Talks and Reflections by Brian Boobbyer

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'Speaking for Themselves' - The Churchills

Clementine and Winston Churchill
(photo: Churchill Archives Centre, Cambridge)

(Extracts from Mary Soames (ed.) Speaking for Themselves: the personal letters of Winston and Clementine Churchill (Doubleday, 1998))

Winston Churchill became Prime Minister in 1940 at the age of 66, having entered public life at the turn of the century. How did he maintain his vigour?

One of my favourite books has been his autobiography, My Early Life, published in 1930. He wrote: 'I passed out of Sandhurst into the world. It opened like Aladdin's cave. When I look back upon those years I cannot but return my sincere thanks to the high Gods for the gift of existence.' And he appeals to young readers in these words: 'You must take your place in life's fighting line. Don't take "No" for an answer. Never submit to failure. Don't be fobbed off with mere personal success or acceptance. You will make all kinds of mistakes, but as long as you are generous and true and also fierce you cannot hurt the world or even seriously distress her. She was made to be wooed and won by youth. She has lived and thrived only by repeated subjugations.'

The language may be old-fashioned, but the sense that nothing is impossible is clear and has to be re-expressed in every age. The letters between Winston and Clementine Churchill continue and complete the story through 57 years of marriage - 1908-1965. The sheer zest for life, resilience and affection flow through these years, and Clementine shares them.

Here is the story of a marriage that works, of politics that is not sordid, of faith that is definite but not obtrusive. It is also a cameo of modern history, easily told and easy to follow.

The book, edited by their daughter, Mary Soames, is entitled Speaking for Themselves. I cannot do better than let them do that.

'Clementine was not a good arguer. She quickly became vehement and over-emphatic, often spoiling her case by exaggeration. Winston, under such fire, presented a defensive obstinacy, which further exasperated her, but rarely did the sun go down on their anger.' (Mary Soames)

Clementine: 'When I get excited and cross I always say more than I feel instead of less. There are never any dregs left behind.... The only times when I feel a little low is when the breaks in the bustling existence are few and far between.... I am a very greedy cat and like a great deal of cream.'

Both of them had bouts of depression. Winston called his depression 'black dog'.

'Winston always wanted Clementine to "be there". But his self-centredness, combined with his total commitment to politics, did not make him very companionable.' (Mary Soames)

Winston: 'At times I think I could conquer everything but then again I am only a weak and vain fool.'

He quoted from the Book of Revelation in a letter to Clementine: 'He that overcometh shall inherit all things, and I will be his God, and he shall be my son.'

Winston - from the trenches, 1916: 'I can't help feeling the lack of scope for my thought and will-power. I see so much that ought to be done, that could easily be done, that will never be done, or half done. And I can't help longing for the power to give those wide directions which occupied my Admiralty days.'

Clementine: 'I have dispatched all letters you sent me to forward (from the trenches), with the exception of the one for Lord Northcliffe (the newspaper proprietor), which I earnestly beg you not to ask me to post but to destroy....

'We are still young but time flies, stealing love away and leaving only friendship, which is very peaceful, but not very stimulating and warming....

'I have no originality or brilliancy but I feel within me the power to help you now, if you will let me. Just because I am ordinary and love you, I know what is right for you and good for you in the end.'

Winston at 60: 'I've altered my method of speaking, under Randolph's tuition (their son), and now talk to the House of Commons with garrulous unpremeditated flow. What a mystery the art of public speaking is. It consists, in my judgement, of selecting three or four sound arguments, and putting them in the most conversational way possible.'

'When Clementine was ill with mastoid, Winston spent much time with her and read to her passages from the Psalms.' (Mary Soames)

Clementine: 'The temper and behaviour you describe in Lord Beaverbrook is caused, I think, by the prospect of a new personality, equal perhaps in power to him and certainly in intellect.' Beaverbrook was in Churchill's war cabinet.

'Chartwell (house and gardens) has on her bridal dress. She is a lovely, untidy bride.'

Winston described Yalta as the 'worst possible place in the world for a meeting'. The conference was held there in the Crimea in January 1945 because 'Stalin's doctors forbade him to leave Russia'. Remembering that Churchill was 71 and in shaky health and that Roosevelt was ailing and dying, you understand something of why the conference was so difficult, and the fate of Eastern Europe was disastrously sealed.

When Winston entered the world of horse-racing, he had 70 winners, and when he gambled at Monte Carlo, he received no encouragement from Clementine.

In a speech at Margate in 1953 Winston welcomed Germany 'back among the great powers of the world'.

Winston (to Clementine): 'How little can I express my gratitude to you for making my life and any work I've done possible and giving me so much happiness in a world of accident and storm.'

'Clementine could be immensely touchy and difficult, especially with arthritis, and Winston could be maddening and behave like a spoilt child.' (Mary Soames)

'When Clementine wanted to make a point with Winston she often committed her arguments to paper, even if they might be under the same roof.' (Mary Soames)

Likewise, Winston might leave a note under her door. For instance: 'I am so sorry that I was wayward at dinner. My heart was full of love, but my thoughts were wayward.'

'It was the love between them which quickly kindled and took deep root that was the key to their enduring and heroic partnership.' (Mary Soames)

All in all, a very appealing book by two very human beings, edited with such fairness by Mary Soames that there is no false adulation.

But greatness emerges.

And the Churchills were not afraid of greatness.

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