HOW THE “OLD MAN” KEPT GOING
W. H. THOMPSON
I GUARDED WINSTON CHURCHILL - PART TWO OF THREE PARTS
At seventy Churchill worked seventeen hours a day under the greatest strain a man can shoulder. His personal bodyguard tells how he did it — a strict regimen of relaxing baths, siestas behind a satin bandage, by chewing those famous cigars instead of smoking them, and by toying with those famous highballs for hours on end
BETWEEN the beginning and the end of the Second World War my wife and I probably saw as much of Winston Churchill at work as any other two people alive. I was his personal bodyguard and Mrs. Thompson—who was Mary Shearburn until our marriage in 1945—was one of his secretaries, whose chief duty was taking personal dictation.
Of all the questions we are asked about our former employer one recurs most regularly: “How did he do it?” Legend has painted the Churchill of those war years as a nonstop smoker, a more than occasional drinker, a man careless of sleep, contemptuous of routine and profligate of energy who somehow, in spite of his rapidly advancing years (he was sixty-five when he became Prime Minister in 1940), managed to work incessantly and tirelessly at perhaps the most exacting and monumental job ever entrusted to a single human being. It is not strange that, for many people, the miracles he worked were no more remarkable than the miracle that he was able to keep on working.
The truth is that even Mr. Churchill, astonishing physical machine though he is, couldn’t have done it had he been so extravagant of his strength or so indifferent to his health as is commonly supposed. Great organizer that he was, he realized from the start the necessity of organizing himself; great planner that he was, he treated the planning of his work and life as an essential part of the grand strategy for winning the war.
As I wrote in the first installment of my recollections, he found it very difficult to remove himself from the smell of danger and, as the person charged with overseeing his safety, I often had cause to wish that he had been less the warrior and more the man of prudence. But even though this was not my direct concern, I, like everyone else on his personal staff, was well aware that the most insistent danger was that of strain and fatigue. In the defenses he built against those lurking enemies nothing was left to chance.
His working day began about 8 a.m. As soon as he awoke he would ask for the newspapers. He would then spend about twenty minutes looking
through them. Then came breakfast, always a substantial meal during which he would look through the official news bulletins brought in by a private messenger. After breakfast, propped up with pillows and with a rubber pad for his elbows, he would light a cigar and begin work.
Just a word about those famous cigars. Mr. Churchill’s consumption of tobacco is not nearly as great as many people suppose. He chews the end of his cigars and, as he becomes absorbed in the details of the day’s tasks, he frequently lets the cigar go out. Before the mangled remains of a cigar was discarded it might have been lit a score of times and lasted through a couple of hours of concentrated thought.
Additionally, Mr. Churchill knows that, the public likes to see him smoking one of the celebrated cigars and, showman that he is in the best sense of the word—he hates to disappoint his public. I well remember how, as we drove through the cheering crowds between the House of Commons and Buckingham Palace on VE-Day, he asked me for a cigar. For once I had forgotten to bring his
case, so lie said: “Drive to the annexe (of No. 10 Downing Street) and I will gel one. 1 must pul one on for them. They expect it.”
It is the same with his drinking. During a long evening of conferences, successive visitors would find Mr. Churchill with a glass of whisky and soda at his elbow; but more often than not it would be the same drink which remained forgotten and hardly touched throughout the whole session.
When he was ready for his morning’s w'ork in bed his secretary sat at a typewriter by his bedside, ready for dictation. Mr. Churchill always began by opening his special brown-colored official box. He would go through his papers and dictate until 1 p.m. If he needed to confer with the Service chiefs he would receive them in his bedroom during the morning. Then he would rise and go to the bathroom for a hot bath, gargle and nasal douche. He would shave with an electric razor. Then he would dress and have lunch.
After lunch there would be more work for an hour or so until his afternoon siesta. Every day, in the afternoon or early evening, he would go back
to his bedroom, strip almost naked and get into bed. He would cover his eyes with a black satin bandage. If was one of my duties to have one of these bandages with me wherever we traveled. Sometimes, if we were on the road, he would lean back in the car, put one of the black bandages over his eyes and sleep peacefully with his head sunk into his chest.
When he went to bed for his hour’s rest in the afternoon he slept almost as soon as his head touched the pillow. He had a special pillow and could always pick out his own if it had been mixed up with the others during packing. Many times when he retired for a siesta and I have taken the satin bandage to him he has been asleep before I left the room.
After the siesta Mr. Churchill took his second bath before dressing for dinner. His two baths a day were essent ial to him as a form of relaxation. And if the Old Man did not get his bath there was the dickens to pay.
