Tuesday, September 03, 2013


Winston Churchill, author of the Gallipoli fiasco of 1915-16 and the disastrous deflation of the British pound in 1925, finally redeemed his reputation in his sixties as the head of Britain's wartime coalition government. In your humble narrator's youth, most Americans who knew of Winston Churchill considered him one of the greatest heroes of the twentieth century, the man inspired a besieged island nation to fight the Nazis wholly through the power of oratory. Winston Churchill's wartime speeches are certainly masterpieces of rhetoric, but careful research by Professor Richard Toye of the University of Exeter has revealed that most Britons found the prime minister's addresses less than inspiring at the time of delivery. Polls from the early 1940s indicate that listeners had measured responses to Churchill's broadcasts, found some of them gloomy or depressing, never actually heard one of the most famous speeches ("We shall fight them on the beaches...") on the radio, and in some cases considered the prime minister guilty of a "f[arging] cover-up." Listeners also thought the PM was drunk during his "finest hour" speech of August 1940, and lest some of my readers think this improbable, let me add the following recollection by Churchill's secretary, who left no indication that he considered the PM's drinking habits excessive:

"At work or on holiday, Churchill drinks a glass of dry sherry at mid morning and a small bottle of claret or burgundy at lunch.  To Mr. Churchill a meal without wine is not a meal at all.  When he is in England he sometimes takes port after lunch, and always after dinner.  It is at this time that his conversation is most brilliant.  In the late afternoon he calls for his first whiskey and soda of the day...He likes a bottle of champagne at dinner.  After the ritual of port, he sips the very finest Napoleon brandy.  He may have a highball in the course of the evening." (Paul Fussell, Wartime [1989], 98.)

Small wonder that Dave Barry renders Churchill's most famous dinnertime quote as "Madam, I may be drunk, but BLEAAARRRGGGHHH." Apparently the prime minister thought he had better treat World War Two less as a great national trial and more as a drinking game.

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