Humid Fidelity

Peter Bradshaw

  • Speaking for Themselves: The Personal Letters of Winston and Clementine Churchill edited by Mary Soames
    Black Swan, 702 pp, £15.00, August 1999, ISBN 0 552 99750 1

My favourite moment in Martin Gilbert’s Life of Churchill is when the Prime Minister is touring the ruins of Hitler’s Chancellery in 1945:

In the square in front of the building a crowd of Germans had gathered. Except for one old man who ‘shook his head disapprovingly’, Churchill later recalled, ‘they all began to cheer. My hate had died with their surrender and I was much moved by their demonstrations, and also by their haggard looks and threadbare clothes.’

Winston had been cheered by pinched civilians in the streets of London on VE Day; he had been cheered by traumatised Tommies at the Western Front in 1918; now here he was being cheered by starving Germans in the midst of Berlin’s shattered masonry. Could any Hollywood producer, possibly recreate the emotion of this bizarre, extraordinary moment, including that single, frowning, head-shaking old man, a devastating vérité touch? Two years later, Churchill, now out of power, is livid at the subjugation of Czechoslovakia and other nations to Soviet tyranny. Ambassador Lew Douglas reports to Washington that Churchill ‘believes that now is the time, promptly, to tell the Soviets that if they do not retire from Berlin and abandon Eastern Germany, we will raze their cities’ – after which, presumably, he would make a personal appearance in each place and be cheered to the echo.

A warm tone of ovation sounds throughout Mary Soames’s stately, proprietorial edition of her parents’ correspondence – the authoritative ties of blood are stressed emphatically on the cover. It is a remarkable manuscript archive, used extensively by Gilbert, but only now available to us in unmediated, if abridged form, tracing their relationship from the shy missives they exchanged as courting young lovers under the same roof at Blenheim Palace in the summer of 1908 to the typed or quavering handwritten notes of 1963 at Number 28, Hyde Park Gate.

Maintaining their nicknames ‘pig’ (originally ‘pug’) and ‘kat’ throughout, with the occasional little squiggly sketch of a pig (or dog) or a cat next to a signature, the Churchills develop their strange and moving epistolary intimacy, against the backdrop of modern British and European history. In her introduction, Soames suggests that the ‘most striking characteristic of this correspondence is its spontaneity and naturalness: these letters were written for each other’s eyes alone, with no thought of a curious posterity looking over their shoulders.’ Not a single thought? Well, perhaps not, though this growing cache of letters must have been kept with enormous care and it is likely that such a prolific writer and journalist as Churchill had somewhere at the back of his mind the idea that they, like Cecily’s diaries in The Importance of Being Earnest, must eventually be published.

Soames uses the sheer amplitude of the correspondence to attest to the closeness of her parents’ relationship. They would write to each other every day, when Winston was abroad, or at the Front, or on Cabinet business or taking in the restorative air of the Riviera – and also when Clementine was abroad, or with her troubled family, or on a bien pensant excursion to investigate the living conditions in the Solomon Islands, or taking in the restorative air of the Riviera. Even when together, they would type memoranda to each other, in beautifully clear sentences.

But does this correspondence not paradoxically indicate a profound division between them? Maybe it is not surprising that at the most important moments in Winston’s life – in 1940, in 1945 – they were apart, but they were apart on so very many other occasions, too. One reason that they blandly give each other for this happy and companionable estrangement is Clemmie’s health, a subject which most often arises in businesslike discussions about where she should go to regain it (self-pity is utterly alien to her, though not entirely to Winston). The reader gets an impression of Clementine’s tendency to indisposition, owing largely to her confinements. But then here is a letter she wrote to Winston in 1913.

I had such a lovely hunt this morning – We went out very early cubbing – nothing happened for a long time. Several cubs were killed just outside the coverts – about 11 o’clock Venetia [Stanley] – I were just going home when the hounds got away after a big cub (I believe it was an old fox!) – we had a glorious run for about half an hour.

She is always going away to recover from a series of ailments, including tonsillitis, bronchitis, lumbago and blood poisoning, and her letters from Winston are full of tender solicitude, and requests not to strain herself with her sporting interests, which (apart from riding to hounds) included skiing, golf and tennis mixed doubles.

