Deep beneath Westminster, in the heart of London, is a complex of rooms that were a hidden secret for many years. They are the Cabinet War Rooms from where Winston Churchill and his team masterminded Britain’s response to the Nazi threat of World War II. From here, in austere, uncomfortable rooms full of pin-holed maps, Bakelite telephones and drab utility furniture, Britain was saved from the brink of invasion and D-Day was plotted.
Seventy years on, in a world of GPS, 24-hour news coverage, i-phone apps and Twitter, it is awe-inspiring that a vast and desperate war was fought from these drab rooms by ingenuity, intelligence and a fair bit of bluffing . One of the very first transatlantic telephones – on which Churchill spoke to Roosevelt – is here, in a cupboard disguised as a toilet. The losses on a pivotal day of the Battle of Britain are scratched on a simple chalkboard, and a sign announces that a klaxon will sound in the event of a direct bomb hit (workers down here were told the place was bomb-proof, but it absolutely wasn’t). By our standards it all looks so primitive, but what emanated from these rooms – not least some of Churchill’s most iconic speeches – was staggeringly powerful.
The spirit of one man permeates these corridors – Winston Churchill. Larger than life, working 18-hour days, puffing on his ever-present cigar, Churchill was a fascinating giant of a character. Exacting (often frighteningly so), constantly bursting with ideas, he demanded everything of himself and expected the same commitment of others. Walk through into the exhibition of his life, and your picture of this man fills out. Consistently voted the Greatest Brit Who Ever Lived (though he was half American, on his mom’s side), he was complex and flawed, brilliant and prescient, passionate and difficult – a true maverick before that word became a political gimmick. In our time of managed soundbites, ruthless control and spin, Churchill would probably never have got off political first base, but thank heaven that destiny threw him up when it did.
So what do I admire about Winston Churchill, and what made him such a brilliant war-time prime minister?
Everything he did was based on experience: As a young man, despite the aristocratic blood running through his veins, he fought in the Boer War, escaping from a train and, with a price on his head, got himself back to Britain. As an officer in the trenches in World War I he led from the front – his men admired him because he only asked them to do what he was prepared to do himself, and he was cool under fire. He didn’t just talk the talk; he’d waded through the mud with bullets blasting at him.
He was accountable and he took calculated risks: The world has always been full of pundits and pontificators, but it’s harder to find leaders who will take responsibility for huge decisions. At a desperate moment in history, Churchill stepped up to the plate. He wasn’t always right, but he got it right more often than not.
He worked like a man possessed, but he did it HIS way: He worked in his pyjamas in bed most mornings, he took a nap every afternoon for an hour, and he was still going at 1am. He pushed himself endlessly because he knew the vital importance of what he was doing.
He had ideas – and he thought outside the envelope: Not all his ideas came off, sometimes people laughed at him, but frequently he was right and his ideas proved pivotal. He thought in fresh ways, he never stopped imagining and looking for new ways to find an advantage over the enemy. He had great mental agility – born in an age of cavalry charges, in his later life he foresaw the dangers of nuclear proliferation.
He was a wonderful communicator: As a speaker he was sonorous, inspiring and memorable. But he was also fabulously witty. Read some of his many sayings and you’ll see what I mean – he was verbally dextrous, sharp as a knife, and very, very funny. No situation was so bad that he couldn’t illuminate it with his often acid wit. He ploughed his own linguistic furrow – no modern, sloppy vernacular for him!
He bounced back from failure: Churchill knew the ‘black dog’ of depression. Blamed for the mess of Gallipoli, he said, ‘I’m finished’. But he wasn’t – he came back to lead his country. Losing the election before VJ Day, he was devastated, but went on to have huge input into the debates of his time. He wouldn’t be put down and he wouldn’t be silenced.
He was tough, even ruthless, but always humane. He drove his team mad – but they wouldn’t have worked for anyone else. He growled and grumped; he pretended to be deaf when he didn’t want to hear something; he lit up a room.
He never stopped being himself: He always ate three substantial meals per day. He loved port and Stilton. He started a trend for bizarre fuzzy ‘romper suits’. He could be fantastically rude, but he was also endearing.
So, why I on earth am going on about Winston Churchill when I’m a children’s literary agent sitting at a desk in the USA? Have I gone completely mad? Well, maybe – but you see, I believe the whole of life is joined up and that the things we discover about ourselves and the world permeate seamlessly into all areas of our life. And that includes writing, and the often perplexing business of books.
As we head into the (metaphorical) U-boat convoys of 2010, I salute the spirit of Winston Churchill, and I dare to put my little feet in his massive footprints. I also commend him to you. We may not be fighting a world war, but we fight other wars – often within ourselves. Wars of despondency, anxiety, defeat. Narrowness of vision. Inflexibility. Self-pity. Conformity – forgetting who we really are. Willingness to accept the second rate. Whether we are writers, agents or publishers, Churchill challenges us to get up, get going, tough it out – and live our lives in the brightest and boldest of colours. We may not always win, we may discover harsh truths about ourselves, but we can bounce back, fighting.
Finally, there are just two more – very important – things I want to tell you about Churchill.
Married to Clementine Hozier, his life-long love, he said, ‘I lived happily ever after’. His Clemmie told him the truth, and they gave each other mutual support all their lives. Who is the colleague/animal/friend/partner/spouse who is the Clemmie in YOUR life? Who can celebrate with you, hold you up when it all goes wrong, and remind you that there are even bigger things in the world than your writing ambitions?
Churchill was a wonderful painter in oils. He could have been a professional. When it all got too much, he took himself off with his old hat, palette and easel. Before his death he said he’d like to spend the first million years of the afterlife painting. What fills YOU with joy and helps you keep life in perspective? In a business with few predictable outcomes, we all need that antidote.
In this first week of 2010, a new picture hangs on the Greenhouse wall – of those 1940s airmen staring at the sky. ‘Never was so much owed by so many to so few.’
So true. Rest in peace, Sir Winston. And to all of us, a courageous, productive and Stilton-filled new year.