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Jim Ring on Winston Churchill, My Early Life

Growing Up with Winston

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Who remembers Winston Churchill?

Born in 1874, the son of a Chancellor of the Exchequer contemporary with Gladstone and Disraeli, he made his name as a journalist covering the Boer War, became an MP at 26, President of the Board of Trade, Home Secretary, First Lord of the Admiralty, and the scapegoat of the catastrophe at Gallipoli in 1915. He was rehabilitated in his father Lord Randolph’s old post in 1924, but by 1930 – with the Conservatives in Opposition – he was in the wilderness.

There he might well have stayed. On 13 December 1931 when visiting New York, he looked right rather than left crossing Fifth Avenue and was hit by a cab. He nearly died. His autobiographical My Early Life (1929) would have been his epitaph. What a farewell it would have made to one of the nearly men of the twentieth century!

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My youth was the age characterized by the ‘management of decline’, of the Suez fiasco, the collapse of Empire and – most dreaded of all on the early evening news – the Balance of Payments Deficit. The precise meaning of those words eluded me but their implications were transparent. Great Britain was on the wane, en route – had I but known it – to Little Britain.

Churchill, whose story I learned from a BBC TV series, The Valiant Years, the imagery of which I can still remember from fifty years ago, was manna. Here was a British hero (by adoption if not wholly by birth), a giant on whose shoulders I might stand, an antidote to Dean Acheson’s crushing comment: ‘Great Britain has lost an empire and not yet found a role.’ Churchill was a man to
worship, a reminder of our finest hour, a standard around which my nascent identity could coalesce.

My Early Life, which I devoured at this time, tells how he became a politician. It describes his days at Harrow and Sandhurst, as a young cavalry officer in the 4th Hussars in the heyday of Empire, how he made his name as

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Who remembers Winston Churchill?

Born in 1874, the son of a Chancellor of the Exchequer contemporary with Gladstone and Disraeli, he made his name as a journalist covering the Boer War, became an MP at 26, President of the Board of Trade, Home Secretary, First Lord of the Admiralty, and the scapegoat of the catastrophe at Gallipoli in 1915. He was rehabilitated in his father Lord Randolph’s old post in 1924, but by 1930 – with the Conservatives in Opposition – he was in the wilderness. There he might well have stayed. On 13 December 1931 when visiting New York, he looked right rather than left crossing Fifth Avenue and was hit by a cab. He nearly died. His autobiographical My Early Life (1929) would have been his epitaph. What a farewell it would have made to one of the nearly men of the twentieth century!