All records of their domestic arrangements show them to have had very different habits. They had separate bedrooms; they breakfasted separately. Clementine was an early riser and liked to retire early; Winston liked to be up until the small hours every night, often in the company of people that Clementine did not like, and he did a lot of his morning work in bed. So writing each other letters, even while in the same house, was in some sense the accommodation they made with each other, and although to an outsider it may look strange, it is not the same as having an unhappy marriage.

In any event, Winston, unlike many of his contemporaries – Duff Cooper, Oswald Mosley – seems not to have strayed. Nor did he pursue anything similar to the ambiguous amitié amoureuse of Herbert Asquith and Venetia Stanley. Clementine, however, in 1935, while on a Pacific cruise, had a platonic affair with Terence Philip, a worldly and handsome art dealer, which Mary Soames frankly recounts in one of her editorial interventions, but to which there is no reference in the letters.

‘Don’t be disloyal to me in thought,’ writes Churchill to Clementine from HMS Enchantress in 1913, his adored floating office while at the Admiralty, ‘I have no one but you to break the loneliness of a bustling – bustled existence.’ A humid fidelity in thought, in fact, permeates the letters, despite the many glancing references to tantrums, rows and spats that have happened off-stage, and which the letters do not rake up again – indeed they were often intended to have an emollient effect. The gaily passionate salutations at the beginning of each letter – ‘my darling Winston’, ‘beloved Clemmie’, ‘my darling one’ – are more expressive for seeming to be sung at each other from afar, like Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald.

Here is Winston’s stern note in 1926, instructing Clementine in a new economy drive at Chartwell, his (ruinously expensive) country retreat:

a. No more champagne is to be bought. Unless special directions are given, only the white or red wine, or whisky and soda will be offered at luncheon, or dinner. The Wine Book to be shown to me every week. No more port is to be opened without special instructions.

b. Cigars must be reduced to four a day. None should be put on the table; but only produced out of my case. It is quite usual to offer only cigarettes.

c. No fruit should be ordered through the household account; but only bought and paid for by you and me on special occasions.

d. No cream unless specially sanctioned.

e. When alone we do not need fish. Two courses and a sweet should suffice for dinner and one for luncheon ...

The fact that we are making these economies should make it possible to enforce a stricter regime in the Servants’ Hall.

How different from the home life of Tony and Cherie. An editorial interpolation from Soames makes it clear that these plans were ignored, and the impossibly ascetic cigar-limit of four a day was never seriously attempted. Indeed, a letter from a few years before gives a clearer idea of Churchill’s settled habits while at Chartwell, or anywhere else. ‘I drink champagne at all meals,’ he wrote, ‘and buckets of claret – soda in between.’

Churchill’s magnificent consumption of food and drink is well known; what is still unclear from these letters is what drugs he took. Writing from Downing Street in 1953, after his stroke, he tells Clementine that he is resting up in bed and is going to take a ‘Moran’ before his big speech at the Conservative Party Conference in Margate – an event about which his circle was nervous. ‘Moran’ is a reference to his personal physician, Charles Moran, and Soames primly advises us: ‘A “Moran” was the name given by WSC to a special stimulant pill prescribed by Lord Moran for him to take before a major speech.’ Special stimulant pill? Soames offers no clue as to its chemical constituents, when exactly Churchill started taking the pills, how regularly he took them, or indeed if he was allowed to mix them with champagne. Indeed, she takes a very dim view of further disclosures on this and related matters. Moran himself indiscreetly published his own diary entries in Winston Churchill: The Struggle for Survival (1966), even though, according to Soames, ‘CSC had specifically asked him not to publish these recollections, and was greatly upset when the book appeared, as were all our family.’

The Margate speech was a resounding success, and the Moran pill was clearly vital to Churchill’s second administration. This is how Moran himself recalled his exchange with Churchill after the speech:

‘The pill was marvellous,’ he said, putting his hand on my arm. ‘What was in it? Did you invent it? Now Charles, I know you don’t like medicines, but you see what good they can do. You must have given a lot of thought to this pill. I won’t ask for it often, I promise. Perhaps once a month when I have a difficult speech in the House. Anyway, Charles, what harm would it do if I took it more often?’

