Churchill: Polymath with Cigar

Winston Churchill in siren suit, 1943

Churchill may have matured into a rotund adult with a level of confidence that came with an aristocratic upbringing, but there are, I imagine, shy or reclusive people even among aristocrats. Churchill was definitely not one of them. He could be down when parliament went sour on him, which was often, or when a military strategy he pushed failed and young men lost their lives. But, given his ebullient nature, he tended to quickly float back to the top.

He had many detractors and we know this because they were all public men who kept private diaries for their future biographers (just in case). Andrew Roberts, in Churchill: Walking with Destiny had access to all the diaries of Churchill’s contemporaries, including King George VI, who was his confidante and leader throughout WWII. Andrew Roberts is British and not always kind to the Americans when they finally joined to help fight Hitler’s Germany and Japan. Roberts brought Churchill and his contemporaries to life for me but he did it from a very British perspective, although he had a more positive take on Churchill than many modern British historians tend to have. Roberts tells us the charges leveled against Churchill and then he tries to explain Churchill’s rationale.

Churchill hated school and was a torment to his schoolmasters, but he was very intelligent. Roberts calls Winston a polymath. He committed all the important speeches in Shakespeare and his favorite poems to memory and could still quote them as he aged, and he lived to be 91. He read the great military strategists (especially Napoleon) and often seemed able to predict future conflicts well before others sensed them.

Although Winston Churchill was born in the Victorian Age, cultural changes did not faze him. He befriended Dr. Lindemann, a physicist who answered Churchill’s questions about atoms and the details of the developing scientific discoveries about nuclear fission and fusion. Churchill understood the importance of code-breaking in fighting wars. He travelled extensively and knew the famous figures of his times personally. He often took his wife Clementine, and his children with him. He was fascinated with airplanes and learned to fly as soon as he could.

Churchill was not self-conscious in the least. He spoke to his colleagues from Parliament while bathing or dressing if that happened to be when they came to see him. He swam naked in bodies of water all over Europe and Northern Africa. During the Blitz, when Brits had to drop everything and go to shelters, he had what he called “siren” suits designed and made. He wore them everywhere sometimes even when meeting important dignitaries. They were essentially jump suits with zippers and a fabric belt, not quite the style for the portly statesman.

Winston drank quite a lot, but he watered it down and spread it out so that he rarely seemed drunk, although at least two of his children seem to have been addicted to alcohol. He became attached to cigar smoking and enjoyed his cigars almost until the end of his life. His father had been a politician, a Tory in the House of Lords. Randolph Churchill, the father, made a misstep that ended his political career, but Winston felt his father had been treated unfairly. Many of Winston’s peers felt that Churchill spent his life trying to please his judgmental father, even after his father died. But despite family tradition, Winston did not want to be a Tory. He did not want to serve in the House of Lords. He felt that all the action was in the Commons.

Churchill was sometimes a Conservative, sometimes a Liberal, which is another way in which he was unique. He was not married to one political point of view. Some saw this as a lack of authenticity and conviction, but given that all politics is complicated and can be corrupt or get stuck in cultural ruts, Churchill’s prescience may have just helped him steer his way through social change. For example, Churchill, although a Conservative at times, believed that there would eventually have to be a social safety net (although he despised socialism). He mixed with all classes of the British people and he knew the protections they lacked. He sometimes represented the Labour Party and he had both sympathy and respect for people who labored. Until he saw the way women shared the burdens of war, he did not support giving women the vote. The war changed that particular view, possibly a last vestige of his Victorian upbringing. Being flexible allowed Churchill to thread his way around political roadblocks to get things done (sometimes). Backlash could also be fierce.

