Winston S. Churchill, Vol. I., Youth 1974-1900
Winds of Change
Mr. Randolph. Churchill tells us in his preface that his life of his father is to be filial, objective, and colossal. Filial it clearly is; that it seeks to be objective the present volume gives no reason to doubt; that it is planned as colossal is already all too plain. The present volume, covering Churchill’s life up to the accession of Edward VII (“I am glad he has got his innings at last and am most interested to watch how he plays it”) has more than thirty pages of introductory matter, 528 pages of text, sixteen pages of genealogical tables and a 65-page index “compiled by G. Norman Knight M.A. Chairman of the Society of Indexers” and containing such nuggets as
Payne (Randolph) and Sons (wine merchants), WSC’s bill from (1899), 139
“Peas” (WSC’s little dog), is left behind in rush to get to India (1897) 334
Pianoforte, WSC wants to learn to play (1886), 75
Picquet, WSC plays at (1896), 280
Polo, WSC’s keenness on: at Sandhurst, 200, 203, 293-4; in 4th Hussars, see Inter-Regimental, Hurlingham and Meerut; even with arm strapped to body, 283, 295, 415, 432; his last game (1927); 295 Polo ponies, 293, cost of (1895), 247; Lady Randolph advises WSC to sell his racing pony and buy (1896), 297-8; WSC argues on limiting their height (1899), 417
Polo tournaments: Secunderabad (1896), 285, 294; Inter-Regimental cup (India), see Inter-regimental and Meerut.
(One is tempted to add: “Biography, WSC’s son plays at, Passim.”)
Those who feel that this method is excessively summary and lacking in detail need not panic: There is to be at least one Companion Volume to this volume (and to the succeeding volumes) containing “the body of relevant original unpublished documents and letters” as well as “fuller details of the subordinate characters” (Payne? Peas?). How many volumes there are to be in all Mr. Randolph Churchill in his preface does not tell us; according to the dust jacket there are to be in all five long volumes of text and at least five Companion Volumes of documents. Judging by the scale of the present volume and allowance made for the somewhat more momentous character of events to be narrated in later volumes, even this may prove to be an under-estimate. This is a harmless, a pious, but surely an absured enterprise. Mr. Randolph Churchill has shown no capacity for intelligent selectivity in his handling of data or documents, and no narrative power of his own; his dogged prose simply serves to link one copious excerpt with another; his few personal interventions are embarrassing (“naturally being silly billies they know nothing of the traditions of the British Army…”); and he is solemnly preoccupied with such problems as the discrepancy between Churchill’s recollection (in My Early Life) and the contemporary account (in Pioneer Mail) of what happened in the seventh chukka at the Inter-Regimental Tournament of 1899 in Meerut (pp. 414-417). One sometimes feels that RSC is persuaded that there is a magical significance and value in every detail of WSC’s life, and that the fact that Mr. Murray Guthrie, who in 1899 briefly interested Churchill in an abortive scheme to record the South African war on a biograph machine, was “a distant connection by his marriage to the sister-in-law of Churchill’s aunt Leonie Leslie” puts “the newly elected member for Bow and Bromley (where he had defeated George Lansbury)” in such a mystical relation to the events of 1940 as to make it indispensable to record these facts about him.
If Mr. Randolph Churchill could write like Proust, such an obsession could actually enrich his book; as it is, it simply interferes with the reader’s view of such material of real interest as the book contains, in WSC’s own letters, and those of his mother and father. These tell—and could tell briefly—a remarkable story of a triumph of character and constitution over environment. Churchill’s mother was cold, negligent, and irresponsible in her relation to her son; his father was nagging, petulant, contemptuous in his attitude towards him; the preparatory school to which he was sent was run—if we can rely on Roger Fry’s account of it—by a sadistic maniac. All this sounds as if it should be the tale of the formative years of a neurotic failure. Yet Churchill remains buoyant and generous as his letters show: undauntedly affectionate to his mother, respectful to his father, yet standing up for himself, standing up also for his old nurse when he sees that the family is treating her shabbily; ambitious, brave, and frankly making his bravery serve his ambition: “Thence hot-foot to Egypt—to return with two more decorations in a year or two—and beat my sword into an iron despatch box.” He rode his gray pony along the skirmishing line (on an Indian expedition) in order to be noticed, and he was noticed; by some with disfavor, which did not worry him. He became member for Oldham at the age of twenty-five, and the end of the present volume. A biographer would have got him there in about 150 pages, but Mr. Randolph Churchill’s work is not so much a biography as the accumulation of mountains of biographic detail for the purposes of a cult.
