The Real Churchill’s London (1)

The Real Churchill’s London (1)

Lon­don: The Evening Stan­dard intrigu­ing­ly offers an arti­cle on Churchill’s “favourite spots in the cap­i­tal.” In “The Lon­don Life of Win­ston Churchill” (16 June 2016), read­ers are invit­ed: “Browse the gallery above to find Churchill’s favourite Lon­don spots.”

The accom­pa­ny­ing gallery, alas, offers only a bot­tle of Pol Roger cham­pagne, the Nation­al Lib­er­al Club, a box of Romeo y Juli­eta cig­ars, a restau­rant with a Churchill bar, Pax­ton & Whitfield’s cheese shop, Austin Reed’s menswear, and Brown’s Hotel. (“I don’t stay in hotels, I stay in Brown’s,” they claim he said. The remark is not locat­ed in his pub­lished books, arti­cles, speech­es and documents.)

With the excep­tion of the Nation­al Lib­er­al Club (see below), this assort­ment would more apt­ly be enti­tled “Churchill’s house­hold staff’s favourite shop­ping places.”

Hap­pi­ly, how­ev­er, the real Churchill’s Lon­don, “Spin­ning Top of Mem­o­ries,” was described in 1985 by his offi­cial biog­ra­ph­er, the late Sir Mar­tin Gilbert. The text is online, post­ed by The Churchill Cen­tre. Here you may read “of Ungrand Places and Moments in Time.” These are the spots that fig­ure cru­cial­ly in the Churchill story.

It was the first Gilbert speech I’d heard, and I lis­tened mes­mer­ized, at both the intrigue of the sto­ry and the great biographer’s com­mand of facts. Here is the briefest review—which I hope will send you in search of the full text. Bet­ter yet, seek out the illus­trat­ed paper­back pub­lished at the time, on either Ama­zon or The places are still there. Some now have blue his­tor­i­cal plaques, which were not affixed at the time.

12 Bolton Street, London

His first bach­e­lor flat was fur­nished in part by his friend and men­tor, Sir Ernest Cas­sel—a fact which would lat­er get Churchill into trou­ble. After the Bat­tle of Jut­land, he was accused of mak­ing false state­ments about the result to enrich his Jew­ish bene­fac­tor, Cas­sel. It was all non­sense, of course. Churchill dis­pensed with it quick­ly. But the way he han­dled his accuser, Lord Alfred Dou­glas, and lat­er for­gave him on the out­break of World War II, tell us much about Churchill’s magnanimity.

London Magazine, Hyde Park

LondonRecent­ly refur­bished as an up-mar­ket restau­rant, this unas­sum­ing build­ing near the Ser­pen­tine fig­ured large in the Churchill saga. Sir Mar­tin explained that in 1911, when war threat­ened with Ger­many over the Agadir Cri­sis, this was the muni­tions mag­a­zine for the defense of Lon­don. “In his mind’s eye—and this was one of his great attributes—Churchill had imme­di­ate­ly con­jured up…the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a small group of Ger­mans, pos­si­bly Ger­man agents in Lon­don, seiz­ing this mag­a­zine, and destroy­ing it,” Sir Mar­tin told us. Churchill’s deter­mined action in see­ing it safe­ly guard­ed was a key fac­tor in con­vinc­ing Prime Min­is­ter H.H. Asquith to give Churchill a fight­ing department—the Admiralty—which he head­ed from 1911 to 1915.

Ho Chi Minh’s Veggies

“My dear David, these are won­der­ful string beans. Let us hire the cook.”

New Zealand House, the mod­ern build­ing at the bot­tom of Hay­mar­ket, is just a stand-in for the for­mer Carl­ton Hotel—about which Sir Mar­tin had an amaz­ing tale. On one of the nights before World War I was declared, in August 1914, Churchill and Lloyd George dined here. And one of the cooks, or one of the wait­ers (accounts vary) was Ho Chi Minh!

“Yes,” Sir Mar­tin explained, “Ho Chi Minh had been in Lon­don as a veg­etable cook on the out­break of war, when he had gone to the French Embassy in Lon­don to vol­un­teer his ser­vices to fight, as a patri­ot­ic Indo-Chi­na­man (as they were then called). He was turned down, crossed the Chan­nel to Paris, and began his career of dis­gruntle­ment and revolution.”

I recent­ly explored the like­ly dates of the Churchill-Lloyd George din­ner at the Carl­ton Hotel. (It is unlike­ly to have been the night war was declared, August 4th; more like­ly the 2nd or 3rd.) I tracked Ho’s activ­i­ties at the time. The details are in Finest Hour 161, which can be down­loaded as a pdf (page 41).

Sir Mar­tin Gilbert nev­er much cared to indulge in the “what ifs” of his­to­ry, but I had a smile out of him with this one.  Sup­pose on that fate­ful night, Churchill had said to Lloyd George, “My dear David, these are the best string beans I’ve ever tast­ed. We must find and hire the cook and make him our chef for the rest of his career.” Would his­to­ry have been different?

Admiralty House

Its ulti­mate usage is uncer­tain nowa­days, but the great build­ing is still there, and fea­tures large in the saga. “Not only did Churchill write his great speech­es of the ear­ly months of the First World War there, but also the first great speech­es of the Sec­ond,” Sir Mar­tin explained. “‘Fight on the beach­es’ was writ­ten in Admi­ral­ty House because, being a kind-heart­ed man under­neath the gruff exte­ri­or, Churchill did not want to dis­lodge the sick and dying Neville Cham­ber­lain pre­cip­i­tate­ly from 10 Down­ing Street.”

At the Admi­ral­ty, Gilbert con­tin­ued, Churchill arranged some of the oak pan­el­ing to swiv­el open, dis­play­ing maps of all the oceans and the loca­tions of all British ships. “The idea was that if some­one came through the room, a well-mean­ing young naval offi­cer, or, dare one imag­ine it, a politi­cian, he could shut the pan­el and the naval dis­po­si­tions would be hid­den from view.” Near­ly a quar­ter cen­tu­ry lat­er, in Sep­tem­ber 1939, he returned to the Admi­ral­ty. He strode into the room. “He went up to the pan­el­ing and pulled it open. And there, exposed to view after twen­ty-four years, was the last of his dis­po­si­tion maps, still bear­ing the fleet dis­po­si­tions in May 1915.”

Charing Cross Hotel, London

The Char­ing Cross Hotel; known to few, it played a dis­as­trous role in the Churchill story.

It’s a four-star Amba hotel now, but a cen­tu­ry ago it was a down-at- the-heels place to which few would pay atten­tion. Yet this was where Churchill’s First Sea Lord, Admi­ral Lord Fish­er, holed up when he dis­ap­peared from the Admi­ral­ty in May 1915. Fish­er was log­ger­heads with Churchill over the Gal­lipoli cam­paign. His abrupt res­ig­na­tion caused the cri­sis that would dis­miss Churchill from the Admiralty.

Ordered to return to duty “in the King’s name,” Fish­er was nowhere to be found. Secret­ly, he had holed up at the Char­ing Cross Hotel, with close rail access to the south-of-Eng­land home of his lady friend, the Duchess of Hamil­ton. Sir Mar­tin Gilbert explained: “Churchill, who was a shrewd per­son, many years lat­er met the Duchess and told her: ‘If only I had known about your friend­ship with Fish­er then, I would have gone to see you. You were the only one who could have per­suad­ed him to go back to the Admi­ral­ty.’ So have a look at this hotel, which was in a way so dis­as­trous to Churchill’s fortunes.”

Con­tin­ued in part 2…

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