Remember the man, not the myth: Why the real quotes are better than the memes – Part 4

Alastair continues his series examining the best accounts of Winston Churchill, calling for a more significant distinction between the real and apocryphal stories about Churchill.

Will the real Winston please stand up?

Finding the sources for many of the most popular and inspiring Churchill’s quotes makes authenticating beloved, yet assumed stories, all the sweeter. In the film Into the Storm (2009), Churchill (played by Brendan Gleeson) is trying to persuade his War Cabinet to fight against Nazi Germany. Churchill rumbles that: “nations that went down fighting rose again, but those which surrendered tamely were finished.”

The scene is evocative and defiant. In a poignant scene afterwards, Churchill confides his fear of failure to his wife and is lovingly reassured by Clementine (Janet McTeer). The next day, and matched to perfection by a Howard Goodall’s crescendoing soundtrack, Gleeson’s Churchill makes his final and most splendid peroration:

“I am convinced that every one of you would rise up and tear me down from my place if I were for one moment to contemplate parley or surrender. If this long island story of ours is to end, at last, let it end, only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.”

A similar variant with rousing music was performed in the Oscar-winning film Darkest Hour with Gary Oldman. Used in any movie today the language and tone would be deemed hyperbolic with creative liberties. Nevertheless, between the 25th and 28th of May 1940, the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax and Churchill tried to muster support for their respective positions. Halifax, an appeaser under Neville Chamberlain, favoured a settled peace and Churchill considered it a futile exercise to trust Adolf Hitler.

In reality, the film scene combines two meetings that happened on the 28th of May, 1940 in Churchill’s office in the House of Commons. The first quote was said to the tightly knit War Cabinet when Churchill again rejected any negotiation with Hitler. Immediately after, the latter quotation was proclaimed to a meeting with the members of his wider Cabinet.

The event was recorded in the diaries of the Minister for the Economy Hugh Dalton who acknowledges that, like in the film, there was a great deal of cheering. No mention is made of the symbolic, albeit highly unlikely scene, of Lord Halifax storming out of the room in protest. Nevertheless, in fact, as in fiction, it is considered the defining moment when Churchill secured his mandate to carry out total war against the Nazi regime.

Truth in fiction breeds a more saccharin appreciation of real events, mainly when they seem to be a melodramatic luxury which couldn’t possibly be real. Another golden thread throughout Into the Storm is the meaning of a passage twice recited by Gleeson from Thomas Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome:

‘Then out spake brave Horatius, the captain of the Gate: To every man upon this earth death cometh soon or late. And how can man die better than facing fearful odds, for the ashes of his fathers and the temples of his Gods?”

Like before it would seem as if the script is making a theatrical indulgence, particularly with such an apt poem, but also like before it’s rooted in documented fact. Jock Colville, Assistant Private Secretary to Chamberlain and later Churchill, describes Churchill in his diaries as being in good spirits and repeating the poem in the summer of 1940.

Churchill learnt the poems of Thomas Macaulay at school, winning a prize for reciting 1000 lines as he notes in his only autobiography, My Early Life:

“From Gibbon I went to Macaulay. I had learnt The Lays of Ancient Rome by heart and loved them… I accepted all Macaulay wrote as gospel, and I was grieved to read his harsh judgments upon the Great Duke of Marlborough. There was no one at hand to tell me that this historian with his captivating style and devastating self-confidence was the prince of literary rogues, who always preferred the tale to the truth, and smirched or glorified great men and garbled documents according to as they affected his drama.”

With a taste for the dramatic, it is not surprising these words would be on his mind as destiny loomed. Indeed, as William Manchester surmises in his book The Last Lion: “All who knew him came to know that in Churchill such sentiments were intrinsic.”

All the threads, particularly Churchill’s literary enthusiasm and self-taught education in history, pull together to form a natural disposition towards the arts. Churchill deployed his teeming memory of prose and poetry with his own and executed beautiful speeches in deep monotones. As the book Mr Churchill’s Profession: Statesman, Orator, Writer make clear, for most of his life, Churchill’s bread and butter came from journalism. His writing, even more so than his early books, paid the bills as well and ballooned his public image (often when it needed to be rehabilitated).

In 1939, it was estimated by American journalist John Gunter in his book Inside Europe that Churchill earned $100,000 a year from writing and lecture tours ($1.39 million in 2018). He did, however, add that it was nearly all spent as quickly as it was earned. The historian Paul Johnson concluded in his book Churchill that the future prime minister wrote an estimated eight to ten million words in more than forty books, thousands of newspaper and magazine articles, two scripts and several poems to say nothing of the thousands of government papers bearing his name.

All of this background produced an understanding in Churchill that he had to make his destiny. As he famously remarked, “I consider that it will be found much better by all Parties to leave the past to history, especially as I propose to write that history”. As such he always had an aphorism, witticism or put down to hand which while natural, was almost certainly deployed with one eye on the historical record. That Churchill’s mannerisms, style and form are still talked about decades later and are inherently linked to his conduct of the war, would be no surprise to him.

There have been more than 60 television and film portrayals of Winston Churchill. Some, from cameos to full-on biopics, hold the ironic distinction of being considered soaked in creative licence when most stay true to reality. It’s highly unlikely that creative embellishments can improve upon the larger than life splendour and humour of the real man. The Gathering Storm (2002) opens with a naked Churchill, as played by Albert Finney, urinating and reciting a speech in his bathroom when he was out of power in the 1930s.

