Churchill, The Greatest Briton
It is the time for nostalgia. I fondly remember Christmases from my childhood in England with a close friend and our two families. Here in New Jersey, my wife maintains many of our English culinary traditions, since they’re from her childhood too. Christmas pudding (also called Plum pudding) was acquired weeks ago. None of our children will touch it, a disdain I’ve wasted little time trying to reverse since it means there’s enough left for Boxing Day too.
Covid has canceled bits of Christmas, including our annual Christmas Eve fish dinner with friends. And a virtual church service remains a poor substitute for live Christmas carols. I admire our rector for gamely pressing on in solitude in front of a camera, but this year organized religion has offered less when some needed more, leaving it with a diminished role.
I’m currently reading These Truths: A History of the United States, by Jill Lepore. It was on Bill Gates’ summer reading list. An engaging read, it covers much but rarely in depth, since it’s a single volume. I have reached the 1940s. Winston Churchill knew that Britain could only prevail against Germany if the U.S. could be persuaded to enter the war. Following World War II, Churchill referred to his bonding with President Roosevelt thus, “No lover ever studied the whims of his mistress as I did those of President Roosevelt.”
My old country could use Churchill’s leadership today. Most of the population is under virtual Covid house arrest, and they’ve agreed a Brexit deal with the EU very different than voters were led to expect during the 2016 referendum. I have never regretted growing up there, nor leaving for the U.S.
How ironic that British PM Boris Johnson’s wonderful biography The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History represents a bigger tribute than his current leadership of the country.
Few individuals produce enough lifetime material for a book of humorous quotes, but my library includes The Wit and Wisdom of Winston Churchill, boasting over 1,000 entries. Browsing reveals gems such as, “Although always prepared for martyrdom, I prefer that it shall be postponed.” Another favorite is, “There’s nothing more exhilarating than to be shot at without result.” When a close friend of mine with Covid risk factors survived an extremely mild case, I read this quote to him.
Churchill’s mother was American, and he felt strong affection for our country. During a speech to Congress in 1941, he noted that, “… if my father had been American and my mother British, instead of the other way around, I might have got here on my own.” This overlooked the constitutional requirement that a U.S. president be born here, but still drew appreciative laughter.
Some of Churchill’s descriptions of America remain true today.
“The Americans took but little when they emigrated except what they stood up in and what they had in their souls. They came through, they tamed the wilderness, they became a refuge for the oppressed from every land and clime.”
“There are no people in the world who are so slow to develop hostile feelings against a foreign country as the Americans and there are no people who once estranged, are more difficult to win back.”
In the House of Commons when a veteran member offered disjointed criticism of Churchill’s war leadership, the PM warned that his critic, “…will run a very grave risk of falling into senility before he is overtaken by age.”
Churchill’s ready wit was often deployed in social settings to parry criticism. Nancy Astor was a Virginian who became Britain’s first female member of the House of Commons. Astor was part of a clique that admired Hitler, prompting Churchill to describe appeasers as those who, “…feed the crocodile hoping that it will eat him last.” At a dinner party Astor told Churchill, “Winston, if I were your wife, I’d put poison in your coffee.” To which he replied, “If I were your husband, I’d drink it.”
Perhaps his most famous exchange was with an unknown woman who complained that he was drunk. “My dear you are ugly, but tomorrow I shall be sober and you will still be ugly.” he replied.
It’s been a testing year in so many ways, with little of recent humor to offset it. I hope you and your family are healthy, and that you’ve enjoyed Christmas and the holiday period under whatever Covid restrictions allowed. We all have much to look forward to next year.
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