April 23, 2009
I was looking through some notes I took when visiting the home of Sir Winston Churchill at Chartwell a couple of months ago and I came across the following. During a speech in the House of Commons on 18 June 1940 – the day after the fall of France – he said: ‘Of this I am quite sure, that if we open a quarrel between the past and the present, we shall find that we have lost the future.’
This made me stop and think. It is all too easy to pick over the different interpretations of history (how we got to where we are) and justify ourselves by the accuracy of our (post hoc) prophecies or analytical skills. But the danger is that, despite the importance of knowing where we have come from in order to know why we are where we are, we simply distract ourselves from the task of shaping the future.
I am conscious of this reading the post-Budget reporting this evening. I was in meetings all day and so was spared the puerile bear-pit shouting match that always accompanies Westminster activity. But it seems to me that there is a good deal of self-justification going on (in ‘I told you so’ terms) – to the detriment of an adult and responsible cooperation by political leaders for the sake of the country and the world. The massive enormity of the economic challenge should not be a matter for party-political opportunism. It is a classic of losing the big picture by haggling over some detail.
There is a typically English touch to Lady Churchill’s erstwhile bedroom at Chartwell. On the four-poster bed there is a sign that says: ‘Please try not to touch’. Isn’t that lovely? Not a command such as: ‘Do not touch!’ or ‘Touch this and you’re dead!’ But an invitation to be be responsible and considerate that recognises the power of temptation to do the opposite of what we are told.
I wonder if it might be remotely possible for our political leaders to accept a gentle invitation to try something different and resist the temptation to play the tedious old games of partisan point-scoring and take responsibility for our mutual future?
March 21, 2009
For some reason I had never been to Chartwell, even though it is only a few miles from where I live. Chartwell is where Winston Churchill lived and wrote and painted and found refuge from the world. It is a beautiful house set in lovely parkland with gorgeous trees and wonderful views over the Kent countryside. If I use hyperbolic adjectives, it is only because it is a place that merits them.
Two things struck me today – both probably banal to most people, but I need to be reminded of them from time to time: (a) history seen with hindsight looks ordered and inevitable, but is usually a series of sometimes unintended consequences to well-meant decisions by people who were reacting to the pressures, demands and opportunities of the moment – how it might be different if someone had expressed a liking for Hitler’s paintings in his youth; (b) great men have feet of clay and need to be understood in all their complexity. That is why I have blogged in the past on Martin Niemoeller and others whose human frailty was all-too evident.
Churchill was lionised by people all over the world for his remarkable leadership during the war years. He was quickly dumped after the war, but I remember watching his funeral on telly when I was a child in 1965 and realising that someone great had passed. Yet this man was prone to depression, spent his life wanting the approval of his (dead at 46) father and the love of his mother, was hopeless with his personal finances despite having been Chancellor of the Exchequer and managed to lose jobs and his home with apparent ease.
I hadn’t realised that Chartwell was a wreck when he bought it and that it was brought from him by friends who gave it to the National Trust with the proviso that the Churchill’s could live there until the end of their lives. As you look around the site you find the wall that Churchill built, the paintings in his studio (some good and many not) and bits of manuscripts of his writings. This was a man who knew that despite the responsibility and power of government and global acclaim, he had to be earthed in a place where he could do physical work and get his hands dirty. His painting enabled him to cope with his depressions and observe the world in greater detail.
The statue near the lake is wonderful. By Oscar Nemon, it depicts Winston and his wife and manages to combine intimacy and distance. She is looking at him and her hand reaches across towards him whilst he looks out across Chartwell. Go from here back into the nearby town of Westerham and there is another statue of Churchill on the Green, but it looks suspiciously like the same statue with the wife missing. It is by Oscar Nemon and placed on a plinth donated by Tito in 1969. Here he looks isolated and alone… and incomplete.