I’ve seen Winston from both sides now

I know about all the setbacks and and the successes. I know all the great put downs (Lady Astor: “If I were your wife, I’d put poison in your coffee.” Churchill: “If I were your husband, I’d drink it.”). I know all the speeches. But I didn’t know about all the times Winston Churchill came close to death. It’s as though he lived his life right on the edge to derive the maximum use of his allotted time.


I’m reading Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill by Gretchen Rubin. Forty Ways is one of the books recommended by Dan Carlin in his often excellent Hardcore History series. Dan’s show was great. Gretchen’s book…not so much.

The central conceit of the book is that Winston was such a complex character, you have to see both sides to fully understand him. Each chapter is a kind of He Said, She Said testimony on each of Winston’s traits— Was he an alcoholic? Was his marriage happy? Was he suited to high office? —with anecdotes from his numerous friends and even more numerous enemies.

The overall effect of this rather shallow treatment is to reduce the great man to a series of caricatures and the sense of his overwhelming presence that comes across in more conventional tellings is somehow lost.

The book contains very little information that would be new to anyone who has more than a passing knowledge of Churchill’s biography but there’s one chapter in the middle that sheds a little light on his charmed life. In Churchill’s Destiny—How He Saw Himself, Gretchen rattles off all little details that might have become the most important episode in an ordinary man’s life; the kind of episode one might tell and retell at every opportunity. But, in Churchill’s over-stuffed existence, they barely merit a footnote.


Here’s a sample:

  • Churchill battled pneumonia twice: in 1886 and again in 1943.
  • At age eighteen, playing tag, Churchill jumped from a thirty foot bridge and tried to land in a treetop on the way down. He ruptured his kidney, injured his spine and was unconscious for three days.
  • A few month later, he nearly drowned in Switzerland.
  • In a letter to his mother in 1897 while fighting the Pashtun as a Second Lieutenant in British India, “I am so conceited that I do not believe the Gods would create so potent a being as myself for so prosaic an ending.”
  • At age 25, he helped rescue a train that was under attack from enemy fire. He was captured by the Boers.
  • After the Dardanelle disaster, Winston resigned and went to fight in the trenches (could you imagine a modern politician resigning and then going to fight in the trenches?). His shelter was destroyed by a shell five minutes after he left it to deliver a message.
  •  After surviving the trenches, Winston took flying lessons. One plane caught fire; another flipped after takeoff; another crashed after the guiding stick failed. He finally quit after a fourth crash that injured his flying instructor.
  • He was hit by a car on Fifth Avenue in New York in 1931.
  • He was shot at by a sniper in 1944 in Greece. Winston’s response: “Cheek!”


After he became Prime Minister in 1940, Winston “was conscious of a profound sense of relief. At last I had the authority to give directions over the whole scene. I felt as I were walking with Destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.”

D’you ever wish that you were better informed?

The News of the World began Murdock’s journey to media domination nearly 40 years ago. Let’s hope it ends it too.

We always knew you were shit. But we never knew you were this shit.

It says here that the unions will never learn
It says here that the economy is on the upturn
And it says here we should be proud
That we are free
And our free press reflects our democracy

Those braying voices on the right of the house
Are echoed down the street of shame
Where politics mix with bingo and tits
In a strictly money and numbers game.

Billy Bragg. Poet.

Paul Scholes is Retiring Too

I’ve played in a Sunday league for about 6 years now. We had a good few seasons a couple of years back. We were unbeaten in two of them. That’s all hard to remember now though and we have barely won a game since forever.

It’s hard to play with a crap team but it’s even harder being the crappest player on a crap team. I can’t score goals any more and I can’t even beat my defender to put in a good cross. Getting old sucks and the defenders just keep getting younger and faster. I’m done after this season. I have no business playing with 20 year olds. I’ll go back to playing with the old men of Almaden Valley.

Paul Scholes is retiring too but he has less of an excuse as he is about 10 years younger than me and is still one of the best players in the Premier League.

I was going to put together a video of my football playing career but I don’t actually have any videos – and it wouldn’t be very good anyway if I did. Enjoy this retrospective of Paul Scholes, a player described by Zidane as the best midfielder of his generation, instead.

In Our Times

I’m reading the biography of Winston Churchill by Max Hastings and I’m also following along with The Orwell Diaries on RSS.

I’m at a similar point in both stories and what strikes me most forcefully is how bleak those times were and how close Britain was to utter disaster. My imagination won’t stretch far enough to accommodate the events of those dark days.