Moran doesn’t reply, and is as coy as Soames as to what was actually in it. The secret is likely to be kept for some time: Moran’s papers are in the Harveian Library of the Royal College of Physicians, kept strictly under lock and key.

In May 1954, Churchill writes complacently that another speech at the Albert Hall had gone very well, thanks in no small part to his ‘Moran’: ‘I spoke for 42 minutes, and was not at all tired (through taking one of Charles’s tablets).’ These Morans are obviously pretty remarkable: a man of 80, with a history of strokes and heart failure, speaks for over forty minutes and is not at all tired, something he unhesitatingly attributes to his special stimulant pill. Why is this boon not available on the NHS? I suspect that these mysterious ‘Morans’ are more Groucho Club than Carlton Club.

It is the earlier letters in this volume which are the richest and most interesting – those written before the Second World War, and before Churchill’s second ‘wilderness’ period that followed his Chancellorship under Stanley Baldwin in the Twenties. The letters between 1939 and 1945 are simply not that revealing: his energies and emotional intensities – and his literary responses – were invested elsewhere. It is during the Great War that he conveys a passionate identification with the glories of warfare, and an equally passionate loathing of treacherous civilian politics – he had been the scapegoat (as he saw it) for the Dardanelles fiasco, and had been forced out of the Government. With self-conscious grandeur he sought action as an officer at the Front, while Clementine was employed to promote his long-term interests at home at the salons and dining tables of the great.

Churchill’s sheer hatred of Asquith, the man who stabbed him in the back, comes across with tremendous force. In January 1916, he writes broodingly:

He has cruelly – needlessly wronged me; – even in his power – prosperity has had the meanness to strike at me. No – if I survive – my political life will be apart from him. He passes from my regard. My mind is now filling up with ideas – opinions in many military – war matters.

Something of his wretchedness, and bitterness, spills over into an unlovely relish for the violence licensed by the battlefield. In the following letter, dated December 1915, he writes about a party of guardsmen who made a sortie into German territory:

They fell upon a picket of Germans, beat the brains out of two of them with clubs – dragged a third home triumphantly as a prisoner. The young officer by accident let off his pistol – shot one of his own Grenadiers dead: but the others kept this secret and pretended it was done by the enemy – do likewise. Such men you never saw. The scene in the little dugout when the prisoner was brought in and surrounded by these terrific warriors, in jerkins – steel helmets with their bloody clubs in hand – looking pictures of ruthless war – was one to stay in the memory. C’est très bon.

Another letter describes the trenches:

Filth – rubbish everywhere, graves built into the defences – scattered about promiscuously, feet – clothing breaking through the soil, water – muck on all sides; – about this scene in dazzling moonlight troops of enormous rats creep – glide, to the increasing accompaniment of rifle – machine guns – the venomous whining and whirring of the bullets wh. pass overhead. Amid these surroundings, aided by wet – cold, – every minor discomfort, I have found happiness – content such as I have not known for many months.

The jauntiness is startling as is, later on, his enthusiasm about deploying mustard gas on the enemy. In September 1918, when he was restored to Government as Minister for Munitions, he wrote to Clementine from the Ritz Hotel:

I am trying also to arrange to give the Germans a good first dose of the Mustard gas before the end of the month. Haig is vy keen on it – we shall I think have enough to produce a decided effect. Their whining in defeat is vy gratifying to hear.

This is immediately followed by a richly sentimental paragraph about their tenth wedding anniversary.

Some of the seeds of Churchill’s Second World War leadership are visible in his politically uncertain and emotionally volatile conduct during the First. The letters show how vital, and how sound, Clementine’s advice to him was to be. In April 1916, she strongly advises him not to abandon his new military career for a return to the Commons, lest he look once more like a dilettante and an adventurer:

remaining there you are in an honourable, comprehensible position until such time as a portion of the country demand your services for the State. If you come back before the call you may blunt yourself ... My Darling Love — For once only I pray be patient. It will come if you wait. Don’t tear off the unripe fruit.

