February 12, 2009

By Celia Sandys

I bade him a restrained but decisive farewell and walked out into the street with a magnificent oration seething within my bosom and only half a crown in my pocket…I thought of dinner and was pallidly confronted with the half-crown! No, that would not do! A journey to London on a beautiful half holiday, keyed up to the last point of expectation on a speech that might have shaped the national destinies undelivered and to go back to Sandhurst upon a bun and a cup of tea was more than fortitude could endure.

In order to console himself in a more satisfactory manner, Winston resorted to the pawnbroker’s shop where, he related, “I received one of those tickets which hitherto I had only heard of in music-hall songs and a five-pound note.

This is not the first time I have spoken in public but it is the first time I have spoken on this subject. What I have to say will have no effect on any national destiny and far from being confronted with an empty hall followed by a bun and a cup of tea, I am faced with a room full of people and a sumptuous dinner. I do not have to seek consolation. Just brace myself and get on with the job!

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FROM an early age my grandfather augmented his finances and filled what otherwise might have been spare moments in his life by writing. For more than sixty years he propelled his pen along a path of authorship and journalism in order to support a lifestyle to which he had been born but not sufficiently endowed. He began, while still a lieutenant in the cavalry, with articles from the North West Frontier and a much-acclaimed volume on the Malakand Field Force. He even wrote a novel, Savrola: A Tale of the Revolution in Laurania which in later life he urged his friends not to read.

On leaving the army he continued to move towards the sound of gunfire by becoming War Correspondent for the Morning Post in South Africa, where his breathtaking escape from the Boer prison camp at Pretoria greatly added to his fame and reputation.

He did not always write to provide funds for himself and his family. Love of his father, Lord Randolph, and a passion to do justice to his hero, John Churchill, First Duke of Marlborough, were sufficient reason for him to complete these magnificent biographies, although the financial rewards reaped from them were never unwelcome. Then there was the History of the English-Speaking Peoples, of which he had developed such a deep understanding, and his own accounts of the two World Wars in which he, himself, had played such a vital role. By the end of his life he had published more than forty works and had won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

THUS I had before me a perfect example in whose footsteps to stumble when the moment presented itself, as it did a few years ago. I anticipated that in the near future my life would be such that I would both have spare moments to fill and a need to augment my finances. My two younger children were growing old enough to go to school, presenting their parents with more time of their own and large bills for their education. I decided that I too would mobilise the English language and send it into battle.

I had for some time been fascinated by the extraordinary correspondence which had taken place between the young Winston and his parents. I was also struck by the good chance which had kept all these marvellous letters intact and on the whole undisclosed.

The moment came when I realised that there was no time to waste. How was it that no one had yet explored in any depth the effects and influences of his early years on the man about whom so much had been written? This was such a simple idea and one which I felt perhaps I could approach with modest confidence. I do after all have four children, aged between 6 and 27, three of them boys—and have therefore some experience on the subject.

Armed with the blessing of the senior members of the Churchill family—my aunt Mary and my cousins Winston and Peregrine—what had up till then been just a dream became a reality. Before I knew it I was under contract to a publisher and my life had been turned upside-down. What started as a project to fill my time and make a contribution to the family finances before long became a passion as I delved deeper into the family archives and visited the places where my grandfather had spent his early years.

IF THE child born at Blenheim Palace a hundred and twenty years ago had not, against all the odds, survived his early years, the world we live in today would be a very different place.

For me, a visit to Blenheim will never be the same again. I cannot help thinking of the twenty-year-old American girl in that downstairs room, trying to delay the birth of her baby whose chance of survival was threatened by his imminent and premature arrival. Then my mind turns to the doctor called hastily from the village of Woodstock, to stand until the fashionable obstetrician could arrive from London. As he approached the Palace, down the long drive, in his pony and trap, he surely must have felt some apprehension at the unexpected summons. If only he had known how much depended on his skills, and how the destiny of so many rested in his two hands. If he had failed in his delivery of that premature baby, we would not be gathered here tonight—indeed two of us would not exist at all.

It is impossible to describe the emotion I felt on holding the paper bearing that little boy’s first smudgy mark, and his earliest letters written so carefully in his childish hand. Or the excitement on discovering his first schoolboy drawings, among which was an early sign of patriotism in the shape of a Union Flag.

Equally thrilling was being able to go through Lady Randolph’s tin boxes, in which her papers had been stored, and finding her diary with the entry describing the first meeting between the eight-year-old Winston and Lady Blanche Hozier, the mother of his future and as yet unborn bride.

