is not nearly long enough, what with the new wall and the mechanical digger that does the work of forty men, rebuilding the chauffeur’s cottage, films, the crisis in India, and when there is nothing else, Marlborough. Well, you see, we are busy.”
Then of course there was his painting. You will perhaps have the chance to go up to your wonderful Dallas Museum of Art and to see there, among very great works of art, a small exhibition of my father’s pictures. Some of them I’m very proud of, and think are quite good. He took up painting literally as occupational therapy when he was over forty, in the traumatic aftermath of the Dardanelles catastrophe; and from that grim summer of 1915 for over 40 years more, my father found hours of pleasure and occupation in painting. He himself wrote: “Happy are the painters, for they shall not be lonely. Light and colour, peace and hope, will keep them company to the end or almost to the end of the day.”
Those were prophetic words, for he continued to enjoy painting up to within a few years before his death. I am fortunate to live surrounded by some of his best pictures. They are so full of light and colour, and evoke for me many happy hours spent watching him paint or having picnics while he was painting. They evoke not only the many seasons of Chartwell and the brilliant light of the south of France, but they reflect also the hours of concentrated pleasure and oblivion from dark worries, which he derived from painting them.
One of my father’s salient characteristics was his readiness to forgive. Somebody said about him, “Winston is a very bad hater.” When I was a child, I often heard him quote the Biblical injunction, “Let not the sun go down upon your wrath,” and it was a precept he practised both in his public and his private life. He indeed was a quick forgiver, and often it was he who made the first steps across the bridge, to make up quarrels, whether in matters great or small, whether with mighty grown-ups or his own silly, tempestuous children. And in his public life, he preached and practised reconciliations and magnanimity in victory to his country’s former foes.
No recollection of my father could ignore the wit and wisdom and joviality of his company. Early admitted to our parents’ table as we children were, some of my most vivid childhood and teenage memories are the mealtimes at Chartwell. Much of the splendour of conversation, of course, sailed over my head in the earlier years. I think I may have possibly been more pre-occupied about whether there were going to be enough cupcakes for me to have a second helping. But I think sometimes I didn’t miss all of the fire- work displays and eloquent argument.
As time went on, I began to follow and to feel inspired by the great issues of those days. But most of all, I remember with delight when our company was joined by some of the muses—the muses of history, of song, and poetry sacred and heroic. Led by my father, we would recite verse after verse from Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome, his and our favourite being the glorious tale of how Horatio kept that bridge in the days of old; and the rollicking Edwardian musical songs he had enjoyed so much as a young man; and Rudyard Kipling in all his moods; and Rupert Brooke; and of course, Shakespeare.
What a prodigious memory my father had, reaching far back to his school days at Harrow. And from him, too, I learned as a child that throbbing, thrilling, glorious Battle Hymn of the Republic: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord / He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored….” Perhaps those long ago, triumphant days were in our minds when we chose that hymn to be sung at his state funeral in St. Paul’s Cathedral.
With all these diversions, mealtimes sometimes prolonged themselves into three-hour sessions, often to my mother’s despair. Eventually she would make to move. And I so well remember my father looking at her down the table, lovingly and ruefully, and saying, “Oh, Clemmie, don’t go. It is so nice. Let us command the moment to remain.”
Of course, one never can. But today I’ve tried to command some precious moments that I remember to remain. And as I have recalled these things and that extraordinary man in your company, it has made me very happy.