It ends with the beautiful juxtaposition of Churchill’s triumphant return to the Admiralty in 1939 at the start of the Second World War (a post he first held during the First World War). The closing scene is Churchill entering the Admiralty and being greeted by a marine who informs him that a message was sent to the British fleet announcing that “Winston is back”. Cigar raised and chuckling, Finney rumbles to a crescendo: “Mmmm, Winston is back, and, so he bloody well is!”

While events may not have panned out with quite the same cinematic smoothness, Churchill records in his Second World War series:

“On this the Board were kind enough to signal the Fleet, ‘Winston is back.’ So it was that I came again to the room I had quitted in pain and sorrow almost exactly a quarter of a century before.”

The action is unusual for the British Navy and demonstrates just how Churchill’s life read like a film script at crucial moments. Indeed, many other portrayals have attempted to ‘find’ something new to the character. Firm favourites Finney and Gleeson have been traded for Gary Oldman and John Lithgow in recent years just as they replaced Robert Hardy and Simon Ward in the first place. Brian Cox, Timothy Spall, and Michael Gambon join an increasing crowd of actors who, by a fault in the script or casting, left audiences squinting at the screens for signs of Churchillian life. They just never found the right character balance or that twinkle in the eye.

Churchill was not only a master of oratorical bon mots but a comedian of expert timing. During his second premiership, when he fought on against his ailing body and mind before eventually resigning in 1953, Anthony Eden had been sniping at his heels to quit for years. His valet, Norman McGowan, wonderfully recounts a train journey to Venice around this time, when Churchill had his head of a window attempting to get a better view, only to have to be wrenched back by his detective: “My Guv’nor’s smiling comment was: ‘Anthony Eden nearly got a new job then, didn’t he?'”

McGowan’s book is a definitive source of fun. Knowing that Churchill perused in out of his vast book collection in the evenings, nearly electrocuted himself feeding his fish and abhorred whistling are made all the more interesting by McGowan’s self-deprecating sense of humility. Recalling finding a series of exercises to help Churchill lose weight,  (unaware as to what they were) he left instructions for Churchill on his bathroom mirror, only to be asked the following evening: “Norman, do I look pregnant?” They were antenatal exercises.

Churchill’s fondness for headgear and uniforms and reluctance to change clothes after decades of use is also confirmed. Many old suits seen in the earliest photographs are the same ones in pictures taken decades later. McGowan remembers arguing with Churchill before a reception in France that Churchill’s Medaille Militaire ribbon should be worn on the left lapel.

Churchill ignored him, “It is worn on the right lapel,” he insisted. Before the reception was over, all attendees had changed theirs to the wrong lapel too. Rather sheepishly, Churchill later concluded: “Norman, the French are the best diplomats in the world.”

McGowan recalls a similar anecdote when the Churchill party was on holiday to Marrakesh he heard the most terrible scream. He burst into Churchill’s room with his police aides:

“Our first thought was that he was being assassinated. I was first to reach the bathroom where Mr Churchill was still roaring. I flung open the door, terrified of what I might find. But there was the Guv’nor quite alone, with his hands clasped to his back shouting blue murder. It was several minutes before he could tell me what had happened, and by that time there was a milling crowd outside the door. ‘Norman’ he said ruefully but with a grin, ‘I was getting out of the bath I slipped and sat on the hot water tap.'”

A lifetime of effort would be required to distil the truth from the well-meaning, but fantastical, stories about Churchill. There are hundreds if not thousands of misattributions because they sound like the prime minister. Churchill By Himself: The Definitive Collection of Quotations, compiled by Richard Langworth and a plentitude of other writers on WinstonChurchill.org have already done a miraculous job separating miscellany and red-herring from gems. The delight in such detective work is finding which quotes are accurate, even if certain staples are unconfirmed (“You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life” is sadly unproven). It’s a testament to Churchill’s enduring popularity that tall tales sit side by side with confirmed and equally entertaining anecdotes and witticisms.

In reverse, consider on a closing note, Adolf Hitler. His vilification of Churchill was broad. Hitler referred to Churchill as an “unscrupulous politician who wrecks whole countries,” a “puppet of Jewry,” and an “undisciplined swine who is drunk eight hours out of every twenty-four who spends extravagantly and smokes without moderation.” He didn’t stop there: “As lunatics like that drunkard Churchill and Maccabeans and numskulls like that brilliantined dandy Eden are at the helm we’ve to be prepared for just about anything!” For all the malice behind these words, there is a reassuring satisfaction that Hitler’s language matched the horror of the person who uttered them. Knowing Hitler did make such utterances makes his defeat all the more enjoyable, and his obliteration more marvellous.

Those committed to the study of Churchill’s life and those who enjoy his presumed parlance need not sit in conflict or arrogant condescension of the other. His words, his real words, are infinitely more enjoyable if we can distinguish fact from fiction because the man is a rare instance of someone who lives up to the hype. The discovery of this is, in itself, a delightful experience. As Churchill, so wonderfully articulated and so theatrically stated: “If Hitler invaded Hell, I would make at least a favourable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.”

It is idolatry to purport a myth over the truth. It makes Churchill’s life, achievements, and defiance all the more remarkable to know what’s authentic. Incidentally, the above quote was said by Churchill to his private secretary. Could a movie have done better?

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