On a visit to his first school at Ascot, which is now a school for girls, and where he spent a miserable two years, the headmistress produced a cardboard box which she thought might contain some old pictures of the school. Imagine my delight when I turned up a description of Winston’s time there by a fellow pupil. This was a great find—the first contemporary assessment apart from official school reports. Hitherto the only accounts of his time there had been tales told by pupils who had followed him and which, although probably true, could not carry the authentic ring of an eye witness.

The author of this early account was a young man called Harry Graf Kessler, who wrote as follows of my future grandfather and the future Prime Minister of Great Britain:

Winston Churchill, a grandson of the Duke of Marlborough, at that time a red-haired and restless boy, rather small for his age, who through his exhibitionism and quarrelsome attitude got on everyone’s nerves. As a result of the time he had spent in the stables at Blenheim, Winston had learned words which were highly unsuitable for a young man. Mr Kynnersley, the headmaster, reacted with shock and apprehension against the not unlikely possibility that the entire school might adopt the spicy expressions of stable lads. When Winston, who was quite tiny—he was only just eight years old—leapt around a classroom table and recited to an attentive group of boys a little song from the stables, Mr Kynnersley threatened the use of the birch.

When the unhappy Winston was removed from the school at Ascot he was sent to a very different establishment at Brighton. The reason for this choice was that his parents, concerned that he was a very frail child, had decided to send him to school in the town where their family doctor, Robson Roose, practised. This was to prove to be a most fortunate decision. The house at Brighton remains unaltered today and looks very much the same as it must have done a century ago. As I walked around this shabby but friendly house I could almost picture the eleven-year-old boy, who by that time I had gotten to know quite well, writing to his nanny a tear-stained letter: “I am feeling very weak, I could cry at everything.”

Within a few days, Winston was in bed with pneumonia. For five days he clung to life. The faithful Doctor Roose barely left his side and his parents rushed to Brighton. It is clear from the bulletins which the doctor wrote three or four times a day that Winston did, indeed, very nearly die.

Going out of the front door of that Brighton house I could not help reflecting that but for that kind and caring doctor and for his attention, stretching way beyond the normal bounds of duty; Winston Churchill would never have left the house on his two feet. Once more a doctor held the life of that child, and the destiny of so many, in his hands.

As Winston progressed from the cosy school at Brighton to Harrow, I travelled with him. This time I was in familiar territory. My two older sons had been to school there so I knew my way around. The place was still very much the same as it had been in the time of my grandfather, and so was the uniform. There was, however, one very big difference and that was in the form of communication. The 1980’s were the age of the telephone. As a result hardly any letters were ever written—it was so much easier to pick up the telephone and call home collect. All the time that my boys were at Harrow I was of course strongly aware that my Grandfather had spent four and a half years at school there a century before. But it was not until I had read all his letters, together with his own account of his time there and his contemporaries’ recollections, that it all came alive. I then found myself looking at the school from a different angle.LEGEND has it that the young Winston was an academic disaster. In fact, he was prepared, even keen, to work when he was inspired to do so. But otherwise he resisted, thus leaving certain gaps in his education and laying the foundation for the myth that he did badly at everything at school. This was a myth which in later life he took some pleasure in endorsing.

There is preserved in the school archives a poem for which he won a prize, and a magnificent essay describing an imaginary battle against the Russians in the year 1914. His English master had kept this for the simple reason that he thought it had great merit—not because he had any idea that this unconventional pupil would in, future years, become Harrow’s most famous Old Boy.

One of the greatest regrets of Winston’s life was that his father died before he could enjoy the close relationship for which he had yearned throughout his childhood. During Winston’s years at school, Lord Randolph Churchill rose from political obscurity to become the most popular politician in the country, Leader of the House of Commons, and finally Chancellor of the Exchequer. His various activities, combined with the customary remote relationships between Victorian fathers and offspring, did not present the opportunity to spend much time in his company.

On his resignation as Chancellor in 1886, Lord Randolph’s successful political career had come to an end, although no one thought this at the time. But despite the relinquishment of office, little was available for family life. He was still heavily involved in politics which, together with horse racing and travel, absorbed most of his energies.

Winston longed to make a good impression on his father; perhaps in his anxiety, he tried too hard and at times achieved the opposite result. How sad that on that snowy January morning in 1895, seventy years to the day before he himself would die, Winston lost the father he adored and respected but never really knew. As he later wrote: “All my dreams of comradeship with him, or entering Parliament at his side and in his support, were ended. There remained for me only to pursue his aims and vindicate his memory.”

Six months later he lost his greatest ally Mrs Everest, the faithful nurse whom he had described as “My dearest and most intimate friend during the whole of the twenty years I have lived.”

