This tribute to an extraordinary Churchillian was written twenty-three years ago in 1997. Please pardon references to contemporary events no longer in the news, though it would seem that some other Redburn thoughts are startlingly relevant.
Ashley Redburn, Anglo-American
Cynics sometimes suggest that Western Civilization needs a war every few generations to maintain its sense of values and faith in itself. Ashley Redburn was a man who believed it. “England,” he declared grimly, “needs to be conquered in war and occupied by a vengeful enemy before its spirit can be revived. Germany and France between them have ruined Europe for two centuries. They are now ganging up to subjugate the continent. [Britain had just signed the Maastricht Treaty.] Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Somewhere in the universe there must be other beings who are making a better test of things than the inhabitants of this planet. You and I will never know, but two generations hence, they may.”
Winston Churchill was an honorary American citizen. Ashley Redburn would resist the comparison, but he in his own way also deserved that honor. A friend, goes the saying, is someone who knows all about you but likes you. Ashley knew all about Americans, and liked them despite what he knew. There was never in Ashley a hint of that odd combination of envy and scorn displayed toward Americans by certain foreigners, some closer than England. Equally there was no hint of the overbearing way some Americans treat foreigners.
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Mark Twain introduced the Anglo-American Churchill to a New York audience in 1901: “Mr Churchill by his father is an Englishman, by his mother he is an American, no doubt a blend that makes the perfect man. England and America, we are kin. And now that we are also kin in sin, there is nothing more to be desired. The harmony is perfect, like Mr. Churchill himself, whom I now have the honour to present to you.” Redburn knew all about “kin in sin” of the two fraternal nations. Representing anything less than his frank views, which were not optimistic, would be disrespectful to his memory.
Ashley maintained that nowadays “the bulk of the best work on the study of Churchill is being done by American academics.” Citing such exceptions as Sir Martin Gilbert, Paul Addison, David Stafford, Andrew Roberts and a few others, he believed there is “not much zeal in respect of Winston in British universities.” (I think he missed David Reynolds, John Ramsden, R.A.C. and others back then.)
“The unctuous rectitude of my countrymen”
Ashley wished age didn’t keep him from attending Churchill events. Yet he reacted to them as if he had been there. In 1996, the 50th Anniversary of Churchill’s “Sinews of Peace” speech was celebrated in Fulton, Missouri. Its keynote speaker was Margaret Thatcher. “I am glad Lady Thatcher took the opportunity to emphasize the importance and prescience of Fulton,” he wrote. “She was the one to do it. I cringe over today’s leaders. As I told our local MP, the Conservative Party should reflect that their fortunes have been in steady decline since they sacked her. ‘England hath need of thee,’ Wordsworth wrote of Milton.
“Charles De Gaulle observed that politics is too important to be entrusted to politicians. They seldom understand human nature and will not admit that mankind is incapable of natural goodness. The almost universal exhibition of envy and covetousness, assiduously cultivated by the media, is sickening.” Hmm. He said that twenty-five years ago.
In 1996 a furor arose over the purchase of the Churchill Papers with National Lottery money. The Independent said the purchase was “vital.” They should have editorialized with Ashley Redburn’s reaction:
I followed with interest the outraged howls. The smell of money, particularly other people’s money, drives many English people mad. It deprives them of rational discernment. I am reminded of the comment of Cecil Rhodes on arriving in London for the enquiry on the Jameson Raid. Knowing he would have been lionized had the Raid succeeded, he found himself execrated because it had failed. In answer to a reporter’s question he referred to “the unctuous rectitude of my countrymen.” The reporter asked, “Don’t you mean anxious?” Rhodes replied, “No, I said unctuous and I mean unctuous..” The comment is apposite regarding the Churchill Papers affair.
