Monday, August 20, 2007

The Churchill Series - Aug. 20, 2007

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

In August, 1989 Sir Maurice Ashley addressed the international conference of the Churchill Society's meeting in London. By then a distinguished historian and Churchill biographer, Ashley looked back sixty years to his first meeting with Churchill, at which began a working relationship and friendship that lasted for thirty-five years until Churchill’s death in 1965:

I was twenty-two years old at the time. I had just taken a first-class degree in modern history and won several prizes and was anxious to become financially independent of my parents.

I had managed to obtain two or three research grants, but they were not enough to live on.

During the summer I received a letter from Keith Feiling, who was a Student, that is to say Fellow of Christ Church, telling me that Winston Churchill was looking for a part-time research assistant for a book he was planning to write about his ancestor, the first Duke of Marlborough.

I was then a keen young socialist and had been both secretary and chairman of the Oxford University Labour Club.

The name of Churchill was an anathema to me because we young socialists believed that Churchill was chiefly responsible for crushing the General Strike of 1926, called on behalf of the coal miners.

As a matter of fact, as we now know, Churchill was sympathetic to the claims of the miners, who were then paid a pitiful wage, and he did not care for the coal-owners. He would have liked minimum wages to be guaranteed to the miners and a limitation imposed on the profits of the owners, but he was overruled by the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin.

At any rate, after thinking the matter over, I changed my mind: after all Churchill was a famous man - and I needed some money.

I was invited to meet Churchill at a luncheon in the rooms of Professor Lindemann, later Lord Cherwell, a close friend of Churchill. There was no interview. Churchill sat by me on a sofa and said: "I hear you are going to work for me." Lindemann asked Churchill if he would like Champagne for his lunch. Churchill replied, "I always have beer for lunch."

Soon I was invited to stay at Chartwell, Churchill's country home. It was a revelation for me as a middle-class youth to move into this semi-aristocratic atmosphere. Churchill said to me: "I always dress for dinner." This was not strictly true - he certainly did not do so when he was in Africa. However, there it was. A valet laid out my clothes.

Before dinner we had sherry, then Champagne, brandy and port. During the night I was violently sick.

On the following evening at dinner I refused the port. "Ah!," said Churchill, "I have some excellent Madeira." Afterwards, whenever I dined at Chartwell, Churchill would say: "Ashley likes Madeira."
I’ll just leave Ashley’s recollections stand without comment.

You can read his entire address here, courtesy of the Churchill Center.