Here in Blighty, the English Channel seems currently to be providing a backdrop to our contemplations of the past and musings about the future. Monsieur Macron popped across to have a pub lunch with Mrs May in her Maidenhead constituency and to inspect the Coldstream Guards at Sandhurst. He certainly looked very presidential. But then, he has a huge mandate. He also sounds very presidential, judging from the interview he gave on the Andrew Marr show. He is young, cool, and eloquent. His English is very good. Of course, we who inhabit these islands are, as a general rule, indifferent linguists. Perhaps it has something to do with our detached status as islanders. New Zealanders, and the Japanese, are almost as bad as we are.
Monsieur Macron announced that he was lending the UK the Bayeux Tapestry. The Bayeux Tapestry is nearly a thousand years old and depicts the last time these islands were successfully invaded, by William of Normandy who won the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Churchill, as you would expect, put it more eloquently; he talked of the last time the enemy’s camp fires were seen on these shores.
Churchill has featured in three recent blockbuster movies which have also focused on the English Channel – Churchill, Dunkirk, and Darkest Hour. In Churchill, the great man was played by Brian Cox. The film focused on Operation Overlord and the run-up to D-Day in 1944. Churchill was depicted as a man haunted by his memories of the First War and in particular the carnage of Gallipoli. He was only too well aware of the perils involved in moving a large invading force safely across the channel.
In Dunkirk, we are back in May-June 1940 and the film depicts the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force. Churchill does not appear in the film, but a repatriated soldier on a train up from the coast reads for our benefit a substantial extract from Churchill’s speech to parliament – “War is not won by evacuations….”
And in Darkest Hour, Gary Oldman plays a Churchill asked by a reluctant King George VI to form a government on May 10th 1940, mistrusted by the Conservatives and under immense pressure to sue for peace and seek terms with Herr Hitler. He conceives the crazy plan of evacuating the BEF from Dunkirk using a fleet of pleasure boats.
Both the films in which Churchill the man features are to an extent revisionist in nature. You might even say they both take diabolical liberties. In each case, a revisionist stance becomes the motive force of the film. In Churchill, the PM is portrayed as a man who, four years after his finest hour, has lost the plot and has become to his generals a thorn in the flesh and an interfering nuisance. Of course there is a grain of truth in that. Read the diaries of the CIGS – Lord Alanbrooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, and the wonderful, if ethically questionable memoir of Lord Moran, Churchill’s personal physician, Churchill, The Struggle for Survival 1940/65. Lord Moran describes Alanbrooke as wringing his hands and crying, “That man! That man… Yet, where would we be without him?” Churchill who was indeed apprehensive about opening a second front (he’d been holding out against Stalin’s plea for years) asked Alanbrooke to undertake a feasibility study of invading occupied Europe via the Pyrenees. Alanbrooke told him immediately it was a non-starter, but Churchill insisted on a researched report, which Alanbrooke duly organised and presented. The Pyrenees plan was not feasible. Churchill accepted that. Alanbrooke went on to say, “Now I’m going to tell you, Prime Minister, what I think of you wasting my time and that of my staff…” And he went on to tear a strip off his political master. Churchill always listened to his generals and took their advice in the end.
That much is so, but it can hardly be justified to present Churchill in 1944 as a disempowered, half-gaga version of King Lear. One scene is more than reminiscent of Lear’s great crazed invocation to the elements –
Blow winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow,
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout…
Churchill has the PM getting down on his knees to ask the Almighty for bad weather over the channel in order to scupper Overlord. Unlikely. And you only have to read the Memoirs of Field Marshal Montgomery to see that the portrayal of Monty as contemptuous of Churchill is quite inadmissible.
In Darkest Hour, the motive force is the sense of a Churchill swithering, almost minded to accept Lord Halifax’s advice and sue for peace, yet stiffened in his resolve by sounding out the British people on whether they were minded to fight on. Again, a grain of truth. After Coventry was “coventrated”, he took a trip up north because he’d heard people were growing “fretful” and he wanted to see for himself. When the people responded to his own evident sense of compassion, he recorded, “I was completely undermined, and wept.” So yes he sounded out the mood of the people. But that he should undertake to do this by going for a ride in the London underground strains credibility. Attlee yes. He used to take the tube to work when he was PM. But not Churchill. Churchill was an aristocrat. He even says himself in the film that he’d never been on a bus. After it was all over, Churchill said with uncharacteristic modesty that it was indeed the British people who had the heart of a lion and that he was merely called upon to give the roar. Yet Lord Moran once told Churchill he lacked antennae. He was a transmitter rather than a receiver. The sublimity of his vision was innate.
Yet, both films contained a scene that moved, perhaps because they each carried a sense of authenticity, and both involved the king. In Churchill, the king told him, gently, that he should not allow himself to go to France with the invading army. Churchill had been intent on going but he relented. Only the king could have made that happen. In Darkest Hour, when Churchill finds himself devoid of support and utterly alone, the king supports him.
Over fifty years after his death, Churchill continues to fascinate. In his own sad period of decline at the end of his life, he himself came to dwell on the events of 1940 and to see 1940 as the great culmination of his life. Yet there is a danger for us, in this peri-Brexit UK, of harking back nostalgically to a Blighty that no longer exists, if it ever did, and harping on about its finest hour. It happened. Get over it. What next? Churchill got interested in striving for a lasting peace, and he talked quite openly of a “United States of Europe” although, granted, his vision of Britain’s place in Europe was probably always to be semi-detached.
Fast forward seven or eight decades, to Sandhurst, and l’entente cordiale. M. Macron wants to weave “a new tapestry”. Despite the fact that the Brexiteers are accused of pulling up the drawbridge, Boris wants to build a bridge over La Manche. I gather most of his colleagues think the idea is ridiculous. I think Winston might have liked the idea. When France was about to fall in 1940 and he was desperately trying to keep them in the struggle he even proposed the British and French share mutual dual citizenship.
Still, if we are not going to have a bridge to Normandy, I propose one from the Mull of Kintyre to Antrim. It’s only 11 miles. Currently my favourite region of Scotland, beguiling Argyll, is like Brigadoon, in a state of deep hibernation. Let’s open up the Celtic World.
I tell you what – in Westminster, that would go down like a lead balloon.