These two losses, removing from Winston within such a short time his idol and his confidante, propelled him into manhood and an intimate relationship with his mother who was to become his strongest supporter in the years to come. Of Lady Randolph Winston wrote. “She soon became an ardent ally, furthering my plans and guarding my interests with all her influence and boundless energy.

HAVING journeyed through the first twenty years of Winston’s life, I reflected on how I felt about the three people who had the greatest influence on his development. I could not get close to Randolph, probably because I could only approach him through the relationship he had with his son. I do not consider him as unsympathetic, as he is usually portrayed, but in my mind, I still think of him as Lord Randolph and a distant and rather forbidding figure.

Lady Randolph, however, soon became “Jennie” to me. This rapport evolved as I became engrossed by the familiar and relaxed relationship reflected in the exchange of correspondence between Winston and his mother. Being American, Jennie was much less formal than her English counterparts. It would have been inconceivable for the sort of Englishwoman considered suitable to marry the son of a duke to allow herself to be harangued by her son, as he frequently did, or to permit him to use such an endearment as “my bird.” I am certain that to have known my great grandmother would have been a rich and rewarding experience.

Mrs Everest, I can relate to perfectly, as I had my own Mrs Everest, a wonderful Nanny who would have laid down her life for us children without a moment’s hesitation. During the Second World War, convinced—no doubt with good reason—that if the Germans were to invade Britain their first targets would be my grandfather and his family, she hatched a plot of her own. Nanny intended, in the event of this almost unthinkable and certainly unmentionable outcome of the war, to remove my brother, my sister and myself from the clutches of a vengeful Adolf Hitler. The plan was to dye our tell-tale Churchillian red hair black, and to escape to the protection of her family, who had a pub in Liverpool. Winston’s Mrs Everest would certainly have done the same. She and my nanny were two of a kind.

Many books have been written about Winston Churchill. They have covered his public life from all angles: His years of despair in the political wilderness, and his triumph as wartime Prime Minister have been chronicled, praised and criticised. Apart from his own brief account in My Early Life all these books, containing millions of words and diverse opinions, have one thing in common: they pay scant attention to his formative years and to the influences of childhood which contributed to the character of the man who was destined to lead his country in its darkest hour.

How fortunate for me to have had the privilege to step into the vacuum left by others and to have the opportunity to journey through the early life of the grandfather I knew only in his later years.

Anyone who lived through the Second World War remembers Winston Churchill. The generation of war babies, to which I belong, remembers his funeral. Now, however, there is a new generation, to whom Churchill is only a name in the pages of history, like Nelson and Wellington, Napoleon and Julius Caesar. While there are still people living who were inspired by his speeches, knew him, worked with him, just shook his hand, queued for hours in the freezing cold to pay their last respects, or simply loved him, he cannot be allowed to rest on a dusty bookshelf

MY GRANDFATHER said, “I write a book the way they built the Canadian Pacific Railway. First I lay the track from coast to coast, and after that I put in all the stations.” The track of Winston Churchill’s life was long and unswerving. The stations reflected its variety. Important junctions interspersed with wayside halts came very soon on the journey.

I hope that in my book I have managed to bring to life the first part of the journey the early years of the impish, lonely and sickly little boy who, by his own tenacious attitude to life, lived to fulfil his youthful dreams and fantasies.

For over a century the private writings of the young Winston have been preserved and more or less ignored: that first smudgy mark, childish letters, schoolboy letters, happy letters, sad letters, proud letters, pleading letters, letters of apology and even the pitiful letter which, but for the devoted care of his doctor, would have been the last letter he ever wrote. His mother kept them all, together with his first artistic efforts and his school reports. Some schoolmasters spotted merit in his work and saved for posterity essays and verse written by the boy whose legendary academic ineptitude has been a comfort to many parents of “late developers.”

This pilgrimage has taken me down many contradictory paths and caused me to ask many questions. Was he neglected by his parents? Was he really so stupid at school? How could this child, unless blessed with nine lives, have overcome his congenital weaknesses and survived so many hair-raising accidents and heroic escapades to live beyond his ninetieth birthday?

What guardian angel watched over the boy who was to take part in the last great cavalry charge, be captured by the Boers, escape and have a price put on his head, enter Parliament at the age of twenty-five and there serve six monarchs, fight in the trenches, be twice prime minister, write forty-four books and receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, paint more than one hundred pictures and be made an Honorary Royal Academician, become a Knight of the Garter and an Honorary Citizen of the United States of America, and be honoured, decorated and revered in all corners of the earth?

Mine has been a delightful and sentimental voyage of discovery, at times, happy, at times sad but always fascinating. Around every corner I have found something new, spurring me on to find out more about this extraordinary man whom I am proud to have called Grandpapa.

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