Once in Egypt we had a train stopped and drew'
a supply from the
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boiler of the locomotive. On another occasion, during the blitz, we arrived at Bristol in the small hours of the morning after a heavy raid. Mr. Churchill made enquiries about the damage, then turning to the hotel manager said: “Can I have a bath?”
“Yes, sir,” answered the manager without batting an eyelid. And he mobilized all his available staff, who carried up hot water from the kitchens in pails, cans and jugs.
After dinner Mr. Churchill might relax for an hour or so with a film show, but more often he went straight back to work. This final session went on until early morning. On some of these long night sessions he would drive himself and his secretary to the limit of physical endurance. More than once my wife has been seated opposite him in the cabinet room and fallen asleep while waiting for the next burst of dictation—only to wake in terror to find the Old Man in full spate.
But there were occasions when Winston Churchill was also unable to go
on, and the Prime Minister and secretary sat, one on each side of the table, both with leaden eyes closed, in spite of all efforts to keep them open.
Wherever we were during the war, in London or at Chequers, the country residence of Britain’s prime ministers, whether we were traveling by car, train or ship, a secretary would be at hand for Mr. Churchill’s continual dictation. In a car he was taken down in shorthand, but elsewhere, even in trains, he dictated directly onto the typewriter. Special cases were made for the kind of machine he likes and typewriters
were taken on every journey we made.
On a train traveling at speed the curiously sibilant pronunciation of some of Winston’s words is difficult to catch. Sometimes he would be in a patient mood and would give a repetition of the words his secretary missed. At other times a desperate guess was a far safer gambit than the risk of an interruption.
In full flow he would become irritable at any holdup and could hardly wait for the changing of the paper and the carbons at the end of each page. He would snap “Come on, come on, what are you waiting for?” And if the flimsies crackled as they were put into the machine he would grumble: “Don’t fidget with that paper.”
Tears for the Stenographer
When Mr. Churchill was dictating one of his famous speeches the room was tense with drama. He not only composed but he acted every line of them. Sometimes he would start off with a good flow, pausing only at the end of the typed page to snap out: “How many?” That meant he wanted to know the number of words he had dictated and he expected his secretary to reply without hesitation.
The inspiration would dry up for a little while. Mr. Churchill would pace up and down, muttering words and phrases to himself. Sometimes he would appear to be dictating, but really he was rehearsing.
When the flow started again he would rap out the words loudly, sometimes emphasizing a climax with a violent gesture. Often as he reached a peroration his arms would be waving as if he were in the presence of a crowd. A sudden passage of pathos or a mention of disaster while dictating a speech would bring the tears to his eyes; sometimes he would be almost sobbing, with tears running down his cheeks at the end of an affecting period. But the production of an epigram or an amusing piece of invective would be accompanied by an expression of delight and followed with a satisfied chuckle.
When the whole speech had been dictated Mr. Churchill went carefully through the first draft, checking every word and phrase. This revision might go through three typings before the text finally satisfied him. Then it was typed again into what he calls speech form. Paragraphs, sentences and even phrases were broken up into the exact periods in which they were to be delivered when the speech was made. The result looked rather like blank verse and once the speech was in this form Mr. Churchill rarely deviated from the text either in substance or in the stage directions for delivery.
Whether he was directly occupied with the job or merely thinking about the job, I suppose there were few waking moments during the war years when the Old Man wasn’t working. He did, however, force himself to steal relaxation occasionally and during the country week ends at Chequers I am sure he found much to refresh him in body and in spirit.
The arrival of the Prime Minister’s party at Chequers on a Friday evening was like a miniature invasion. There would be several carloads of distinguished guests, for the Old Man might have decided to hold a week-end Cabinet or ehiefs-of-staff meeting. Most of the visitors were, of course, connected with the war effort. On rare occasions, though, other guests were asked, including the famous pianist Moiseiwitsch and Sir Alexander Korda, the film producer.
Invariably Mr. Churchill’s personal party included Commander C. R.
Thompson, his person il assistant, three secretaries, the valet, myself and another detective, two film operators, one electrical engineer, three chauffeurs and a posse of London police for outside protection.
Sometimes when the Prime Minister arrived he was asleep in his car with his black satin bandage over his eyes. We did not rouse him, but within a few minutes of the car coming to a stop he would awaken.
After a bath Mr. Churchill would change into his siren suit. This was made to his own design by a famous London firm. He always called the suit “my rompers.” The first one he had was of a heavy woolen material in air force blue. Later he had lightweight rompers made for visits to tropical climates.
