Monday, October 22, 2007

The Churchill Series – Oct. 22, 2007

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

Throughout the WW II Mollie Panter-Downes served as The New Yorker's London correspondent. Her fortnightly reports from her native England appeared in The New Yorrker as "Letters from London." They were later edited by William Shawn and published as London Was Notes: 1939-1945 (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1971).

Two days after Churchill became Prime Minister on May 10, 1940 Panter-Downes' "Letter from London" included the following:

Events are moving so fast that England acquired a news Premier almost absent-mindedly, without any excessive jubilation from Winston Churchill’s supporters, who had been fearful that even at the last moment Mr. Chamberlain would hang onto the office, since he was said to feel, in his mystical Berchtesgaden manner, that it was his sacred duty to lead the nation to ultimate victory. …

In Winston Churchill, people feel that they have a leader who understands exactly what risks should be taken and what kind of adversary they are up against. The iron of appeasement has burned too deeply into British souls for them ever to be quite sure again of Chamberlain on that second point.

Diehard Tories, who once looked on Mr. Churchill as “a dangerous fellow,” now passionately proclaim that he is just what the country needs. It’s paradoxical but true that the British, for all their suspicious dislike of brilliance, are beginning to think that they’d be safer with a bit of dynamite around. (pgs. 55-56)
We can look back now and know that Panter-Downes was right about Chamberlain wanting to hang on to office. After agreeing on May 9th to resign the Premiership, he told aides on the morning of the 10th that in view of the invasion of the West the Germans had just launched, he didn’t think it would be good to change the government at such a critical time.

Chamberlain was soon persuaded that the Commons felt otherwise; he’d receive a riotous reception in the House if he didn’t leave office as planned.

Panter-Downes doesn’t try to hide her contempt for Chamberlain and “his mystical Berchtesgaden manner,” does she?

I’ll take issue with her on one thing she says: “the British, for all their suspicious dislike of brilliance.”

I’ll counter her with Chaucer, William Byrd, Shakespeare, Newton, Milton, and Harvey to name just six.