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“Winston Churchill: The Great Human Being”

the Enid and R. Crosby Lecture

by

THE LADY SOAMES, D.B.E.

delivered at

The Winston Churchill Memorial

Westminster College

Fulton, Missouri

April 21, 1991

 

Copyright The Lady Soames 1991

 

President Saunders, Senior Fellow Vogt, Consul General, Ladies and Gentlemen:

All my life I shall treasure the honour you have given me here today in conferring upon me the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, and I thank you with all my heart.

I realize also it is a singular privilege to have been invited by Westminster College and the Crosby Kemper Foundation of Kansas City to address you today, and to be the ninth person to make the Crosby Kemper Lecture, founded with such imagination and generosity, so that every year a large audience can hear a distinguished person speak on themes relating to British history and Winston Churchill.

The concept of the lecture moreover is one whose value and interest will wax, rather than wane, with the passing of time; and the remarkable setting for this annual event — in undoubtedly the most moving and beautiful of all the physical memorials to Winston Churchill — will surely never fail to strike a chord among those who will gather here in years to come.

You will, I am sure, appreciate that I feel, with good reason, somewhat abashed, when I dwell on the roll call of distinguished persons who have preceded me here.

What, I asked myself, when the invitation arrived, have I to do in such a company? But I felt it would be cowardly (even perhaps churlish) to have refused this, albeit to me, daunting invitation. I felt I should (in the words my father often used) try “to rise to the level of events”…or to the level, in this case, of what has been demanded of me.

Winston Churchill has passed beyond us into history: his record and achievements must stand the test of time. I think his will be a remembered name and his words ring true and heartening wherever and whenever men look and strive for freedom.

But even during his lifetime, and increasingly from the hour of his death, contemporary historians, strategists, literary critics, and, of course — muckrakers — had started on the inevitable continuing reassessment, which all figures of public stature must undergo. Apart from the historic record, tales and anecdotes — true or untrue — multiply, often with little regard for accuracy, and often slanted (if not invented) to suit the storyteller's own purpose. And now I find, that often with both his faults and virtues out of focus, Winston Churchill's character and personality risk becoming embalmed in his fame, and in the legend which attaches already to his hero-figure.

Because it has fallen to my lot to be Winston Churchill's child — and now of my parents' five children sadly the only survivor — I have a testimony, which I feel duty and honour-bound to give, and I am grateful for the opportunity given me to do so here.

But I have imposed upon myself strict rules: I am loth to stray beyond the frontiers of my daughterly knowledge; not for me is the luxury of imagined conversations or apocryphal jokes and anecdotes; nor will I allow myself to be lured into the tempting pastures of what-would-your father-think-of-so-and-so, or of such-and-such. And as in Parliament, I must plead “interest”: I look back on my parents through eyes of love and gratitude and admiration. But if the lenses of my vision, are adjusted to love — I hope I can say it is not blind love.

But of course, my perception of my parents has changed with the passing of years:

“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child…”

For me, clear, consecutive memories of my father begin with the opening of that decade, which in the chronology of Winston Churchill's life, has come to be called “The Wilderness Years.” In 1929 he had ceased to be Chancellor of the Exchequer with the defeat of Stanley Baldwin's government, and for the next ten years he was to be out of office, although fully involved in active political life.

Winston was now in his mid-fifties: Clementine his wife, ten years younger, and myself aged eight, trailing along well behind Diana, Randolph and Sarah. Politics kept my parents much in London. But Chartwell was the centre of their family life, and the place my father — both then, and later — most liked to be in the whole world.

Chartwell was bought in 1922, in the week that I was born in London; and from the age of two until I was seventeen I knew no other home: educated at a local school, I was indeed the “Chartwell child,” and, never confined to the nursery wing, participated fully in my parents' life there.

Long before I was aware of my father's fame or that he was an important public personage, he was of course famous and important to me — as for a fleeting and felicitous time all parents are to their children.

His spontaneous enjoyment of so many things and his varied and numerous occupations made him a convivial and enthralling companion to people of all ages, as many who knew him well or worked closely with him have often recounted.

