Churchill’s Dream August 27, 2010Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Modern , trackback
Beachcombing wanted to offer today an obscure bit of Churchilliana, ‘The Dream’, that, incredibly, has never been published on the internet. Whether or not it is the best thing that Churchill ever wrote is to be doubted: but it is certainly the most bizarre and perhaps the most interesting for the historian and those, like Beachcombing, who believe the twentieth century was all one God-awful mistake. We’ll let Churchill take up the story in November 1947, two years after he had been ejected from office in the British wartime general election.
One foggy afternoon… I was painting in my studio at the cottage down the hill at Chartwell. Someone had sent me a portrait of my father which had been painted for one of the Belfast Conservative Clubs about the time of his visit to Ulster in the Home Rule crisis of 1886. The canvas had been badly torn and though I am very shy of painting human faces I thought I would try to make a copy of it… I was just trying to give the twirl to his moustache when I suddenly felt an odd sensation. I turned around with my palette in my hand, and there, sitting in my red leather upright armchair, was my father. He looked just as I had seen him in his prime, and as I had read about him in his brief years of triumph. He was small and slim, with the big moustache I was just painting, and all his bright, captivating, jaunty air. His eyes twinkled and shone. He was evidently in the best of tempers. He was engaged in filling his amber cigarette-holder with a little pad of cotton wool before putting in the cigarette. This was in order to stop the nicotine, which used to be thought deleterious [!]. He was so exactly like my memories of him in his most charming moods that I could hardly believe my eyes. I felt no alarm, but I thought I would stand where I was and go no nearer.
So Winston Churchill has strayed into a hallucinogenic vision or fallen into a cat nap of old age to be confronted by his father, Randolph Churchill who had died fifty years before. Now Winston Churchill was a nineteenth-century relict who had accidentally made it into the twentieth century. But Randolph (1845-1895) was the quintessential nineteenth-century Tory. He died before his time – to the relief of half the country and much of the Conservative party – a victim of syphilis, probably contracted the night before his wedding. Hearing the two of them speak about recent history is like hearing two witty knights discuss the advent of gunpowder.
‘Tell me’, [Randolph] asked, ‘what year is it?’
‘Nineteen forty-seven’. [Winston]
‘Of the Christian era, I presume.’
‘Yes, that all goes on. At least, they still count that way.’
‘I don’t remember anything after ninety-four. I was very confused that year… So more than fifty years have passed. A lot must have happened.’
And a lot had happened, of course. Not only this but Winston is in an extraordinary position to explain things. After all, he had been active in British politics for almost fifty years and a war-time prime-minister. Winston, in fact, uses the exercise to make some rather petty point-scoring against his enemies – British labour party though respectable is stupid etc – and in-jokes that barely resonate today – e.g. the rebuilding of the Carlton Club, which had been destroyed in the Blitz. But his description of the world-wars and the Cold War make for fascinating and chilling reading, a reminder of how different 1940 was from safe 1890 when the worst western European conflicts were border skirmishes somewhere below the equator. Humanity had certainly come a long way from the Battle of Omdurman in 1898 when the young Winston Churchill charged with his sabre for the Empire.
[Randolph] ‘But tell me more about these other wars.’
[Winston]‘They were the wars of the nations, caused by demagogues and tyrants.’
‘Did we win?’
‘Yes, we won all our wars. All our enemies were beaten down. We even made them surrender unconditionally.’
‘No one should be made to do that. Great people forget sufferings, but not humiliations.’
‘Well, that was the way it happened, Papa.’…
But he remained sunk in gloom, and huddled back in the chair. Presently: ‘About these wars, the ones after the Boer War, I mean. What happened to the great States of Europe? Is Russia still the danger?’
‘We are all very worried about her.’
‘We always were in my day, and in Dizzy’s [Disraeli] before me. Is there still a Tsar?’
‘Yes, but he is not a Romanoff. It’s another family. He is much more powerful and much more despotic.’ [The reference, of course, is to Stalin]
‘What of Germany? What of France?’
‘They are both shattered. Their only hope is to rise together.’
‘I remember,’ he said, ‘taking you through the Place de la Concorde when you were only nine years old, and you asked me about the Strasbourg monument. You wanted to know why this one as covered in flowers and crape. I told you about the lost provinces of France. What flag flies in Strasbourg now?’
‘The Tricolour flies there.’
‘Ah, so they won. They had their revanche. That must have been a great triumph for them.’
‘It cost them their life blood’, I said.
‘But wars like these must have cost a million lives. They must have been as bloody as the American Civil War.’
‘Papa,’ I said, ‘in each of them about thirty million men were killed in battle. In the last one seven million were murdered in cold blood, mainly by the Germans. They made human slaughter-pens like the Chicago stockyards. Europe is a ruin. Many of her cities have been blown to pieces by bombs. Ten capitals in Eastern Europe are in Russian hands. They are Communists now, you know – Karl Marx and all that. It may well be that an even worse war is drawing near. A war of the East against the West. A war of liberal civilisation against the Mongol hordes. Far gone are the days of Queen Victoria and a settled world order. But, having gone through so much, we do not despair.’
‘Life blood…’, ‘thirty million men were killed in battle…’, ‘human slaughter pens…’, ‘ten capitals…’. This last paragraph is as good a summary of the first half of the twentieth century as any Beachcombing knows. We often celebrate ‘the greatest generation’, but Beachcombing, at least, too easily forgets what a mess their parents had made of things. The general melancholy is then added to by the fact that Churchill’s father (in life and in the dream) did not rate him – not having lived to see Winston’s first successes. And the dream ends with his father’s suggestion that his son should have gone into politics rather than journalism. Dreams being dreams his father vanishes before Winston can put him right.
Beachcombing has a growing collection of important dreams, historical dreams and dreams that changed history: he would always be interested in more… drbeachcombingATyahooDOTcom