by Avi Davis
I was six-years-old and it was time for bed. It was a hot Australian night and my mother had opened the windows of our room so that my brother and I could sleep with a measure of comfort. Before we went to sleep my father came in and asked us both to come into the TV room.
” Boys, I want you to watch this and to remember it. ”
I looked at the black and white screen and saw a pageant of glum men bearing a casket draped in the British flag. An orchestra was playing mournful music and many members of the crowd thronging the verges of the street could be seen wiping tears from their eyes. Little children saluted as the casket passed by; men, ordinary civilians, stood to attention as the procession made its way down the wide boulevard.
” What is it Daddy? What happened? Did somebody die?”
He looked down at the floor and then up at me.
“Its someone whose name you will one day know very well. His name was Winston Churchill and he saved the world. ”
It was hard, from faraway Australia and at such a tender age, to appreciate on that sultry January night, the enormity of the event and of the man who was being carried to his final resting place.
But my father was right. I never forgot that moment for in many way it connected me to the history of the 20th Century and the momentous events that occurred in the decade before my birth.
They were events over which Sir Winston Spencer Churchill would have the most personal and decisive impact.
Churchill’s extraordinary story has been told many times and in many different ways: descendant of the Duke of Marlborough, son of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, firebrand journalist, hero of the Boer War, radical liberal parliamentarian, First Lord of the Admiralty, combat officer in the First World War, minister in Conservative governments, political outcast; and then, miraculously, late in life, wartime Prime Minister for five years and then Prime Minister again for another four.
And this does not even take into account his prolific historical writing for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize; his extraordinary artistic talents which had his paintings valued at millions of pounds after his death; his hobbies as a gardener and a bricklayer which he continued into old age and the hundreds of people around the world who called him their friend.
Many people choose to remember Churchill as the gruff man with the orotund turn of phrase, whose personal example and indomitable spirit saved western civilization, girding England to stand alone against the Nazi Blitzkrieg. Others would prefer to see him as the proud standard bearer of the English speaking peoples who understood better than almost anyone the special relationship that existed between the United Kingdom and the United States and how they needed one another to stand in defiance of the attack upon the West.
But I prefer to remember Churchill as the sharp tongued ironist, filled with brio and the juices of living – a brilliant humorist, whose droll wit and lacerating tongue made him the talk of London.
A few anecdotes are sufficient to illustrate:
At a party he attended as a young Parliamentarian when he first adopted the liberal cause, he was approached by a woman who exclaimed:
“Mr. Churchill, I dislike your politics and your moustache even more.”
“Madam,” he responded,” I see no reason for you to come into contact with either.”
In an exchange with Lady Astor in 1920:
Lady Astor: “If I were married to you, I’d put poison in your coffee.”
His reply: “Nancy, if I were married to you, I think I’d drink it.”
At another party, many years later, after indulging a little too much in the available Scotch, he was approached by female MP Bessie Braddock who said to Churchill: “Winston, you are drunk, and what’s more you are disgustingly drunk. He replied: “My dear, you are ugly, and what’s more, you are disgustingly ugly. But tomorrow I shall be sober and you will still be ugly.”
At one time while visiting with Franklin D. Roosevelt aboard the presidential yacht, Churchill emerged from his bath naked and without a robe. At that moment Roosevelt happened to wheel himself into the room. Without missing a beat Churchill said: “You see Franklin, I have nothing to hide from you.”
In the House of Commons, when he was the Leader of the Opposition following the war, he was visiting the men’s room when the current Prime Minister Clement Atlee, a socialist, came in and stood next to him at a urinal. Churchill quickly moved away from Atlee to the farthest stall.
“Feeling standoffish today are we Winston?,” Atlee said, a little miffed. “No Clement,” Churchill replied. “It is just that when ever you see anything big you always want to nationalize it!”
And, then, of course there are the famous quotes, all of which have particular relevance today:
“An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.”
“Everyone is in favor of free speech. Hardly a day passes without its being extolled, but some people’s idea of it is that they are free to say what they like, but if anyone else says anything back, that is an outrage.”
“In the course of my life, I have often had to eat my words, and I must confess that I have always found it a wholesome diet.”
And my personal favorite:
“Show me a young Conservative and I’ll show you someone with no heart. Show me an old Liberal and I’ll show you someone with no brains.”
Winston Churchill passed away at the age of 90 on the morning of January 24th, 1965, 50 years ago today. With a glint in his eye to the very end he was recorded as saying: “I am ready to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter.”
No doubt there is a special place in Heaven for Winston Churchill, a short man who cast an enormous shadow. What would we would not give to have such a leader today.