Redburn looked upon America and Britain as a dispassionate observer—perhaps “mourner” would be a better word. He deplored what he viewed as a relentless slide toward mediocrity, the ebbing of individual liberty and responsibility, the rise of all-permeating Statism and a vague, unsatisfying, unequal egalitarianism:
Our two countries sometimes remind me of third world states, ours more often. The Second World War impoverished us, and our poverty in 1945 was compounded by the advent of socialism. Imperial Britain is defunct, America may follow suit. I have lived the greater part of this century of decline. Will our offspring fare any better?
Nothing upset him more than the problems of the Royal Family: “The monarchy will survive in spite of calls for a republic, particularly from some in the Labour Party. But it angers me that the family of the best monarch we have had for centuries should have so diminished the monarchy itself.”
Occasionally he suggested panaceas: “I hope the West will find wisdom and take up the challenge of the Pacific Rim. There lies our joint future—an economic bloc of the English-Speaking Peoples, including India and the rest of the Commonwealth. A super-economic combine. The USA and Britain are dissipating their seed corn of capital in bolstering worthless regimes and are in danger of impoverishing their next generations. Small wonder that many of my generation feel life has been in vain.” A harsh judge indeed, but he was qualified to be one.
War and remembrance
Born in Leicestershire in 1912, Redburn studied history at Nottingham University and taught it in South Africa and England. In 1936 he joined the Territorial Army (reserves). Three years later he met General Sir Richard Haking, who inadvertently saved Winston Churchill’s life in 1916. Alas, he did not know of Haking’s role until he read Martin Gilbert’s official biography. His story is published by the Hillsdale College Churchill Project.
He landed on Sword Beach in the vanguard of the Normandy invasion on D-Day. In November 1944 he joined the mopping up forces in Burma. Mentioned in despatches, he was demobilized in December 1945 with the rank of Lt. Col, the OBE (Military) and the Territorial Decoration. From 1949 to his retirement in 1972 he was Director of Education in Bamsley, South Yorkshire.
I met Ashley around the time of his retirement, when he began seriously to get busy. A mutual friend often mentioned this fascinating scholar, and the novelty that he then lived in Rutland, Britain’s smallest county. Ashley became one of my senior editors, which is what we called people who were indispensable. He wrote the most wonderful book reviews—erudite, polished, witty and wise, studded with priceless quotes from the classics. But they were increasingly hard to get because of his workload. Like Churchill, the idea of retiring appalled him.
His last two book reviews were of Long Sunset by Churchill’s last private secretary, Anthony Montague Browne; and a critical work on the Anglo-American alliance. He acceded to the first out of admiration for the author, to the second because he felt sorry for the author. “Such an excitable young man, still at heart an undergraduate. I shall have to be very careful to put down my inner prejudices.” But these would have to be his last:
By the end of 1996 I shall have finished all Churchill study. Then I will concentrate on my own reading—literature chiefly, and the Greek and Roman authors (not in the original!). Greek civilisation fascinates me: If denied in this life I hope to become proficient in it in the next. I often think Churchill would have become a great Greek scholar in other circumstances.
Now that he has got to Heaven, Ashley will certainly spend a considerable portion of his first million years studying Greek civilization, and so get to the bottom of the subject.
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I never knew Ashley Redburn to have a healthy year, and he often reminded me he would not be around forever. We presented him with a literary award, and arranged to deliver it to his home. We made a small delegation and visited Ashley and Margaret for tea. “It was such a happy day,” he said. That evening he gave a most eloquent acceptance speech, and was typically dismissive about it. It is available by email if anyone wishes to read it.
In his last letter, Ashley Redburn urged that Churchill scholars continue what he called their vital work: “Keep tilting at the rewriters of history: their books have taught them so little of life. The classroom of Academe is no substitute for the classroom of Life. I wish I could join you in the fray.” He gave so much, to his country and to the memory of her greatest son. He still had more to give. But he was weary, too, and one cannot believe he minded the approaching shadows.
I wrote these words on Eleuthera, a long, high island on the Bahamas outer banks, whose name, from the Greek, means “freedom.” I think he would like that, and apply his favorite word: “How apposite you should write it there.”