It puts the rhetoric about the threats we faced from Al Qaeda in perspective for me. Britain circa 1941 faced an existential threat. America circa 2001 did not.

It’s also hard to imagine a politician in our shallow times doing something like this:

On January 27, amid increasing parliamentary criticism, Churchill faced the commons. “It is because things have gone badly, and worse is to come, that I demand a Vote of Confidence,” he said.

He won the vote by 464 to 1.


A bleg: when I am done with this, I’d like to learn a little more about the American Revolution and the Civil War. Any recommendations for a book on each? I’m more interested in the politics and the build up than the actual fighting in each case.

For the Revolutionary War especially, I want to be more prepared the next time a teacher sends a child home to interview their English father to get the “other side’s point of view” 🙁

In a Cemetery

In one of the universe’s subtle attempts to mess with me, my grandmother died yesterday on the same day that I finished this painting – Girl Seated in a Cemetery by Delacroix. In another week or so, I’ll be standing in cemetery myself with lots of other sad people, remembering the fantastic lady who was my grandmother.

Nan was less than two years away from her century. She was born before the First World War; before electricity, motor cars and aeroplanes were commonplace; before computers and television. She was born in a time when the sun never set on the British Empire and the world was much bigger than it is now.

Nan and Grandad lived two doors away from me when I was very small and they often took care of me. My mum went back to work when I was only 3 and I used to come home for lunch at my grandmother’s house. She’d make me egg sandwiches with the white removed (Yuck! Nasty stuff!) and then make meringues with the whites. And they say that the kids of today are spoiled!

Sometimes, they would take me up to London on the bus. We couldn’t take the train because Grandad got sick (something to do with the war) and even on the bus, we could only travel for about 20 minutes before we’d have to get off and wait for the next one. Getting up to London – 12 miles away – was an all day affair.

But it was worth it.

The only time I attended the Changing of the Guard was with Nan and Grandad; the first time I fed the sparrows in St James’s Park; first time across the Thames on the Woolwich Ferry. So many firsts!

A very happy memory puts us in the Science Museum. Nan suffered her way through all the planes and machines and cheesy demonstrations of static electricity but when we got to the Way We Used to Live section, she suddenly came to life! It turned out that that section was modelled after Nan’s childhood and she had owned the very same brand of washing tub, mangle, jars of jam, soap and pretty much everything else that was essential to a working class house in the first part of the 20th century.

Grandad died about 30 years ago and, without the need to change buses every 20 minutes, Nan started to travel. The first time I left the country (a day trip to Boulogne on the ferry) was Nan’s first too but she soon made up for lost time. Of course, my favourite was her first trip to the New World. When she was 86, Nan came to visit me in California.

I have no idea how she made it, but what a joy it was to meet her at San Francisco airport and drive her – with the top down in the convertible! – to our house in Los Gatos. By day, she was taunted by a mischievous two-year old (“Mum! Nan wants some lemonade!” How many times did he get away with that before we found out that the soda was for him?) who taught her how to use a computer for the first time. Actually, “mis-taught” would be more accurate as he delighted in her frustrated laughter each time he put 8 pickles in the jar even though The Count only wanted 7.

But by night… By night she would tell us stories.

Children tend to lose touch with their grandparents just when they have the most to learn from what they have to say (or maybe that’s just me?) but we made up for lost time that week.

We heard all about the Coronation and The Blitz and about Doodlebugs (they were aimed at London, but plenty fell short). We heard about the Battle of Britain – she watched it overhead – and about how she sent her four young daughters off to four different cities in the north of England to escape the air raids and about her quest to go round them back up and bring them back when it was clear they were no safer with strangers than they were at home.

Nan brought up those four daughters on her own after their father was killed in a road accident. I learned one of life’s great lessons when she calmly explained how quickly the policeman arrived to give her the bad news. Nan: “There’s no point in worrying. If there’s bad news, you’ll know it soon enough.”

My sister made a family tree a few years back. She managed to trace our family back to the 17th century on several different branches. In 400 years, no one ever moved more than a couple of miles from where I grew up in Footscray. Now, in a generation, we are spread to the four corners of the map.

Nan’s part of the tree was particularly bushy with four daughters each with multiple children and then grandchildren and now great-grandchildren of their own. But today there’s a piece of the tree missing and the world – or, at least, my little corner of it – is a little bit sadder for the loss.