But to have been his child was an enrichment beyond compare. I was blessed indeed in the love of my parents and siblings. I was then the unconscious, even careless, acceptor of the golden dower of love and security, which is the rightful heritage of all children, and which certainly encircled my childhood years. As with my older brother and sisters, I, in my turn, was soon admitted to a grown-up world of interest, variety, excitement and fun.

Chartwell was my parents' home for forty years: their London abodes changed several times, but Chartwell was their sure base and refuge — and was a veritable playground for my father. The place bears visible testimony to my father's love of construction and his skill as a brick layer, in the extensive wall around the vegetable garden which he built, largely with his own hands.

He loved directing outdoor works: tree clearing; or channeling the meagre trickle from Chartwell through various courses, and transforming it into rushing streams and cascades, by skillfully placed pumps and stop-cocks.

Once in my mother's absence he converted a peninsula, which jutted out into the lower lake, into an island: this turned out to be a more extensive operation than he had originally anticipated — the digging works requiring the services of a giant mechanical digger and a system of skips on tracks to remove the large quantities of earth — which transformed our green and pleasant valley for one whole winter into a scene which looked like a film set for All Quiet on the Western Front. Occasionally my father's enthusiasms outstripped practical bounds. But all these activities afforded him immense satisfaction.

After the Second World War he addressed himself to farming, finding new preoccupations in the lives of the cattle and pigs, and in the output of a market garden. The basic logic of farming, however, caused Winston some difficulty — for he could not bring himself to devour livestock with whom (in his own words) “…I have established social relations.”

Later still, he took up racing and derived enormous pleasure from the triumphs of his brilliant grey horse, Colonist the Second, and other rather good horses he acquired and also bred in a small stud farm not far from Chartwell.

Animals were extremely important in his scheme of things: his faithful chocolate poodle Rufus was a constant companion; the beautiful marmalade Chartwell cat a cossetted friend. For several years a blue budgerigar called Toby accompanied him even abroad, and visitors to my father in his room, where Toby flew free, were at risk from the bird's indiscretions.

And of course, from human company Winston derived the utmost stimulation and pleasure. Happy hours were passed round the dining room table with his family, friends and colleagues, when conversation and repartee and argument flashed to and fro, or long-remembered lines of verse and prose poured forth like a torrent. Mealtimes, thus, would often last two or three hours. My mother would presently make a move. I can see now, so well, my father looking at her across the table: “Ah Clemmie,” he would say, “It is so nice…Do not go. Let us command the moment to remain.” Ah, if only that were possible.

And then, of course, there was painting. Taken up almost by accident during the first World War when he was forty, it took the role of therapy, which distracted his mind from the traumatic debacle of the Dardanelles campaign, the concept for which he bore a major responsibility, and whose failure had resulted in such grievous loss of life, and precipitated a political crisis and his own resignation from Asquith's government. Long years later, Clementine would tell his biographer, Martin Gilbert: “I thought he would die of grief.” But from that grim summer of 1915 for over forty years more, Winston found hours of pleasure and occupation in painting. When problems of perspective and colour gave him respite from dark worries, heavy burdens and the clatter of political strife: “Happy are the painters…” he wrote “for they never shall be lonely: light and colour, peace and hope will keep them company to the end — or almost to the end of the day.” And these were happily to prove prophetic words for him personally.

As I advanced through my girlhood, of course, I came to realize my father played a public role, and that my parents' lives were governed by public events and obligations in which I more and more became interested. My mother's life, our family life, and that of our guests and household were geared around my father's massive programme of work and of his enjoyments. It seemed quite natural that this should be so — and indeed, it still does.

As my perspective altered as I grew up, I came to see that my father's whole political life had been and was a dramatic procession of great issues. He saw events and people, as on a stage, lit by his own knowledge of history and his burning sense of destiny and the march of events. I was brought up to take the nobler, larger view of life:

to do one's duty — was not an archaic phase to me

to serve one's country — I accepted should be a natural element of one's life

My father often quoted Marvell's lines on the execution of Charles I:

“He nothing common did or mean

Upon that memorable scene……”

And living at Winston Churchill's side in those fatal years one was constantly in mind that we were indeed upon “a memorable scene,” and that much would be expected of us all.

As a child I took my father's giant programme of work and play completely for granted. And what a prodigious worker he was. I think he wrang from each 24 hours half as much time's-worth again.