“GOD,” according to a Liberal thinker, “created Harold Macmillan and Harold Wilson in order to confirm the ordinary Englishman in his distrust of intelligence.” At first glance there seems nothing in Winds of Change to confirm this judgment. The prologue finds the author strolling amiably in a garden of platitudes and content with a few well-tried and comprehensive adjectives: “The vast changes wrought by the development of science and technology have permeated every aspect of life…. Russia with its vast population and huge potential…. Europe with its vast inflation of money and its huge debts.” Not, one would think, the writing of a man reputed to be too clever by half. Rather, the picture the prose builds up is that of a typical, shy, inarticulate Englishman doing his decent, unambitious best in a cruel and perplexing world. On closer scrutiny this picture seems not altogether satisfactory. The first small shock comes early, in the Prologue: “In the election of 1924, the episode of the Zinoviev Letter, revealing the subversive activities of Russian propaganda in Britain, proved embarrassing to the Labour Party and of corresponding benefit to the Conservatives” (p. 13). Can this dear old gentleman really be so simple as still to assume the “Zinoviev Letter” to be genuine? Not quite, we find, if we “see,” as we are bidden, p. 152: “Whether the letter was genuine or a fake we shall perhaps never know.” Thus Mr. Macmillan can call a document “revealing,” while professing uncertainty as to whether it is genuine or a fake. This recalls Ezra Pound’s claim that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion—“whoever wrote ‘em”—prove the intentions of the Jews. The point is of course that “whether the letter is genuine or a fake,” it put Labour out and the Tories in and that is what concerns Mr. Macmillan.
The foreigner, having once discovered that the Briton is not such a fool as he looks, is then notoriously predisposed to exaggerate his Machiavellianism, finding deep-laid plots in simple blunders. In the case of Mr. Macmillan, who nods rather more often than Homer, it is particularly hard to know when he has genuinely dozed off and when he is just playing possum. Thus, the Macmillan non sequitur is usually, but not, it seems, quite always unplanned. This fine specimen is certainly spontaneous:
This meant that I was not brought into contact with Austen Chamberlain. He was nevertheless a great House of Commons figure.
The reader of Winds of Change becomes accustomed to this form of progression, and looks forward to it as to the next swoop of the toboggan: “The most powerful criticism she [his mother] could make of any argument was that it was ‘Jesuitical.’ We were, however, members of the Church of England”…”he used to drive a primitive kind of motor-car, while we still had only a dog-cart or a pony and trap. It was operated by steam, and used frequently to burst into flames.” These flowers of speech grow wild. But how about this one?
It transpired later that this extraordinary man [Hitler] not only had a programme but intended to carry it out scrupulously and even go beyond it. The Parliamentarians of the West were first incredulous and then indignant.
From any other pen these sentences would suggest a cynicism bordering on nihilism. But from the proprietor of the steam-operated pony and trap? The clumsiness of expression, which seems natural to Mr. Macmillan, can also serve him well. Thus, his references to Sir Anthony Eden seem well-meant, even admiring, but are in fact lethally damaging, as if truths which the author was too loyal—or not clever enough—to see plainly, kept forcing themselves through. Thus, take the description of an occasion of which Mr. Macmillan says “I remember feeling a deep sympathy with Eden”: Tuesday, 10 December, 1935, the day on which Eden, then Lord Privy Seal and Minister for League of Nations Affairs, had to answer questions in Parliament about the Hoare-Laval agreement, under which Abyssinia was abandoned to Mussolini. Eden on this occasion, says Mr. Macmillan, spoke “with great good humor and perfect self-possession”:
He emphasized that the proposals did not necessarily represent the point of view of either the British or the French Governments, but were merely suggestions which might be helpful. He thus did his best to play down the whole affair. Looking back upon it, and knowing now the difficulties under which he labored, it was an admirable performance. For in addition to the implications of the proposals themselves, which amounted to a complete sell-out to the aggressor, Laval was insisting that they should be communicated to Mussolini but not to the Emperor of Abyssinia. In other words, the criminal should be informed but not the victim.