A Beautiful Mind

Whenever we hear a story about someone who has suffered a tragedy or illness that leaves them in a bad way physically, we have that conversation. The one that goes “I wouldn’t want to live that way. Just have me put down.” I always have the same response: as long as I can still think, I will want to go on.

And if I can’t think? I’ll go on anyway because a) I have nothing to lose (I can’t think, remember?) and 2) How do you know I can’t think? Maybe I really can think but just can’t communicate what I am thinking?

I expect the state of Ebert’s face leaves a lot of people thinking “I wouldn’t want to live like that” but those people are missing the most beautiful part of Roger Ebert. He is absolutely one of the most powerful writers on the planet and I feel privileged that I can read his blog every now and again (but cheated that I only discovered it in the last couple of years).

Even when Ebert is writing about something as trivial as a movie, his words are magnificent but he rarely stays on topic long enough to merit the lowly title of movie critic. More often he writes about himself – which is to say, he writes about me. He wields his pen like a time machine transporting me magically into my memories. To memories of burning shame – or burning pride – or of quiet moments of reflection that repeat, reprise and return.

Mural in Prescott Arizona

Today, Ebert started with the madness in Arizona but he was soon telling me about that time a bunch of midshipmen from Dartmouth drove down to Torquay with our consorts from Stover Girls School – me with the blackest girl i ever kissed  – and reminding me how it’s a mistake, if your grass skirt is homemade, to go commando.

But his important topic for today was how the deepest lesson you must learn, as you metamorphose from child to man, is to learn to imagine what it is like to be someone else.

Ebert’s example, as always, is mine.

That brings me back around to the story of the school mural. I began up above by imagining I was a student in Prescott, Arizona, with my face being painted over. That was easy for me. What I cannot imagine is what it would be like to be one of those people driving past in their cars day after day and screaming hateful things out of the window. How do you get to that place in your life?

I often wondered, seeing pictures of those brave first students who calmly smashed through the racial barricades in Little Rock, what was it like to be those people?

Liitle Rock High

Not Elizabeth Eckford. It’s easy to imagine being her – just like it’s easy to imagine being Neil Armstrong making his giant leap for mankind, or Geoff Hurst making sure it really is all over now.

What was it like to be the girl behind her with so much hatred for someone she does not even know?

What was it like to be that guy who was so offended by the idea of black people and white people eating lunch together that he poured his drink over them?

The Lunch Counter

What is it like to be so afraid of catholic school children walking on protestant streets that you need to throw bricks at them?

Holy Cross


But what about the people in those cars? They don’t breathe that air. They don’t think of the feelings of the kids on the mural. They don’t like those kids in the school. It’s not as if they have reasons. They simply hate. Why would they do that? What have they shut down inside? Why do they resent the rights of others? Our rights must come first before our fears. And our rights are their rights, whoever “they” are.

Ebert’s story starts with the town in Arizona that commissioned a mural for their elementary school and then made the artist lighten the faces after a local politician complained on the radio. It ends long ago with a story from his own life.

One day in high school study hall, a Negro girl walked in who had dyed her hair a lighter brown. Laughter spread through the room. We had never, ever, seen that done before. It was unexpected, a surprise, and our laughter was partly an expression of nervousness and uncertainty. I don’t think we wanted to be cruel. But we had our ideas about Negroes, and her hair didn’t fit. Think of her. She wanted to try her hair a lighter brown, and perhaps her mother and sisters helped her, and she was told she looked pretty, and then she went to school and we laughed at her. I wonder if she has ever forgotten that day. God damn it, how did we make her feel? We have to make this country a place where no one needs to feel that way.

John Newcaso was the first black kid I knew and I am happy to count him among my 7 year old friends. If my memory serves me well, he was an orphan and newly arrived from Africa. He was very popular (perhaps because he was the only one who could throw two punches in a second – Hey! We were seven! – or because he held the record for longest flight for a paper aeroplane even after we all copied his design) but we made fun of him because he wore a brace on his legs.

I wonder how he remembers us?

Was his first year in cold, dreary England tremendous fun because he had so many friends and lashings and lashings of ginger beer? Or hell because of our relentless teasing? Or maybe it was just my memory cleaning up the darker corners? I hope not.

It Changed My Life – Book Three

I bought The Golden Treasury of English Verse and a harmonica as my only mementos of civilization when I set off to go backpacking around the world. I’m not entirely sure why though because I couldn’t play the harmonica and I hated poetry.

