Proceedings of the International Churchill Societies 1994-95
“A Supremely Blessed and Happy Human Being”
The Lady Soames DBE
I am, as I am sure is Winston and all our family, touched and pleased that the International Churchill Society in the United Kingdom should choose to mark in such a splendid and special way the 120th anniversary of Winston Churchill’s birth. And I do thank you, David, so very much for inviting me to be your guest and to propose the toast to our Society.
Because it has fallen to my lot to be Winston Churchill’s child, and now of my parents’ five children, sadly the only survivor, I feel I have a unique testimony to give about Winston Churchill as a human being. But I have made myself some quite stern rules: I am loath to stray beyond the frontiers of my daughterly knowledge; and I strenuously deny myself the luxury of imagined conversations or apocryphal jokes and anecdotes. I see my humbler, but perhaps not unnecessary task, as that of trying to keep focused my father’s personality and image. I sometimes feel that his character and personality have become embalmed in his fame and in the legend which already attaches to his hero-figure. I know that his place in history is secure, but that I leave (though not necessarily without reservations) to the historians.
Tonight, as we celebrate the 120th anniversary of his birth, I would like to dwell on some aspects of my father’s vivid personality, on his long enduring zest for life, and on that warmth whose glow I still feel through the passing years.
Chartwell in Kent was the home of my parents for over forty years, and the scene of my own childhood and youth. Now as you know, it is in the care of the National Trust and there you can still see in the house and garden examples of the many-faceted aspects of Winston’s personality and ploys.
Chartwell was a veritable factory for he kept us by his pen. The lights gleamed from his upstairs study late into the night as, padding up and down the long room with its high vaulted, raftered ceiling, he dictated to his secretary hour after hour his books, newspaper articles and speeches. But there was playtime too—he always seemed to find time for what he called “my toys.” The long high wall around the vegetable garden which he built, largely with his own hands, bears witness to his love of construction, and his skill as a bricklayer. He enjoyed
directing outdoor works: tree clearing, digging operations, or channelling the meagre trickle from the Chartwell stream through various courses and cascades to fill the lake-like swimming pool, his own creation too, which gleamed like an aquamarine set in the meadows.
The lovely dining room with its arcaded windows reminds me of the long hours passed round its table with his family, friends and colleagues when conversation, repartee and argument flashed to and fro; or long remembered lines of verse and prose poured forth like a torrent from the store of his prodigious memory.
And then, of course, there was painting—taken up by sheer chance during the First World War when he was forty, at a moment in his life and fortunes when he was all but engulfed by anguish, frustration and despair, in the wake of the traumatic debacle of the Dardanelles campaign. In that grim summer of 1915 when Churchill was at the nadir of his career, behold a new friend and companion appeared: the Muse of Painting. And for over forty years more he was to find hours of pleasure in painting.
Problems of perspective and colour gave him respite from dark worries, heavy burdens and the clatter of political strife: “Happy are the painters,” he wrote, “for they never shall be lonely light and colour, peace and hope will keep them company to the end, or almost to the end, of the day” These were happily to prove prophetic words for him personally
As a child I took my father’s giant programme of work and play completely for granted: I only came to appreciate later what a prodigious worker he was, and how he wrung from each 24 hours half as much time’s worth again.
Because our most immediate image now of Winston Churchill is of the older man—the war leader, the statesman figure—it is easy to forget the sheer dash and brilliance of his younger days, as war correspondent, soldier of fortune and radical politician at the hustings. Winston’s cavalry training had made him a good horseman; he had been a first-class polo player in India (and he played his last game as late as 1923 when he was nearly 50). He was a good shot, and loved a day with hounds, fox or boar hunting, when the rigours of political life allowed.
As I grew up I came to see my father in a different perspective. I began to understand that his whole political life had been, and was, a dramatic procession of great issues. He saw events and people, as on a stage, lit by his own knowledge of histosy~ his burning sense of destiny and of the march of events. I understood increasingly my father’s political themes and followed the causes and crises which dominated his life—and which would soon engulf all of ours.
Any consideration of Winston Churchill’s life must recognise the role his beloved Clemmie played throughout the fifty-seven years they lived together,
through a period as cataclysmic and changing as any time in our history, and always in the glare of public interest. I often think how different might have been the course of Winston Churchill’s life and career had he married a socially eager or trivial-minded woman. Churchill would always, through his talents and thrusting nature, have been to the forefront of political life. But his energies might have been distracted or, who knows—the rapier of the purpose of his destiny blunted or tarnished—had the woman he loved lacked the dedication, high principles and fiery courage of Clementine Hozier. Winston and Clementine’s partnership was not always equable: both had high mettled natures, but love and loyalty never failed. Their relationship reminds me of Shakespeare’s lines: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments….”
On the flyleaf of each volume of The Second World War are inscribed the
In War: Resolution
In Defeat: Defiance
In Victory: Magnanimity
In Peace: Goodwill
These words might appropriately sum up the theme of his life’s work, and the same generous outlook was very much present in his private life. My father would often quote the Biblical injunction “Let not the sun go down upon your wrath.” And he truly practised what he preached: for he was a quick forgiver.
WHAT of my father’s philosophy of life? He certainly had faith in the indomitable spirit of man. He also had a strong, underlying belief in a Providential God. Indeed when one looks back upon the hazards and dangers through which he passed—the illnesses and accidents he suffered in his youth, the numerous close encounters with death on fields of battle—it is hard not to see a guiding and guarding hand. He himself felt this element increasingly.
How do I see him? As I, now over seventy, look back upon this truly extraordinary man who is still to millions a hero and who was my father, I too see Winston Churchill as a heroic figure; and for me, of course, are mingled the feelings of devotion and pride of a child.
But I also see him as a supremely blessed and happy human being, despite the anguish of the dramas through which he lived, which he felt in every fibre of his being, and in which he played so great a part. Yet for these epic times and events how magnificently he was equipped in mind and spirit. Dowered with a stalwart constitution, his genius found scope and expression in the varied and exciting events and political conflicts of his life, and his quiverful of talents which made him both a historian and a journalist, a painter and a bricklayer, combined to fill every chink of time. So I believe that until his very last years he did not know the meaning of the word “boredom.”
When at long last the pace slowed, when finally the political fray was over and pen and brush laid aside, then that unseemingly unquenchable well of his zest for life ran dry, and the long daylight hours did indeed hang heavy. Yet from those muted sad last years I treasure a precious and to me infinitely moving picture.
As a young cavalry officer in Cuba and then in India, Winston had been fascinated and amazed by the size and beauty and variety of the butterflies he saw there. Years later, he caused plants and shrubs which attract butterflies to be planted at Chartwell. I remember my father on summer days in these twilight years, sitting in his chair, strategically placed before the opulently flowering shrubs, watching with rapt enjoyment the vivid, quivering splendour of the butterflies as they fluttered and feasted on the purple, honey-laden flowers. And, remembering him thus, I recall Landor’s lines:
“I warmed both hands before the fire of life;
It sinks, and I am ready to depart.”
May I give you the toast of The International Churchill Society, which does such sterling work in keeping green the memory of Winston Churchill, and keeping alive his themes and works for following generations.
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