Chartwell was a veritable factory, and the lights gleamed from his upstairs study late into the night, as padding up and down the long room with its high vaulted, raftered ceiling, he dictated to one of his secretaries hour after hour his books, newspaper articles, and speeches. I soon became aware of the immense pains he devoted to his written works; he spent hours also correcting proofs and galleys. His speeches made him quite broody: “You must not disturb your father,” my mother would say: “He is with speech.”

Winston Churchill was an essentially natural person, and almost totally lacking in hypocrisy. Even as his fame and standing grew, his public and private persona remained much the same. He was a being blessed, in that for him the boundary line between work and play was smudged. His main life's work was a natural expression of his gifts for heroic action, oratory and writing. But when I ponder again his life and the wide range of his interests and activities, even I am always amazed anew by their variety.

His zest for life was one of his most attractive characteristics, of which those of us who were fortunate enough to be close to him were the luckiest beneficiaries. For he was such fun to be with, and his spontaneous enjoyment of so many things was infectious. In a life packed with action and arduous work, my father nearly always found time for what he called “my toys.”

Because our generation's most immediate image of Winston Churchill is of the older man, it is easy to forget the dash and brilliance of his younger days. His cavalry training had made him a good horseman; he had been a brilliant polo player (playing his last game in 1923); he was a good shot, and loved a day with hounds, fox or boar hunting.

But, of course, the demands of politics and his writing, which he did always up against sharp deadlines, keeping his family by his pen, relegated both sport and social life to the margins of his existence.

But where sport and painting were in competition, painting won an easy victory. In a letter to his wife in 1921, when he was staying in Scotland with the Duke of Sutherland, he wrote:

“It is another splendid day: & I am off to the river to catch pictures

— much better than salmon.”

I find it touching and attractive that, in those earlier days especially, the fun-loving and convivial side of his nature caused him an occasional glance at another sort of world: the glittering beau monde to which he and Clementine naturally belonged; the world which would be swept away a few years later in the first World War.

On one occasion in the early years of their marriage, in December 1910, Winston was staying with a fashionable house party at Warter Priory in Yorkshire for shooting. He wrote to Clementine, who had stayed at home because of a heavy cold:

"…A nice party — puissant, presentable, radical in preponderance — a rare combination. I wish you were here…Tomorrow pheasants in thousands — the vy best wot ever was seen. Tonight Poker — I lost a little — but the play was low.” he continued reflectively…” On the whole survey, how much more power and great business are to me, than this kind of thing, pleasant though it seems by contrast to our humble modes of entertainment. I expect I will have a headache tomorrow night after firing so many cartridges. All the glitter of the world appeals to me: but thank God not in comparison with serious things.”

One receives the impression of a spectator looking in on a brilliantly lighted scene, but turning resolutely — indeed gladly — back to the blustery weather outside.

And how fortunate indeed he was in the woman he had married. How different might have been the course of Winston Churchill's life and career had he married a socially eager or trivial-minded woman. Churchill would always, through his talents and thrusting nature, have been to the forefront of political life; but his energies might have been distracted, or who knows, the rapier of the purpose of his destiny blunted or tarnished, had the woman he loved lacked the dedication, the high principles, and the fiery courage of Clementine Hozier.

Any consideration of Winston Churchill's life and emotional make-up must recognize the role his beloved Clemmie played throughout the 57 years they lived together — through a period as cataclysmic and changing as any time in our history, and always in the glare of public Interest.

As of great events, so of his marriage, Winston took the romantic's view. He ended his autobiography, My Early Life, with the words: “In 1908 1 married, and lived happily ever after…”

Of course it wasn't quite as easy as that. Winston and Clementine's partnership was not always equable: both had high mettled natures: Clementine did not hesitate to differ from him on political questions; they often did not agree on friends; but love and loyalty never failed. Each had a deep love for the other, and an unquestioning commitment to their marriage. Their relationship ever reminds me of Shakespeare's lines:

“Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments.”

Winston early recognized his deep need of Clementine. In January, 1913, when he was First Lord of the Admiralty, he wrote to her from the Admiralty yacht Enchantress. (They had evidently had quite a sharp disagreement before Winston had left home.)

