Monday, April 09, 2007

The Churchill Series – Apr. 9, 2007

(One of a series of weekday posts on the life of Winston S. Churchill.)

Yes, Churchill had a fierce temper. But his outbursts were like most summer thunderstorms: fierce but brief. Roy Jenkins in Churchill: A Biography (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) reprints an eyewitness account of one such Churchill “storm.”

It happened the night of the 1929 General Election. Churchill, Chancellor of the Exchequer in Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin’s Conservative government, was with Baldwin and a few others at 10 Downing Street as the voting returns were coming in. To use the old newspaper cliché, it turned out to be a “very long night” for the Conservatives. They were trounced by their Labour opponents.

Back then, the “latest technology” for reporting the returns was teletype machines which would print out messages sent by telegraph letter by letter and word by word on a paper tape.

People often stood the machines and watched whatever was coming 'across the tape" get typed out, much as you or I can stand behind someone word processing and watch letters and words appear on the monitor.

The election night witness recounts:

At one desk sat Winston … doing lists in red ink, sipping whiskey and soda, getting redder and redder, rising and going over to glare at the [tape] machine himself, hunching his shoulders, bowing his head like a bull about to charge.

As Labour gain after Labour was announced, Winston became more and more flushed with anger, left his seat and confronted the machine in the passage; with his shoulders hunched he glared at the figures, tore the sheets and behaved as thought if any more Labour gains came along he would smash the whole apparatus. …. (p. 419)
That night began what are commonly called Churchill’s Wilderness Years. Although he retained his own seat in the Epping constituency, and would remain a Member of Parliament until he resigned his seat near the end of his life, he would not hold Cabinet office again for 10 years until upon Britain's entry into WW II he was called to head the Admiralty.