By the time I got back, I was enchanted by both.

Being untutored in the arts, I was free to decide for myself what I liked and didn’t like even if what I liked wasn’t the right thing or it was unfashionable or whatever. That sentiment applied equally to my music playing and to poetry.

darwinOne night, in Darwin, during a bone-shaking thunderstorm, I heard someone playing blues harp in the other room. It was the most amazing sound I had ever heard come out of a harmonica and I went to investigate. There was an Australian dude a little older than me and we got talking.

He invited me to play a little too and he said words to the effect of “Wow! I have never heard anyone play the harmonica like that!”. I am still not sure if he meant Wow! That was great! or Wow! You suck!

Since I had no idea how I was meant to play it, I just played what sounded good to me. Same deal with poetry.

I jumped around all over the book and each poem launched me into a quest for more poetry like this. I had been force-fed Wilfred Owen at school but reading him of my own accord felt reckless, revolutionary. After six years in the navy, I had to read poetry to find out what war was about.

I have, again, no recollection of why I decided that I should learn The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by heart but I gave up after about 75 verses. I was heartbroken when my new team at work decided that Team Albatross was too gloomy for a team name. They must not have read Coleridge (or heard the song).

My tastes were eclectic (sorry, Dylan, that I made you learn For Whom the Bell Tolls for a recital) and after mini-expeditions with Kipling (Kim, The Man Who Would be King), DH Lawrence (The Rainbow, Lady Chatterley, Sons and Lovers, Women in Love) and a day trip or two with Tennyson and Betjeman, I settled on George Gordon Byron as my travelling companion and soulmate.

250px-George_Gordon_Byron,_6th_Baron_Byron_by_Richard_Westall_(2)I read everything that Byron had ever written and, for a short, mad while, I wanted to be him. I wanted to be the second mortal to swim the Hellespont; I wanted to so scandalize my wife on my wedding night that she would file for divorce the very next day (must’ve been a pretty successful night as it produced Lady Ada who also discovered the joys of programming); I wanted to seduce the wives, sisters, sons and mothers of prominent politicians, including the prime minister’s; I wanted to raise a private army and go liberate the Greeks from the Turks or to die trying – like Byron did.

Shelley and Keats travelled with us for a while, but neither thrilled me the way Byron thrilled me.

I haven’t read poetry for a long, long time – except to read old favourites to my daughter. My passion, like Byron’s life, was brief but intense.

Why Darwin?

[Clearing out my drafts folder while I wait for my meeting to start and discovered this. Dunno if it’s any good or why I wrote it.]

Splendid wrap up of the Darwin Anniversary last year in the London Review of Books (it’s not short).

The reviewer focuses on the question  Why Darwin? After all, there are plenty of people (ok…not plenty of people…a few people) who have made as big a contribution to science as Darwin – Einstein, Newton, Gallileo – why is Darwin such a big hero?

descent_manAccording to Dawkins, Darwin’s idea wasn’t just a great one (‘the most powerful, revolutionary idea ever put forward by an individual’), it is essentially the only idea you need to explain life and all its phenomena: ‘Charles Darwin really solved the problem of existence, the problem of the existence of all living things – humans, animals, plants, fungi, bacteria. Everything we know about life, Darwin essentially explained.’

After a roundabout tour that disses evolutionary psychology and the New Atheists, the reviewer settles on the idea that, even without Darwin, someone would’ve come up with Natural Selection [er…they did – ed] just as someone would’ve discovered oxygen without Priestley [er…. -ed] or  figured out calculus without *Newton [now you are just messing with me – ed]. But Darwin’s great contribution was not that he was one of the greatest scientists of all times. It was that he was a great writer.

You can still say, with perfect accuracy, that the Origin is much more than its ‘essential’ theory of natural selection: it is a book, a magnificent theatre of persuasion, ‘one long argument’ (as Darwin called it), supported by masses of arduously compiled evidence, ingeniously organised and vouched for by a special individual, with known special virtues and capacities.

It so happens that I am reading The Descent of Man at the Moment, so I have recent experience of Darwin’s writing. It really is magnificent. When you think that he was writing about cutting edge science – not a popularization – and that, in fact, he was the one doing the cutting… it just takes your breath away.

If you have tried reading The Origin and got stuck at the pigeon chapter like I did, give Descent a try. You won’t regret it.

* For all the received wisdom about the inevitability of discovery, it was surprisingly hard to come up with a third example to make my joke work.