Last week, I was in London for my book tour for Better Than Before. What a beautiful, beautiful city. And I took even greater pleasure in it because I was reminded of Winston Churchill.
One of the great joys of my life was writing Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill, my biography of Churchill. What a pleasure it was to write that book! I had so many complicated things (both praise and blame, yes, I show both sides) to say about Churchill, and the problems of biography, and human nature, and I felt that I managed to express them all — to my own satisfaction, anyway.
The sights of London kept reminding me of various Churchill quotations, such as his extraordinary eulogy to Neville Chamberlain. This is one of my very favorite passages, in all of literature and history.
Before the war, Churchill strenuously opposed Neville Chamberlain and his appeasement policy. It was Chamberlain who, after meeting Hitler, decided “here was a man who could be relied upon when he had given his word.” But once Churchill joined Chamberlain’s government, he became a loyal servant, and he continued to treat Chamberlain with courtesy after replacing him as Prime Minister. When Chamberlain died in 1940, Churchill gave a tribute to Chamberlain that honored his life while acknowledging his mistakes.
The only guide to a man is his conscience; the only shield to his memory is the rectitude and sincerity of his actions. It is very imprudent to walk through life without this shield, because we are so often mocked by the failure of our hopes and the upsetting of our calculations; but with this shield, however the fates may play, we march always in the ranks of honor.
It fell to Neville Chamberlain in one of the supreme crises of the world to be contradicted by events, to be disappointed in his hopes, and to be deceived and cheated by a wicked man. But what were these hopes in which he was disappointed? What were these wishes in which he was frustrated? What was that faith that was abused? They were surely among the most noble and benevolent instincts of the human heart – the love of peace, the toil for peace, the strife for peace, the pursuit of peace, even at great peril, and certainly to the utter disdain of popularity or clamour. Whatever else history may or may not say about these terrible, tremendous years, we can be sure that Neville Chamberlain acted with most perfect sincerity according to his lights and strove to the utmost of his capacity and authority, which were powerful, to save the world from the awful devastating struggle in which we are now engaged…
Herr Hitler protests with frantic words and gestures that he has only desired peace. What do these ravings and outpouring count before the silence of Neville Chamberlain’s tomb?
No matter how many times I’ve read that, it still puts tears in my eyes.
Another favorite is a passage from Their Finest Hour, the second volume in Churchill’s six-volume history of World War II. Of a visit to a very poor London neighborhood that had been devastated by the Blitz, he wrote:
Already little pathetic Union Jacks had been stuck up amid the ruins. When my car was recognised the people came running from all quarters, and a crowd of more than a thousand was soon gathered. All these folk were in a high state of enthusiasm. They crowded round us, cheering and manifesting every sign of lively affection, wanting to touch and stroke my clothes. One would have thought I had brought them some fine substantial benefit which would improve their lot in life. I was completely undermined, and wept. Ismay, who was with me, records that he heard an old woman say: “You see, he really cares. He’s crying.” They were tears not of sorrow but of wonder and admiration.
These passages give the feeling of elevation that’s one of the most exquisite varieties of happiness.
Of course, London also makes me think of children’s literature. Every single street, it seems, reminds me of one of my favorite books. Peter Pan in Kensington Garden. Harry Potter in King’s Cross Station. Pauline, Petrova, and Posy visiting the Victoria and Albert Museum. Lyra wandering through the streets. I happened to walk by the former home of Frances Hodgson Burnett. Which got me to ponder that unanswerable question, yet again: which is my favorite FHB book, The Secret Garden or A Little Princess? I can’t decide.
I loved London. But boy it’s nice to be home. How about you — Is there a city that’s full of memories and associations for you?