“I was stupid last night — but you know what a prey I am to nerves and prepossessions. It is a great comfort to me to feel absolute confidence in your love and cherishment . . . Don't be disloyal to me in thought. I have no one but you to break the loneliness of a bustling and bustled existence.”

On the eleventh anniversary of their marriage in 1919, Winston wrote to Clementine:

“…How I rejoice to think of my great good fortune on that day! There came to me the greatest happiness and honour of my life. My dear it is a rock of comfort to have yr love and companionship at my side…”

And to the end of their correspondence, spanning as it did over half a century, their letters to each other to the last one, breathe tenderness.


Reflecting on my parents' life together (and their correspondence is a revealing witness corroborating the evidence of those who knew them well) I am convinced that it was in the security and happiness of their marriage that Winston found sanctuary from the depressive side of his nature, which he had christened “black dog.” After his marriage, and with growing confidence in Clementine's steadfastness, “black dog” was largely banished — and certainly lost his malign power. Their marriage was the great stabilizing element in his emotional life, from whose citadel he could confront the demands and vicissitudes of his public life.

If one considers Winston Churchill's long life, one cannot fail to be struck by the salient characteristic in his make up of magnanimity.

Someone once said of him: “Winston is a very bad hater.” I would say he could be a very good hater, but he could never keep it up for long!

On the fly leaf of each volume of his War Memoirs, as on the pediment of his statue here, are inscribed these words:

In War: Resolution

In Defeat: Defiance

In Victory: Magnanimity

In Peace: Goodwill.

And these words appropriately sum up the theme of his whole life's work. After the First World War, he wanted foodships run in to Germany to relieve the starving civilian population, while the public cry was to “squeeze the orange till the pips squeak.”

In 1946, when Europe lay prostrate and divided by hatreds, in a famous speech at Zurich University in which he sounded a clarion call for European unity, he spoke of the necessity for there to be “an end of retribution…there must be an act of faith in the European family and an act of oblivion against all the crimes and follies of the past.”

And this same generous outlook in public affairs was very much present in his private life. My father would often quote the Biblical injunction: “Let not the sun go down upon your wrath.” And he truly practiced what he preached, for he was ever a quick forgiver.

What of my father's philosophy of life? He certainly had faith in the indomitable spirit of man. Taking leave of his Government Ministers in 1955, he used the phrase, “Man is spirit…”

But what of his faith in God? Winston Churchill was not religious in a conventional sense — and certainly no regular church-goer. I saw him once greatly embarrassed when a visiting Divine addressed him as a “pillar of the church.” My father, one of whose endearing qualities was candour, replied: “Well, I don't think that could be said of me. But I do like to think of myself as a flying buttress.”

He had a strong underlying belief in a Providential God. When the call to him came in 1940, he later was to write: “I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been a preparation for this hour and this trial.” And indeed when one looks back upon the hazards and dangers through which he had passed; the illnesses and accidents he suffered in his youth; the numerous close encounters with death in his soldier-of-fortune days; it is hard not to see a guiding and a guarding hand — and he himself felt this element increasingly.

On death, I have heard him express different thoughts. The concept of a “deep velvet sleep,” at times, seemed a pleasing option. But this was among the musings of an old man. To Clementine, in his prime, when life and love and ambition throbbed in his veins, he revealed a belief in which valiant hope and a certain tinge of uncertainty seem to be mingled. In July 1915, he wrote a letter marked “To be sent to Mrs. Churchill in the event of my death:”

“…Do not grieve for me too much. I am a spirit confident of my rights. Death is only an incident, and not the most important which happens to us in this state of being. On the whole, and especially since I met you my darling one, I have been happy, and you have taught me how noble a woman's heart can be. If there is anywhere else, I shall be on the lookout for you.”

Winston Churchill's outlook in the main was profoundly stoical. In Thoughts and Adventures written in the '30's he seems to have expressed his overall view:

“Let us be contented with what has happened to us and thankful for all we have been spared. Let us accept the natural order in which we move. Let us reconcile ourselves to the mysterious rhythm of our destinies, such as they must be in this world of space and time. Let us treasure our joys but not bewail our sorrows. The glory of light cannot exist without its shadows. Life is a whole, and good and ill must be accepted together. The journey has been enjoyable and well worth making — once.” And I do not think he would have sought to alter a word of this after a further thirty years or so of his life's long and eventful journey.