*

My youth was the age characterized by the ‘management of decline’, of the Suez fiasco, the collapse of Empire and – most dreaded of all on the early evening news – the Balance of Payments Deficit. The precise meaning of those words eluded me but their implications were transparent. Great Britain was on the wane, en route – had I but known it – to Little Britain. Churchill, whose story I learned from a BBC TV series, The Valiant Years, the imagery of which I can still remember from fifty years ago, was manna. Here was a British hero (by adoption if not wholly by birth), a giant on whose shoulders I might stand, an antidote to Dean Acheson’s crushing comment: ‘Great Britain has lost an empire and not yet found a role.’ Churchill was a man to worship, a reminder of our finest hour, a standard around which my nascent identity could coalesce. My Early Life, which I devoured at this time, tells how he became a politician. It describes his days at Harrow and Sandhurst, as a young cavalry officer in the 4th Hussars in the heyday of Empire, how he made his name as a war correspondent, and how as a public speaker he accrued a sufficient fortune to enable him to pursue a political career. (This was in the heady days when it was maintained that MPs should not be paid.) Churchill describes his father’s death and the shaping of his political ambition: ‘All my dreams of comradeship with him, of entering Parliament at his side and in his support, were ended. There remained to me only to pursue his aims and vindicate his memory.’ The book’s climax is Churchill’s election as Member of Parliament for Oldham in 1900, and his maiden speech. It also depicts a vanished age ‘when the structure of our country seemed firmly set, when its position in trade and on the seas was unrivalled, and when the realization of the greatness of our Empire and of our duty to preserve it was even stronger’. Britain was top dog. This was a paradise for someone born into Churchill’s position and for me – reading the book in the wasteland of the south London suburbs ninety years after the great man’s birth – the Kingdom of Cockaigne.
The leading figures of Society were in many cases the leading Statesmen in Parliament, and also the leading Sportsmen of the Turf. Lord Salisbury was accustomed scrupulously to avoid calling a Cabinet when there was racing at Newmarket, and the House of Commons made a practice of adjourning for the Derby.
There was a due respect for leisure. For a young army officer, the military year was divided into a summer season of training and a fivemonth winter season of leave. Within this, ‘Each officer received a solid block of two and a half months repose.’ If the recompense in the Hussars was less than munificent, at least in those days there was no taxation worth mentioning. As to military duties, when the regiment was posted to India, Churchill discovered that though the day’s work in Poona started a little before dawn it was accomplished before noon. The remainder of the day was spent asleep until the cool of the evening. Then it was possible to devote oneself ‘to the serious purpose of life. This was in one word – Polo.’ If he was born into a world of very considerable privilege, educationallyhe hardly excelled. ‘I made very little progress at my lessons, and none at all at games.’ He passed into Sandhurst at his third attempt, supported by a father who thought him insufficiently clever for the Bar. A desire to learn did not appear until virtually the end of his twenty-second year. In July 1899 the electorate of Oldham rejected the proposal that he should sit as their MP. ‘Everyone threwthe blame on me. I have noticed that they always do.’ Yet despite these deficiencies and setbacks, Churchill makes his way in the world: first into his cavalry regiment, then to Cuba to experience the perils of being under fire, then to quell the revolt of the Pathan tribesmen on the North West Frontier, to the Sudan and the glittering choreography of the Battle of Omdurman, then to the Cape and the escapades with the Boers that make his name. Churchill’s armoured train is ambushed by the Dutch settlers and partly derailed. Under fire, he takes control, clears the track and – on the point of leading his men to safety – is captured. He escapes, and a bounty of £25 is offered for ‘anyone who brings the escaped prisoner of war Churchill dead or alive to this office’. Here was a man who created his own opportunities, who made his own luck. Here was Napoleon’s carrière ouverte aux talents. If Churchill could do it, I reasoned rather presumptuously, so could I. We know Churchill principally in the guise of the Second World War leader who, in Ed Murrow’s wonderful phrase, ‘mobilized the English language and sent it into battle’. In My Early Life Churchill presents himself in a much more personal light, not as a statesman but as a child, a schoolboy, a cadet, a subaltern, a war correspondent and a youthful politician. He remarks that he has tried ‘in each part of the quarter century in which the tale lies, to show the point of view appropriate to my years’. Of this ventriloquism Churchill is a master, for if he had not been the greatest statesman of the twentieth century his laurels would have been those of literature. As it was, his principal income throughout his life came from his writings. His accounts of the First and the Second World Wars will be read for their prose long after they have been eclipsed as history: in 1953 he won the Nobel Prize for Literature ‘for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values’. My Early Life, with its changing personas, dazzling set pieces, self-deprecation and wit, is for me and many others the best of the lot. Harold Nicolson called it ‘a beaker of champagne’. I myself cannot read a page without hearing his cadences and the growl of his voice.

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In New York, on 13 December 1931, Churchill survived his meeting with the cab. In contemplating what might have happened if he had not, I have plunged myself reluctantly into the twenty-first century and consulted the Internet. How very ill-informed are contributors to ‘online discussion’! One even goes so far as to say that ‘Churchill’s role in alerting the British to Hitler’s menace and to the state of the UK military has been overstated. His death would have had little or no impact on British politics in the thirties. He was a political nonentity for virtually all that period.’ You and I know perfectly well that if it were not for Churchill I would be signing off this piece Auf Wiedersehen. As it turned out, the best in Churchill’s life was yet to come. My Early Life was not his epitaph but a portrait of the hero as a young man, an inspiration to explore and embrace all that is offered to Youth. ‘Twenty to twenty-five. These are the years! Don’t be content with things as they are. “The earth is yours and the future thereof.” Enter upon your inheritance, accept your responsibilities . . . Don’t take no for an answer. Never submit to failure.’

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 43 © Jim Ring 2014


About the contributor

Jim Ring’s own latest book is Storming the Eagle’s Nest, an account of the Alps under the Swastika.

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