Unpunctuality: Churchill Tried and Repeatedly Failed to Cure Himself

Unpunctuality: Churchill Tried and Repeatedly Failed to Cure Himself

Q: Unpunctuality

I have been told that Churchill arrived late for a meet­ing with HM The Queen, express­ing his regret by say­ing, “My sin­cere apolo­gies Madam, I start­ed too late.” But I haven’t found any ref­er­ence to this. Can you help? —A.P.H., England

A: His perennial vice

Churchill had some­what cured his unpunc­tu­al­i­ty in lat­er years, when as prime min­is­ter he com­mand­ed prompt trans­porta­tion. He was not known to be late for Queen Eliz­a­beth II. But his unpunc­tu­al­i­ty was known to have dis­pleased the  Prince of Wales, lat­er Edward VII (1901-10). And here is the source of your sto­ry. Robert Lewis Tay­lor, in Win­ston Churchill: An Infor­mal Study of Great­ness (1952) writes:

unpunctuality
Edward VII (Wiki­me­dia Commons)

As a very young sub­al­tern, he once kept the Prince of Wales and a din­ner par­ty of twelve wait­ing for near­ly an hour. The prince, a grand eater and in the black­est kind of mood, refused to go in until the chancy num­ber of thir­teen was made four­teen by the dila­to­ry guest. When Churchill arrived, he was asked the mean­ing of this unseem­ly breach of good manners.

“Do you have an excuse, young man?” inquired the Prince, before a draw­ing room full of starved nobil­i­ty. “Indeed I have, Sire,” explained the unusu­al boy. “I start­ed too late.”

The only prob­lem here is that he would not like­ly have addressed the Prince of Wales as “Sire” but rather as “Sir” or “Your Roy­al High­ness.” Robert Lewis Tay­lor wrote an illu­mi­nat­ing book with many unique insights, inter­view­ing peo­ple who knew Churchill as far back as the Boer War. But his lack of foot­notes makes track­ing his quo­ta­tions difficult.

“All the qualities with which I am least endowed”

Churchill admit­ted his unpunc­tu­al­i­ty in his auto­bi­og­ra­phy, My Ear­ly Life (1930), Par­tic­u­lar­ly as a young man, he was fre­quent­ly and incur­ably late. He him­self describes the encounter with the Prince of Wales, dat­ing it 1896: “I real­ized that I must be upon my best behav­iour: punc­tu­al, sub­dued, reserved, in short dis­play all the qual­i­ties with which I am least endowed.” Lat­er he added: “I do think unpunc­tu­al­i­ty is a vile habit, and all my life I have tried to break myself of it.”

Churchill nev­er quite suc­ceed­ed in cur­ing him­self. As his wife and chief crit­ic once remarked: “Win­ston is a sport­ing man. He always likes to give the train a chance to get away.”

Clementine Churchill…

was her­self some­times the vic­tim of his unpunc­tu­al­i­ty. Even after he had gov­ern­ment Hum­ber lim­ou­sines at his dis­pos­al, he often failed to allow enough time for road trips. Habit­u­al­ly late, Tay­lor writes, Churchill would typically

pile into the Hum­ber around 5:30 for a 7:00 speech a hun­dred miles dis­tant. As his chauf­feur swings into the high road, Churchill crouch­es, with a flask, on the edge of the back seat and urges him to greater speeds. “But the machine is trav­el­ing at 85 now,” the chauf­feur will protest. “Faster! Whip it up a bit!” comes the answer.

On a cam­paign trip to Wales, Churchill con­versed gar­ru­lous­ly with O’Brien, his PR offi­cer. They passed the brandy back and forth. Churchill urged such reck­less speed that Clemen­tine Churchill cried: “Please let me out. I refuse to con­tin­ue this ride.” With the utmost cour­tesy, Churchill stopped at a coun­try rail­way sta­tion and escort­ed her to the plat­form. Then, ply­ing the brandy bot­tle, he ordered the dri­ver “down the road like a bat out of hell for Cardiff.”

By the time they arrived, what with the brandy and his nerves, O’Brien was done up—out prac­ti­cal­ly cold. Churchill super­vised the lay­ing out of his PRO on a table in the rear of the hall. Then he went ahead and made a rouser of a speech. After­ward, he appeared con­fused about the ori­gin of O’Brien’s trou­ble, and expressed the opin­ion that it was “prob­a­bly some­thing he ate.”

See Churchill By Him­self for more quotes on Churchill’s per­son­al habits.

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