Elected twice as the Conservative Party’s Prime Minister (UK) (1940 to 1945; and 1951 to 1955), Sir Winston Churchill was a statesman, an orator, a master of quick Birbalic wit (if I may so coin the phrase), and the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. His mastery in English is explained in his own words, “being so long in the lowest form I gained an immense advantage over the cleverer boys. They all went on to learn Latin and Greek and splendid things like that. But I was taught English. We were considered such dunces that we could learn only English. Mr. Somervell – a delightful man, to whom my debt is great – was charged with the duty of teaching the stupidest boys the most disregarded thing – namely, to write mere English. Thus, I got into my bones the essential structure of the ordinary British sentence – which is a noble thing. And when in years my schoolfellows who had won prizes and distinction for writing such beautiful Latin poetry and pithy Greek epigrams had to come down again to common English, to earn their living or earn their way, I did not feel myself at any disadvantage.”
Winston became the British symbol of resistance to tyranny and the free world’s opposition to Nazi Germany’s brutality. As a young subaltern in the Army, Churchill was posted in India in 1896. He explains the experience of landing in India as, “we pulled up the curtain on what might well have been a different planet.” [Ref: ‘My Early Life’]. Posted in Bangalore, with his mother’s (Lady Randolph Churchill) influence, he arranged to work with the Pioneer and the Daily Telegraph as the war Correspondent at the frontier region of Nowshera. He is still better known, infamously so, for the most unforgiving misdemeanor a Brit can be guilty of during the days of the Raj. Winston Churchill owed Rs. 13/- to the Bangalore Club which was later written off as ‘irrecoverable debt’!
Winston Churchill lead a very colorful life, with several ups and downs. Always at the forefront of affairs, he had his finest hour during World War II as the Prime Minister leading Great Britain to victory, to free the world of a scourge of a megalomaniac dictator. In his speeches, he set the tone for a plethora of witty and ingeniously engineered phrases which came to known as his very own ‘Churchillian flavour’. One such that foxed me, is, “I like pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals.” I really mistook the line to be written by Gerald Durrell in his novel, ‘My Family and Other Animals’
Churchill’s defiant nature was epic even at the tender age of thirteen, when he was summoned by Headmaster Weldone over some infraction. When Weldone said, “I have very grave reason to be displeased with you,” Churchill responded politely, “And I sir, have very grave reason to be displeased with you!”
This masterpiece exhibits Churchill amazing psychological warfare expertise – it was proposed that all Royal Marines rifle muzzles should have a sheath to protect them from low temperature, when in Norway. A pharmaceutical company, specializing in manufacturing condoms, was appointed to manufacture the sheaths. When the first consignment came for the PM’s inspection, he looked at the box and muttered “Won’t do.” A second box was opened and again the PM repeated, “Won’t do,” and same for the third! Exasperated, the aide said, “What do you mean they won’t do? They are long enough for the rifle muzzles – ten and a half inches!” Pat came the cryptic answer, “Labels! I want a label for every box, every carton, every packet, saying ‘British Size: Medium’. That will show the Nazis, if they ever recover one of them, who’s the Master race!”
As for some bathroom humor, when Churchill was disturbed from his ‘thinking time on the throne’ by a call from Lord Privy Seal, Churchill responded, “Tell him I can only deal with one shit at a time!”
Once, when Churchill was living as President Roosevelt’s guest at the White House, as Roosevelt’s son recalls, his father wheeled himself into Churchill’s room just as Churchill stepped out of his bath. Roosevelt tried to turn away but Churchill stopped him saying, “The Prime Minister has nothing to hide from the President of United States!”
Once when someone pointed out that his fly buttons had come undone, he quipped with a straight face, “Dead birds don’t fly off their nests.”
Churchill’s was an era when even insults reflected class, erudition, intelligence and wit. The putative insults exchanged between Churchill and Lady Nancy Astor, with her acerbic tongue, exuded wit and are classics, compared to the present day degeneration into ‘Pappuisms’.
Lady Astor is sometimes erroneously believed to be the first woman to become a Member of the British Parliament. Many parliamentarians did not like to have a lady in their midst including Churchill. He is supposed to have commented, “having a woman in Parliament is like having an intruder in the bathroom,” and Lady Astor retorted, “You’re not handsome enough to have such fears!”
Answering his question as regards what disguise he should wear to a masquerade ball, Lady Astor suggested, “Why don’t you come (as) sober Prime Minister?” Once, out of sheer exasperation, Lady Astor said to Churchill, “If you were my husband, I would poison your tea.” Churchill courteously replied, “Madam, if I were your husband, I would drink it!”
Elizabeth Margret Braddock, popularly known as Bessie Braddock, once told Churchill, “Winston, you’re drunk, and what’s more, you are disgustingly drunk!” Churchill replied, “Bessie, my dear, you are ugly, and what’s more, tomorrow I shall be sober and you’ll still be disgustingly ugly!”
The great George Bernard Shaw once told Churchill, “I have booked two tickets for the opening night. Come and bring a friend, if you have one.” Churchill replied, “Impossible to come at the first night. Will come at the second night, if you have one.”
When the Minister of Fuel and Power of the Labour Party advocated saving energy by taking fewer baths, Churchill quipped, “When Ministers of the Crown speak like this on behalf of His Majesty’s Government, the Prime Minister and his friends have no need to wonder why they are getting increasingly into bad odour!”
Churchill, the haughty aristocrat, would describe Clement Atlee, British PM (1945 to 1951), a simple and unassuming person, as “a sheep in sheep’s clothing!” and “a modest man who had much to be modest about!”
Towards the end of the WWII where he led troops to victory, when the London Times wrote in an editorial suggesting that Churchill should retire gracefully, he replied, “Mr. Editor, I leave when the pub closes.”
In 1953 he was invested the Knight of the Garter becoming Sir Winston Churchill, KG. In the same year he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, “for his mastery of historical and biographical descriptions as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values.” Sir Winston Churchill indeed left behind a galaxy of sharp ‘come-backs,’ acerbic insults, speeches and epigrams that make for great reading and remembering.