He would behave like a spoilt child; by the age of 14, he had already persuaded one of his schoolchums to take down his dictation while he reclined in the bath. As Churchill’s sister-in-law Lady Gwendoline “Goonie” Bertie put it, he had a tendency to “orientalism”, and was never so happy as when a servant was pulling on his socks.
He may have shown outstanding bravery when he went to the trenches, but his luxuries were astonishing. To the Front with Churchill went a private bathtub, large towels, a hot-water bottle, food boxes from Fortnum & Mason, large slabs of corned beef, Stilton cheeses, cream, ham, sardines, dried fruit, and a big steak pie, not to mention peach brandy and other liqueurs.
“You must remember,” his wife once told his doctor, “he knows nothing of the lives of ordinary people.” He never took a bus in his life, she said, and had only once been on the London Underground. He got lost, and had to be helped to find his way out.
He was also a tyrant with his staff. Churchill would not only keep them up all night while he dictated; he could get quite testy if they got things wrong. “Where were you educated?” he would shout. “Why don’t you read a book?”
What is worse than being a spoilt and irascible bully? How about the general charge that he didn’t really have real friends – only people he “used” for his own advancement? Or what about the charge of ratting on his friends – in many people’s eyes, the ultimate crime? When he made his famous escape from the Boer jail in Pretoria, there were two men who were meant to go with him, called Haldane and Brockie. The suggestion was that Churchill had welched on the agreement, and scooted off by himself.
A spoilt, bullying double-crosser: what else can we add? The final charge is that he was too self-interested, too wrapped up in himself to be properly human. Suppose you were a young woman ushered into a dinner party, and found yourself sitting next to the great man. The allegation was that he was really fascinated by only one subject, and that was himself. As Margot Asquith put it: “Winston, like all really self-centred people, ends up by boring people.” So that is the case for the prosecution, Your Honour.
Let’s now call the counsel for the defence – a role I am also happy, for the sake of argument, to play myself.
Take first the assertion that he was a bully. Yes, of course he pushed people hard, and it is certainly true that poor Alan Brooke, his military adviser, was driven more or less round the bend in the war – silently snapping pencils in an effort to control his feelings. But think of the stress that Churchill was under, co-ordinating a war that we showed no sign of winning.
Yet on the death of Violet Pearman, one of his most faithful and put-upon secretaries, he made sure that her daughter got money from his own pocket. He also sent money to the wife of his doctor, when she got into difficulties. And when a friend of his was injured in the Boer War, Churchill rolled up his sleeve and provided a skin graft himself – without anaesthetic.
Was this the action of a selfish tosser? “When you first meet Winston, you see all his faults,” said Pamela Plowden. “You spend the rest of your life discovering his virtues.”
Let us turn now to the allegations of his luxury amid the squalor of the trenches. It is true that there was a certain amount of dudgeon when he arrived at his command in January 1916. Who was this politician? grumbled the Scots Fusiliers. Churchill began by launching a savage rhetorical attack on the louse, Pulex europaeus. He then organised for unused brewery vats to be brought to Moolenacker for a collective delousing – and it worked. Respect for Churchill climbed.
He reduced punishments. He dished out his luxuries to all who visited the mess. Read With Winston Churchill at the Front, published by “Captain X” (in reality, Andrew Dewar Gibb), who saw what happened with his own eyes.
If a man left that mess “without a large cigar lighting up his mollified countenance, that was because he was a non-smoker and through no fault of Col Churchill”. He did the same with the peach and apricot brandy. Yes, there was a bath – but plenty of other people used it.
Churchill got the troops singing music-hall songs. He urged them to laugh when they could. One young officer, Jock MacDavid, later recalled that, “After a very brief period, he had accelerated the morale of officers and men to an almost unbelievable degree. It was sheer personality.”
Did Churchill really “rat” on his friends? Regarding his conduct towards Haldane and Brockie, his two would-be fellow-escapees from the Pretorian jail, it is clear from all the diaries and letters that when it came down to it, on the night, they just wimped out. Churchill went into the latrine and jumped over the wall, and then waited for them for an hour and a half in the garden, risking detection. But they never came: he can’t be blamed for that!
Let us deal lastly with the general charge of selfishness: that he wasn’t much interested in other people, that he wasn’t much fun at parties – except when bragging about himself. Of course he was self-centred and narcissistic – a fact that he readily acknowledged. But that does not mean he had no interest in others.
