As the Havengore carried Churchill’s body down the Thames, I was not at all enjoying his funeral.
A cub reporter on the Newcastle Evening Chronicle, I was based in the frozen coal port of Blyth, where even the puddles of vomit outside the pubs frosted over on Sunday mornings. And the Blyth lifeboat – how all of us regretted it – had long ago been named the Winston S Churchill and even the town’s socialist dignitaries agreed that this blue-painted but life-saving barque should set off into the North Sea blizzards on 30 January 1965 with, you guessed it, a clutch of local reporters on board.
A 19-year-old Fisk managed (just) to master his seasickness while a council flunky hurled a rather tatty wreath into the waters as the boat pitched horribly amid the waves.
A colleague was later heard to remark that we could “thank fucking Churchill for that”, a comment that did not find its way into my report for the Chron.
This, of course, was before the dung heap of history took a swing at the old man’s life. Gallipoli, the creation of fraudulent Arab satraps in the sandpits of Transjordania and Mesopotamia, the deployment of troops in the General Strike, Dresden, those old racist quotes (the Indians, the “fakir” Gandhi, the Red Indians); they’re all part of the “don’t-forget-what-a-shit-Churchill-was” coverage that would never have been published in our coverage of the funeral 50 years ago.
But I have to report that Churchill had some pretty intemperate views about Muslims, which he expressed in the first edition of his 1899 account of the Sudan campaign, The River War – views so dark that he was persuaded to delete them from all later editions.
Winston Churchill: Life in pictures
Winston Churchill: Life in pictures
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Winston Churchill leaving London for his country home, Chartwell in Kent in 1964
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Sir Winston Churchill with his daughter Mary and son-in-law Christopher Soames (right) in 1964
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(Seated left to right) Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal; Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, Winston Churchill; Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, (standing left to right) the Secretary to the Chiefs of Staffs Committee, Major General L C Hollis; and the Chief of Staff to the Minister of Defence, General Sir Hastings Ismay at an unknown location
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Winston Churchill flashes the V-sign on 19 June 1963
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Winston Churchill feeds the deer in Richmond Park, accompanied by his private secretary Anthony Montague Brown and personal detective Edmund Murray on 25 March 1963
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Winston and Lady Churchill leaving their Hyde Park Gate home for an Ascot race meeting on 16 June 1961
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Jacob Epstein with Winston Churchill in 1958. The pair lived on the same London street
Evening Standard/Getty Images
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Prime Minister Winston Churchill kisses Queen Elizabeth II's hand as she leaves 10 Downing Street in London, after a dinner on 4 April 1955
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Winston Churchill at the christening of his granddaughter, Charlotte Soames at Westerham Parish Church, Kent on 6 November 1954. Left to right: godparents Fitzroy MacLean and Diana Churchill, Sir Winston Churchill, Lady Clementine Churchill, Christopher Soames and his wife Mary Churchill. The children are Nicholas, Jeremy and Emma Soames with his grandson Nicholas Soames
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French President Paul Ramadier awards the medaille Militaire to former British prime minister Winston Churchill on 12 May 1947
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Winston Churchill outside the German Reichstag during a tour of the ruined city of Berlin on 16 July 1945
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The prime minister of the wartime Coalition government Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill during a speech 0n 2 July 1945. The July 1945 general election resulted in a resounding victory for the Labour Party
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British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (L) walking with General Bernard Law Montgomery near the Rhine river in Germany during an advance by Allied troops on 23 March 1945
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Marshal Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill together at the Livedia Palace in Yalta, where they were both present for the conference on 7 February 1945
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Winston Churchill with his daughter Mary and General Sir Frederick Pile (GOC Anti-Aircraft Command) watch anti-aircraft guns in action against V1 flying bombs on 30 June 1944
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Winston Churchill and General Sir Bernard Montgomery with his dog in 1944
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Prime Minister Winston Churchill Prime US President Franklin D. Roosevelt seated in the garden of the villa in Morocco where they met for a war conference surrounded by British and American war correspondants, on 23 January 1943
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Winston Churchill and his wife, Clementine, on board a naval auxiliary patrol vessel during a visit to the London docks on 25 September 1940
