You can read about Winston Churchill’s career elsewhere. I’d like rather to indulge in the remembrance of a friend.
We met through the post forty-two years ago, when he became the third honorary member of the Churchill Study Unit, after his grandmother and his father. The latter had only just sent a letter of encouragement to our little group of stamp collectors when he himself died. It was June, 1968. In sending condolences, I asked Winston to take his father’s place. He accepted, adding, “It is consoling to know so many share my loss.”
And for four decades “Young Winston” was a stalwart supporter, friend and a collaborator on projects too numerous to recount. While kidding him that he was fast getting to be the “Not-So-Young Winston,” I felt he was timeless, always there for us: encouraging, prodding, donating, participating. My grief at his loss, far too soon, is deeply felt.
He gave us permission to publish his grandfather’s articles and speeches in Finest Hour. He appeared for speeches and presentations, from conferences to our Churchill Tours of England. He officiated at joint ceremonies like the commissioning of USS Winston S. Churchill, the American Veterans Center, our 2006 Churchill Lecture. When we founded The Churchill Centre in 1995, he was among the first to contribute to its endowment. He freely allowed his signature to be used on solicitations, most recently in a letter asking lapsed members to renew, which, eerily, was received by some after his death.
Like his father, he preferred to communicate by telephone, announcing himself with a cheery “Winston here!” He would call to tell of his adventures, from flying desperate medical missions for St. John Ambulance Air Wing to exploring scenes of his grandfather’s exploits—like the Malakand Pass, where he rode in an armoured car accompanied by soldiers armed to the teeth. Truly, he lived life large. In London and Washington, he knew everybody, just like his mother. As they said of Alistair Cooke: “He could reach back, reach forward, and make the connections. He was always, triumphantly, in touch.”
On one of his trips to New England, when promoting his book of Sir Winston’s writings about America, The Great Republic, we took him to visit Plimoth Plantation. There he accosted an Indian, assuring him they were related, “since my grandfather was part-Iroquois.” Back in the car I let him have it: “Winston, you’re as Iroquois as my cat!” “If you’re so smart,” he said, “prove it. Meanwhile it’s my story and I’m running with it!”
When I first visited him in London, he showed me his personal memorabilia. Here was the peerless Orpen portrait of his sad grandfather after the Dardanelles; an ornamental table once owned by John Churchill First Duke of Marlborough; a collection of WSC’s works, all first editions inscribed by his grandfather. I was a Churchill bookseller at the time, and he wanted to know what I thought of his collection. “Well,” I said, “you’ve made a good start…..”
We had several literary collaborations. When he assembled Never Give In!, his collection of Sir Winston’s best speeches, I was able to dig out some obscure ones he needed, like his grandfather’s remarks in Durban after escaping from the Boers in 1899. His writings appeared in Finest Hour, most recently in recounting the heroic contributions of Poles in World War II, in issue 145. Sir Martin Gilbert read it without realizing who wrote it: “I said to myself, wow,this is really good, I wonder who wrote it (wish it had been me!)”
Our largest “combined operation” was Churchill By Himself, the book I couldn’t have produced without his permission. Winston provided his grandfather’s words, I provided editorial notes. This, I assured him, would be “a production to rival South Pacific: music by W. Churchill, lyrics by R. Langworth.”
There were amusing adventures, like his call for “cigar quotes” for a company producing a new Churchill corona. I supplied the quotes and he asked if I wanted to be paid. “Yes,” I said, “with a box of cigars.” Sniffed Winston: “I don’t touch the dreadful things myself, but there’s no reason you shouldn’t kill yourself if you wish.” The box duly arrived with the price still on it, and I was temporarily elevated to smoking a twenty-five dollar corona, courtesy of my friend in London. (Recently I gave one to a Bahamian pal, its elaborate band sparkling with a red and gilt Churchill coat of arms. He looked as if he’d received a knighthood.)
Political labels are all too freely applied, and some labeled Winston a right-winger, but his views were too complex to be pigeonholed. True, he broke with Mrs. Thatcher by voting against sanctions on Rhodesia; he deplored the skinning-down of Britain’s armed forces; he worried publicly over unrestricted Commonwealth immigration and the muslimization of his country. But he was also pro-Europe; he strove for a more classless society. And last year, when Barack Obama’s Cairo speech was regarded by the right as a surrender, Winston hailed it as a courageous breakthrough in American foreign policy.
It is too easy to compare him to his grandfather and lament that he (or his father) were not equally great. Who was? It is most awfully untrue “that no acorn grows under a mighty oak.” There are just as many progeny of the great who did better than their parents (beginning of course with Sir Winston himself). For every “Randolph” there was a “Winston”—among the Buckleys, the Chamberlains, the Kennedys, the Salisburys, the Roosevelts, the Rothschilds, ad infinitum. It’s simply wrong to imply on this basis that his life was futile. Ultimately, most lives are.
And it is gratuitous to compare him to his female relations, since in those years, women were expected to mind their own business and perpetuate the family. The Churchill women who exceeded those roles did so through their own talent and character. Much more was expected of the Churchill men—more, perhaps, than could be expected of anyone. The onus was upon them both: Randolph, only son of Winston; Winston, only son of Randolph.
Still, with their pens, Winston and his father could reach heights matched by few. Were they great journalists? Read Randolph’s first two volumes on his father; read Winston’s biography of Randolph; read their joint book on the 1967 Arab-Israeli Six-Day War. The question answers itself.
Concerning his grandfather, Finest Hour once quoted Shakespeare’s Malvolio: “Some men are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” Winston was one of those whom some tried to thrust greatness upon. He shook it off by being himself—not what some thought he was obliged to be.
His record was one on which I think he was content to be judged. Having no doubt about the verdict, it seems appropriate to conclude with another quote, by Rossiter Raymond, which adorns the tombstone of Parry Thomas, the great Welsh racing driver: “Life is eternal, and love is immortal, and death is only a horizon; and a horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight.”