It is not clear if Churchill immediately absorbed this shrewd advice. Yet by 1940, with the ‘What price Churchill?’ movement gaining ground in the press, he could surely see the advantage of holding back until the impatient audience is clamouring for one’s appearance on the stage.

Sometimes he followed Clementine’s advice, sometimes not. In December 1944, a virtual civil war was in progress in Greece between the pro-monarchist forces loyal to the Provisional Government which was supported by the British, and the Communists who had struggled so gallantly against the Nazis. Clementine wrote a plaintive note to Winston while they were both resident in Downing Street:

Please do not – before ascertaining full facts repeat to anyone you meet today what you said to me this morning, i.e. that the Communists in Athens had shewn their usual cowardice in putting the women – children in front to be shot at – Because altho’ Communists are dangerous, indeed perhaps sinister people, they seem in this War, on the Continent, to have shewn personal courage.

Was it sound advice like this that Winston sorely lacked – or perhaps simply ignored – when, during his catastrophic 1945 general election, he accused Labour of planning Gestapo-like tactics?

I was not aware before reading the letters just how warmly and cordially the Churchills, particularly Clementine, felt about Mussolini. Writing from the British Embassy in Rome in March 1926, she says:

He is most impressive – quite simple – natural, very dignified, has a charming smile – the most beautiful golden brown piercing eyes which you see but can’t look at – When he came in everyone (women too) got up as if he were a King – You couldn’t help doing it.

A few days later Clementine reports that she has received a signed photograph from Mussolini. It is inscribed:

       A la Signora Winston Churchill
                Devotamente
                B. Mussolini
             Roma 25 marzo 1926

In a footnote, Soames writes: ‘The photograph was displayed in the drawing room at Chartwell as a trophy of her Roman holiday; but it was removed to obscurity within a short period of time. It remains, however, in CSC’s papers.’ Mussolini is said to have sent the young star-struck Hitler a signed photograph. I wonder if he used the same portrait for both Clementine and Adolf?

There is not much about Hitler in these pages. Churchill evidently spent little time writing to Clementine about the Führer’s character or ideology. There is nothing comparable to, say, Churchill’s pungent and insightful analysis of Hitler’s state of mind in his history of the Second World War. One particular omission concerns the strange case of Hitler and Churchill almost meeting in the summer of 1932, when Churchill was in Munich, researching the life of his ancestor the Duke of Marlborough, and visiting the site of the Battle of Blenheim. A German acquaintance of Winston’s son Randolph, Ernst Hanfstängel, who knew Hitler, had brokered a meeting between the two men. Churchill waited around in his hotel room for Hitler to arrive, but was stood up. What an interesting letter home that would have made, and I was looking forward to reading it. However, this event occurs in what Mary Soames calls ‘a gap of nearly two years in their correspondence: Winston and Clementine were leading their busy lives, between London and Chartwell, and holidaying together.’

Atone of unease and sadness is introduced when the letters concern the chequered lives and broken marriages of the children. Randolph was a talented, even brilliant young man, but incurably boorish and unpleasant, his life and careers in politics and journalism obviously overshadowed by the colossal reputation of his father. Diana suffered a nervous breakdown and died of an overdose of sleeping pills. Sarah married an Austrian music hall comedian, had a number of divorces and re-marriages and ended up with a drink problem that caused her to make a public exhibition of herself. And Marigold Churchill, the daughter they called ‘The Duckadilly’, died at the age of three. Only Mary seems to have had the mental toughness to survive being a Churchill child. All these catastrophes and tragedies are alluded to with a kind of clenched indirectness: there is an enormous control and reticence in the letters. This was British family life from a different age, before we thought of families as ‘dysfunctional’ and certainly before it occurred to the children of celebrities to publish ‘mommie dearest’ confessions about their parents.

The final letters, with Churchill in his dotage and Clementine bowed down with illness and melancholy, are almost unbearable. A tragicomic moment arrives in January 1961 when Toby, Winston’s budgerigar, escapes through the window of his room at the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo. ‘My Darling – I do grieve for you over Toby,’ Clementine writes, ‘I keep hoping against hope that I shall hear he has been recovered safe and well.’ But he never was. There is something Lear-like in Churchill’s distress over his pet bird.