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First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill strolls in the grounds of his country home, Chartwell Manor on 31 October 1939
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
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Winston Churchill, recently appointed Hon Air Commodore to 615 Auxiliary Air Force Squadron, climbing out of a Gloster Gauntlet II aircraft during a visit to the Squadron at Kenley, Surrey on 16 April 1939
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Winston Churchill balancing a top hat on his walking stick watched by his daughter Mary, outside the Mansion House in London
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British statesman Winston Churchill attends the Anglo-Irish Conference in Downing Street on 11 October 1921
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The platform party is attentive to Winston Churchill as he delivers his address opening a new YMCA hostel for munitions workers at Enfield, Middlesex, on 20 September, 1915
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Winston Churchill won his first parliamentary seat in 1899
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2nd Lieutenant Winston Churchill of the 4th Queen's Own Hussars in 1895
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Winston Churchill dressed in the uniform of Harrow School Rifle Corps
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Winston Churchill between the ages of 13 and 17 at the time he attended the Harrow School
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Winston Churchill in his school years
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The former Jennie Jerome, Lady Randolph Churchill, born in New York, with her sons John (left) and Winston, in 1885
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Winston Churchill as a young boy, aged 7, in Dublin, Ireland
“How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism [sic] lays on its votaries!” Churchill wrote in this now almost unobtainable first edition. “Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog, there is this fearful fatalistic apathy … Improvident habits, slovenly systems of agriculture … exist wherever the followers of the Prophet rule or live. A degraded sensualism deprives this life of its grace and refinement; the next of its dignity and sanctity.”
There is much more on the enslavement of women and the dangers of Islam, along with the usual liberal sentiments which have their modern-day counterparts.
“Moslems [sic] may show splendid qualities. Thousands become the brave and loyal soldiers of the Queen: all know how to die: but the influence of the religion paralyses the social development of those who follow it.”
But there are a few, now-censored remarks which would have Isis and Boko Haram nodding in agreement. “No stronger retrograde force [than Islam] exists in the world,” the great man announced, but “…Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith. It has already spread throughout Central Africa, raising fearless warriors at every step…” If it were not for Christianity, “sheltered in the strong arms of science,” then “the civilisation of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilisation of ancient Rome.” Ukip couldn’t better that.
And Churchill was not alone among his contemporaries in denigrating the peoples of India and the Arab world. Politicians from India and Egypt impressed one of his fellow Europeans as “jabbering Orientals” and “mountebanks” who tried to convince Europe that the British Empire was about to collapse.
“England will never lose India unless she gives way to racial confusion…,” he wrote. “Indian risings will never be successful… I…would far rather see India under British domination than that of any other nation.”
These imperialist statements appear in Hitler’s Mein Kampf, whose English publishers, Hurst & Blackett, blurbed their 1938 edition with the advice that this is “a book everyone should read, for it reveals the forces and circumstances which went to make a remarkable character”.
The trouble was that a lot of people did read Mein Kampf. The tragedy was that they didn’t take it seriously. Thanks be to God, therefore, that we had the author of The River War. My dad adored him so much that he persuaded Churchill to autograph the first volume of his Marlborough: His Life and Times. The book is beside me as I write these words. “Inscribed by Winston S Churchill 1948,” the Great Man wrote on the flyleaf. Volume Two got shorter shrift. “WSC” was all the old boy would give my dad there.
Bill Fisk kept a massive, black-and-white photograph of Churchill above the fireplace at our old home in Maidstone; the 1940 Prime Minister glowering into the camera.
When Bill died, my mum asked me if she could take the picture down. I agreed. I didn’t like Churchill very much, least of all after I wrote my PhD thesis on Ireland and WSC’s threats to invade the country during the Second World War when he declared that Eire was “at war but skulking”.
But I was moved by Nicholas Soames’s comment that his grandfather was an “authentic” man – compared, at least, to the Cameron show which we had to watch last week as the current Prime Minister fawned over Churchill’s memory.
As for Bill’s huge photograph, it has no place on my wall today. But I keep it still, in a little cupboard. You can’t throw Churchill away.Reuse content