Winston Churchill was very much an imperialist. He loved the British Empire and many times he rationalized his military strategies as designed to preserve the empire. He did not just attend to Great Britain in the home isles. When he served in the cavalry he served in India. He escaped from a prison in South Africa when he was captured in a Boer War. England had a foothold in Egypt. He travelled to Canada. Although the Age of Imperialism was ending Churchill never wanted to neglect the far-flung lands he considered parts of the British Empire, although some leaders, like Gandhi in India, did not feel the same and wished for self-rule. By the time WWII ended so did the British Empire, and Great Britain became the small United Kingdom that it had once been. Churchill still believed great, educated, and civilized nations such as England had a responsibility to enlighten nations that were not as modern, well-ordered, and prosperous.

What did Churchill do to relax? He was a painter, actually a pretty good one. Museums have shown Churchill’s paintings. He would often bug out to some tropical locale, or mountain retreat, or to a wonderful estate in a desert place like Morocco and paint and swim and drink and smoke cigars. He tried to fly his own plane but eventually Parliament decided that it was too risky. He was also a butterfly enthusiast, and, something we judge harshly now, he was a wild game hunter. He was rarely wealthy, but he was invited everywhere by people who were. Churchill was a prolific writer. He wrote hefty historical tomes which are still considered classics. After a while he received valuable advances and his books made money for him, but he owned his beloved estate Chartwell which was a money pit. There was another more manual talent Churchill used at his estate; he could lay bricks.

Diaries attest that Churchill could be delightful, he could be irritating, he could be a sponge soaking up whatever was cogent and new, and he was capable of deep political and military analysis. His trademark humor popped up at moments some considered appropriate and others considered inappropriate, but the humor had the effect of keeping monumental events at human scale. His speeches were well-attended by both allies and detractors because they were powerful, outspoken, and funny, and just could not be missed. It seemed that Churchill did not really try to be a great man. He did feel that God put him on earth for an important reason (although he was not at all religious), and the whole world finally agreed when Hitler set out to gobble up every single person and nation in his path. Churchill had so many gifts that it is fairly easy to believe that he had a destiny and that he fulfilled it. He was not a perfect man, but he was, in every way, a larger-than-life man, a great man. I think that although being a polymath is something admired in modern times, Andrew Roberts makes his case that Churchill was definitely a polymath.

From Churchill: Walking with Destiny by Andrew Roberts

“He was protean. One of Churchill’s biographers, Robert Rhodes James, described him as a ‘politician, sportsman, artist, orator, historian, parliamentarian, journalist, essayist, gambler, soldier, war correspondent, adventurer, patriot, internationalist, dreamer, pragmatist, strategist, Zionist, imperialist, monarchist, democrat, egocentric, hedonist, romantic.’ He was indeed all of those, but to them might also be added: butterfly-collector, big-game hunter, animal-lover, newspaper editor, spy, bricklayer, wit, pilot, horseman, novelist and crybaby (this last the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s nickname for him).” [I forgot to mention that  he was very emotional and tears often ran down his face as he spoke.]

“He viscerally hated Lenin, Trotsky and Hitler – but remarkably few others.”

“‘Absorbed in his own affairs,’ wrote Commander Tommy Thompson, his personal assistant throughout the Second World War, ‘he seemed to many people brusque, vain, intolerant, and overbearing.’ He could also be idiosyncratic, stubborn and an interfering micromanager. Several of these failings he turned into strengths, however, and some were necessary to help him through the crises he faced in peace and war. He could be intensely lovable, too, of course, when taken on his own terms.”

“Churchill’s written output was similarly immense. He published 6.1 million words in thirty-seven books – more than Shakespeare and Dickens combined – and delivered five million in public speeches, not counting his voluminous letter- and memorandum-writing, Partly because he was such a polymath and so prolific, he also seemed to be a mass of contradictions. His Atlantic Charter proclaimed a belief in democracy that did not extend to Indian independence; he championed the weak, but briefly believed in eugenics; he was a duke’s grandson who ended the peer’s veto; he ordered the Combined Bomber Offensive and loved butterflies; he was a rugged soldier who wore silk underwear; he crossed the floor of the Commons, not once but twice. (Pg. 972)

Photo Credit: From a Google Image Search – Media Storehouse








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