Read his letters to his wife, Clementine, worrying about such things as whether the baby is going to lick the paint off the Noah’s Ark animals. Think of his kindness to his mother, who had actually cheated him of his £200,000 inheritance. Note his endless generosity towards his younger brother Jack, who lived with Churchill in Downing Street during the war.
All the evidence suggests that Churchill was warm-hearted to the point of downright sentimentality. He blubs at the drop of a hat. He weeps at the news that Londoners are queuing to buy birdseed to feed their canaries during the Blitz; he weeps when he tells an ecstatic House of Commons that he has been forced by fate to blow up the French navy. He was openly emotional in a class and society that was supposed to be all about the stiff upper lip.
He had what the Greeks called megalopsychia – greatness of soul. Churchill was not a practising Christian. He never believed in the more challenging metaphysics of the New Testament. His abiding interest was in glory and prestige – both for himself and for the “British Empire”. But he had a deep sense of what it was right and fitting for him to do.
That is why I am here at this graveyard in east London. The lady before and beneath me is Churchill’s nanny. “Erected to the memory of Elizabeth Ann Everest,” says the inscription, “who died on 3rd July 1895 aged 62 years, by Winston Spencer Churchill and John Spencer Churchill.” The story of how it came to be here is in some ways an awful one, but also a physical testimonial to the fundamental goodness of Churchill’s nature.
Churchill’s mother, Jennie, was a remote and glamorous figure, swishing in panther-like in her skintight riding gear to kiss him goodnight; otherwise not much involved. It was Mrs Everest, a largish and middle-aged woman from the Medway towns, who gave Churchill the unstinting love he craved.
“My nurse was my confidante,” said Churchill. “Mrs Everest it was who looked after me and tended all my wants. It was to her I poured out my many troubles.” He called her “Woom” or “Woomany”, and we have many lovely letters from her to him: urging him to take heroin for his toothache, to watch out for the east wind, not to try to get on moving trains, to avoid the hot weather, and debt, and bad company.
On one famous occasion, neither of his parents could be bothered to come to his Speech Day at Harrow; so Mrs Everest came, and Churchill walked around town with her, arm proudly in arm, while the other boys snickered. That showed moral courage; and more was to come.
When Churchill was 17 and Jack was 11, it was decided that the nanny was no longer needed; and though there were plenty of posh English families that retained their superannuated nannies, Churchill’s mother made no provision for Mrs Everest. She was to be out on her ear.
Churchill was incensed and protested. As a compromise, work was found for her at the London home of his grandmother, the Duchess. But two years later that job, too, came to an end. Again Churchill was angry that she was being treated in this way – dismissed by a letter! He accused his mother of being “cruel and mean”.
It was no good. Mrs Everest went to live in Crouch End, and Churchill helped to support her from his own relatively meagre income. She continued to write to him, and while he was at Sandhurst she sent him some encouragement. “Be a good Gentleman, upright, honest, just, kind and altogether lovely. My sweet old darling, how I do love you, be good for my sake.”
By 1895, Mrs Everest’s health was failing, and on July 2 he received a telegram saying that her condition was “critical”. He arrived at Crouch End, to find her only concern was for him: he had got wet on the way there. “The jacket had to be taken off and thoroughly dried before she was calm again.”
He found a doctor and a nurse, and then had to rush back to Aldershot for the morning parade – returning to north London as soon as the parade was over. She sank into a stupor and died at 2.15am, with Churchill by her.
It was Churchill who organised the funeral and the wreaths and the tombstone, and indeed it was Churchill who paid for them all, out of his own exiguous resources. He was only 20.
It is hard to know exactly how much the world owes Winston Churchill’s nanny. But if anyone taught him to be good and kind and by and large truthful, it was surely her.
Once, at the age of seven, he was walking with his nanny in the grounds of Blenheim. “We saw a snake crawling about in the grass,” he wrote to his father. “I wanted to kill it but Everest would not let me.”
She it was, I reckon, who helped him to that vast and generous moral sense.
‘The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History’ (Hodder & Stoughton, £25) can be ordered for £22 plus £1.95 p&p from Telegraph Books (0844 871 1515; books.telegraph.co.uk). Boris Johnson will be taking part in a Q&A with Gaby Wood on October 23 at Imperial College London. Tickets are £40 (including a signed copy of ‘The Churchill Factor’) and are available from telegraph.co.uk/borisjohnson