An admirable performance indeed, by Mr. Macmillan.
EDEN, SHORTLY AFTERWARDS, succeeded Hoare as Foreign Secretary: He resigned on 14 February, 1938. Mr. Macmillan pays him characteristic tribute:
He was known to possess that combination of idealism and realism on which alone a successful foreign policy can be based. At the same time it was not at all easy to understand exactly why he had resigned…. The truth is that it was impossible, or at any rate it would have done great injury to Britain’s interests, for Eden to reveal the whole story. He could say nothing about the Roosevelt initiative…. He could say nothing of the slow pace of rearmament about which he had repeatedly complained and his solemn warning to Cabinet on this vital question. Nor could he reveal all the indignities to which he had been subjected…. [His resignation speech] was dignified and impressive, but still left Members somewhat uncertain as to what all the row was about. The speech of his Under-Secretary Lord Cranborne [now Lord Salisbury] who resigned at the same time was more pungent. Nevertheless some Members. were even disposed to credit the rumours that were freely circulating that Eden was suffering from a nervous breakdown…. I did not believe a word of it, in spite of the talk in the Press and the lobbies.
(There was similar talk, nearly twenty years later when, after Suez, Eden resigned on “health grounds” and Mr. Macmillan succeeded him as Prime Minister.) Mr. Macmillan had hitherto been best known, as Conservative M.P. for Stockton, for his creditably Keynesian stand on economic questions: as he says, he was “more ‘with it’ as the phrase now is” than his orthodox critics. With Eden’s resignation he came into greater prominence. He abstained on the Opposition vote of censure. Thereafter, as he tells us, two dissident Conservative groups took shape: one, “the old Guard” of Churchill and four or five devoted supporters: the other, “the Eden Group—or the ‘Glamour Boys’—numbering perhaps twenty in all.” Mr. Macmillan attached himself to the Eden Group “but also kept in close contact with Churchill and acted in a sense as a link between the two bodies.” It was a strong position: when Churchill formed a government, Macmillan was in it. His reference—in his Prologue—to this emergence is one of the few occasions on which he allows his mask, or his muffler, to slip:
Some years later, at the end of a tiring day, Churchill kept me up late in desultory conversation, largely consisting of denunciation of Hitler. I suppose I showed lack of interest and a desire to go to bed. “What’s the matter with you,” he demanded, “do you approve of Hitler?” “No, Prime Minister,” I replied, “but at any rate you and I owe him something. He made you Prime Minister and me an Under-Secretary. No power on earth, except Hitler, could have done either.” I thought he would explode with rage; but after a moment or two, that wonderful smile we all so loved came over his face. “Well,” he admitted, “there’s something in that.”
To succeed, one must, according to Balzac’s Vautrin, “go through the crowd like a cannon-ball, or creep into it like a plague.” The first alternative is Churchill’s style; the second is a hyperbolic description of Mr. Macmillan’s method. He is not fatal but he is infectious, like English humor or the common cold. It is hard not to like him, especially if one does not know him. Among the English, the protective coloration of this half-Highlander, half-American is a wonderful work of God, Eton, and Balliol, in that order, with the ducal household into which he married as a finishing school. Of Chatsworth he relates: “No house is better fitted for roller-skating. The whole course is good with particularly fast going on the stone floor of the Statue Gallery….” Fast going, indeed. And then the superb gall of this, on Lord Runciman: “Like many rich liberals of middle-class origins and dissenting connections, he had a curious penchant towards the aristocracy.”
Certainly the straightest thing about Harold Macmillan is his face.
The thought of the coming Volumes in the Great Life of Churchill evokes merely a sense of time and resignation:
The years like great black oxen tread the world
And God the herdsman goads them on behind
And I am broken by their passing feet.
Mr. Macmillan’s next volume, on the other hand, will be awaited with real impatience by those who have learned from his first to savor the unique delights of his prose, to watch for the sudden passage, through the bland jungle of platitudes, of some grotesque inconsequence, and within its shadow the light and camouflaged lizard of intelligence:
Eyes stared out of the branches and were gone.
Profumo should be good.