This week marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Sir Winston Churchill. He died on January 24 and his state funeral was on January 30, preceded by three days of lying-in-state in Westminster Hall. This was to give the ordinary people of the country an opportunity to pay their last respects to his memory, especially those who had lived through the last war, but also those like myself who had grown up in its shadow and who had listened later on to those heroic speeches that had so electrified our elders.
I was 18 that cold week in January, waiting to go to university in the autumn and about to spend some months working on a kibbutz in Israel. For some reason my parents weren’t able to go to London, so I went in their place – but also for myself: Churchill was part of history and I did not want to miss such a historic moment. So I was one of the 321,360 people who queued along the Embankment during those days in order to slowly process through to the great Hall and file past his catafalque.
I think the whole process took more than three hours but none of us thought of the inconvenience. We were kept warm with hot soup and sandwiches by the women’s voluntary services. It was almost as if the wartime spirit had returned; as far as I recall the crowds were silent, characteristically stoical about the weather, while the volunteers were cheerful and active. Somehow you felt the whole country had come to a standstill; a pause in time to capture a rare moment of national significance.
Later, watching the funeral on television back at home, certain things stood out: the moving pageantry of the marching uniformed men; the unrehearsed dipping of the cranes at the London docks as Churchill’s body was taken down the Thames; the news of his wish for a quiet burial in Bladon churchyard, alongside his family and his Marlborough ancestors, rather than the grand tomb of a warrior in St Paul’s cathedral. By then I had formed an impression of “the great Commoner” (Churchill had refused a dukedom), largely based on his command of the English language as shown in his wartime broadcasts but also from other anecdotes I had read about him, which had made him lovable – if on a grand scale.
In particular, I recalled that he had not been embarrassed as a schoolboy to invite his nanny, Mrs Everest, to visit him at Harrow – surely the only schoolboy of his day to make such a loving and unusual gesture of affection. (He also gave her money in her old age from his own meagre army cadet’s pay). It was an early example of his generosity and moral courage, his refusal to follow convention or care what other people thought. Even at Harrow he had a sense of his own destiny and a dim intimation that it would be bound up with his country.
Historians will always argue about his political mistakes, his faults and his legacy. But everyone who filed past his coffin in Westminster Hall was certain of one thing: that they were mourning the passing of a great man and a great patriot; someone who had given voice to their unspoken hopes, fears and determination at a supreme moment in the war against Germany.
Certain figures stand out in “our island story” as the phrase goes, always for their courage and the nobility of character that goes with it; people like St Thomas More, William Wilberforce, Lord Nelson or Edith Cavell. Churchill is of their number.