How do I see him now, as I myself, nearing seventy, look back upon this truly extra-ordinary man, who is a world-hero, and who was my father?

I, too, see Winston Churchill with infinite pride and wonder as a hero figure… for am I not an English woman? Do I not cherish liberty more than life?

But also I see him as I knew him, as a supremely blessed and happy human being: despite the anguish of the dramas through which he lived and which he felt in every fibre of his being, and in which he played so great a part. Yet for these epic times and events how magnificently was he equipped in mind and spirit.

Dowered with a stalwart constitution, his manifold talents found expression in the varied and exciting events and political conflicts of his life. In his writing and painting and in numerous lesser occupations, he found endless employment and enjoyment. So I believe that until his very last years he did not know the meaning of the word: boredom.

Just after his retirement as Prime Minister in 1955 when he was in his eighty-first year, he told a visitor to Chartwell:

“I look forward to a leisure hour with pleasurable agitation: it's so difficult to choose between writing, reading, painting, bricklaying, and three or four other things I want to do.”

When at long last the pace slowed, and his good companion of forty years, the Muse of Painting, had gently taken her leave, and that seemingly unquenchable well of his zest for life ran dry, the long daylight hours did indeed hang heavy. Yet from those muted sad years, I treasure a precious and, to me, infinitely moving picture. As a young cavalry officer in Cuba and then in India, Winston had been fascinated and amazed by the size and beauty and variety of the butterflies he saw there. Years later, he caused plants and shrubs which attract butterflies to be planted in quantity at Chartwell.

I remember my father on summer days in these twilight years, sitting in his chair strategically placed before the opulently flowering buddleias, watching with rapt enjoyment the vivid, quivering splendour of the butterflies — the Red Admirals, the Peacocks, and the Painted Ladies — as they fluttered and feasted on the purple, honey-laden flowers. And remembering him thus, I recall Landor's lines:

“I warmed both hands before the fire of life;

It sinks, and I am ready to depart.”

 

*Walter Savage Landor d. 1864.

 

 

THE LADY SOAMES, D.B.E.

Mary Soames, born in 1922, is the youngest and only surviving child of Winston and Clementine Churchill. She was brought up at Chartwell and educated at local day schools.

During World War II, she served with the Auxiliary Territorial Service in Mixed Anti-Aircraft Batteries in Britain and in North West Europe. In addition, she accompanied her father as ADC on several of his journeys overseas. In 1945, she was awarded the MBE (Military).

She married Captain Christopher Soames in 1947. An officer in the Coldstream Guards, he subsequently was elected to parliament, where he served for sixteen years and became a Cabinet Minister. In 1968, he was appointed Ambassador to France, and in 1973, he became a Vice President of the European Commission in Brussels. In 1979, Lord Soames (now a Life Peer) was the last British Governor of Southern Rhodesia. Lady Soames accompanied her husband in all of these assignments. She and Lord Soames had five children. He died in 1987.

Mary Soames was Justice of the Peace for East Sussex from 1960 to 1974. In 1979, she was Chairman of the U. K. Committee for the International Year of the Child, and in 1980 she was appointed Dame Commander Order of the British Empire (D.B.E.).

Since 1989, she has served as Chairman of the Royal National Theatre Board. She is a Governor of Harrow School, a member of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Council, and an Honorary Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge. In 1989, she received the honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Sussex University.

She is the author of several publications including: “Clementine Churchill by Her Daughter, Mary Soames” (1979), which received the Wolfson Prize for History and the Yorkshire Post Prize for the best first work; “A Churchill Family Album” (1982); “The Profligate Duke: George Spencer Churchill 5th Duke of Marlborough and his Duchess” (1987); and 'Winston Churchill His Life as a Painter” (1990).

Until her death in 2014, Lady Soames, a Churchill Fellow of Westminster College and a Member of its Board of Governors, was a stalwart supporter and patron of the International Churchill Society and America's National Churchill Museum.

 

Biography appears as published in 1991.

“Leave the past to history especially as I propose to write that history myself.”

Winston S. Churchill