After dinner Mr. Churchill would put on a gorgeous dressing gown and with his guests might see a film show. That was the only break in the long night’s work. One film which he never tired of seeing, or of showing to the guests and household staff that made up the audience in the Great Parlor, was Lady Hamilton, produced in 1941 with Vivien Leigh in the name part and ,Sir Laurence Olivier as Nelson.
But sometimes the inspiration of the Nelson touch was lacking in the shows. One evening, at the time the Japanese were sweeping through Burma and had captured Mandalay, Mr. Churchill came into the Great Parlor for a film as the loud-speaker blared out the tune On the Road to Mandalay. “It’s a little late for that,” said the Premier grimly.
Music was Mr. Churchill’s other relaxation at Chequers. Mostly his testes were simple. He would put military band records or popular songs on the radiogram and march up and down the Great Hall to the rhythm. His favorite songs in the early days of the war included: Keep Right on
to the End of the Road—Sir Harry Lauder’s classic. It was, I think, perhaps an inspiration to him. Others were Run, Rabbit, Run, Poor Old Joe; and Home, Sweet Home. Some of these solo sessions to the radiogram certainly helped him to make plans or solve problems. I have entered the Great Hall to find him absolutely absorbed.
Bagatelle in the Great Hall
He would be dressed in his blue siren suit or a vivid dressing gown -looking rather like a Teddy hear -his hands thrust deep into his pockets and his head bent forward. He hummed the tune as he marked time, marched across the hall, did a smart about turn, marked time again and then repeated the manoeuvre. As the radiogram h id an automatic record changer this march would often last a considerable time. I would watch the serious look on Mr. Churchill’s face while he did his parade. Suddenly he would become aware of my presence, look up and smile one of those charming boyish smiles so familiar to those who knew him well.
He had another trick of seeming to relax when there was a problem on his mind. I have seen him come down to the Great Hall after a film show, apparently deep in thought. Oblivious of guests and staff' he would go to a small table and play bagatelle. He played as if the game was of the utmost importance and made careful note of every score on a piece of paper which was always kept by the board. Suddenly he would stop playing, ignore the board and begin an animated conference with some of his guests.
The power to extract odd little moments of rest and pleasure from his hours of ordeal seldom deserted him.
His best-known hobby, of course, is painting, and during the war his painting box and a canvas or two accompanied us on many of our journeys J—although the only occasion on which I can recall his being able to give much time to them was while he was recuperating from an illness at Marrakesh, in North Africa.
By No Means Reckless
He had one relaxation which I must confess gave me little satisfaction. He loves trees. He seems to find inspiration from just looking at them. It was with very real regret that he decided it was necessary to clear some trees at his private country place, Chartwell. But once he had decided they must go he took his part in the removal.
One morning he called on me to assist him to saw down a very large tree. He took one end of a two-handed saw and I took the other. He set to work with a will, maintaining for a time a terrific pace. Willy-nilly I had to proceed at the same pace. Winston tired after a while and called upon one of the gardeners to have a spell at his end.
We began again but at a steadier and more rural rhythm. Mr. Churchill now superintended the operation. He did not seem to realize that I too was inclined to become tired and eventually, in desperation, I suggested to him that he might like to try a turn at my end. The gambit did not come off. He airily replied: "You are doing exceptionally well, Thompson. Carry on. You will soon have that tree down.” We did eventually. Mr. Churchill remained the watcher and I the workman.
With Heart and Body
To return to the question, "How did he do it?” I believe a large part of the answer lies in the simple and still little-comprehended fact that Winston Churchill has been by no means careless in his personal habits, by no means reckless of his daily health. Another part of the answer lies in the joy, the zest that life holds for him. In contrast to so many people who find the slightest task a burden, the smallest duty an imposition, he revels in hard work and is really dissatisfied only when his mind is unoccupied.
And I believe there was another factor -some curious affinity between his heart and his body, a kind of unwritten contract that if the heart took on more than seemed sensible for a heart so old in years, the body would rise to the occasion and share the extra burden. I am not entirely theorizing here. In the first two months of the war, before he had become Prime Minister, he did manage to take an occasional week end at Chartwell for a relatively uninterrupted rest. But from 1940 to the end of the war he worked a regular hundred-and-twentyhour week. (I know because I didn’t go to bed until he did.) Yet here is a medical fact for which his own optician is authority: In the early war years his eyesight improved sharply to that of a man ten years younger.
In the final installment of his story in the next issue of Maclean’s, ex-Detective-Inspector Thompson writes of his famous employer as a sometimes querulous but often kindly man who hated whistling but gave a cigar to a Cockney soldier who asked him for one. He gives an intimate personal picture of Churchill having the time of his life making history. it