(HOST) Forty years after watching the funeral of Winston Churchill as a boy, commentator Peter Gilbert still remembers the pageantry of that occasion and feels the pull of that historic man.
(GILBERT) I don’t remember hearing of Winston Churchill’s death, but I do remember his state funeral on January 30, 1965. It seemed to me as if history itself were on parade: the thousands of sailors and soldiers marching slow-time – 65 steps per minute; and the launch that took his coffin up the River Thames for burial beside his father, who had thought his son such an abysmal failure, and had told him so repeatedly.
An unscripted tribute came when the huge steel cranes on the wharf dipped their long necks in an eerie and poignant salute as the boat passed. As I recall, a band played Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, because its famous beginning – three staccato notes flowed by a longer note – is Morse Code for V, and Churchill’s V for victory sign was iconic.
Although short and heavy, Churchill towered over the 20th century like a colossus. He was a man of action who had a way with words. If England was the lion, he said, it fell to him, during World War II, to provide the roar. And his wit: it disarmed and charmed. It made England’s challenges seem more manageable.
It was his good fortune that his character fit the time and circumstances perfectly. He will be forever linked in memory with his nemesis, Adolph Hitler. As biographer Gretchen Rubin observed, had Hitler not existed, history would remember Churchill less favorably had his opponent instead been Gandhi.
Churchill’s life story is larger than life and stranger than fiction. He was an adventurer, warrior, statesman, painter and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. He had the lead role in the great drama of the twentieth century – the battle for civilization. And he died, as he predicted he would, on January 24th – the same date his father had died seventy years before.
Churchill never went to college. Indeed, he was a lousy student in school. But recognizing his shortcomings, he schooled himself, reading extensively. He was intellectually curious and energetic. He immersed himself in history. According to biographer Rubin, when, in August 1940, others wanted to talk about Hitler’s invasion plans, Churchill started by studying the most recent successful invasion of England – that of William the Conqueror in 1066.
Churchill was far from perfect: he was racist and sexist; he was a snob; he sought to preserve the British Empire. But in England’s darkest hour, when invasion seemed imminent and defeat inevitable, he inspired a nation to fight on.
After a service in Westminster Abbey commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Battle of Britain and just months after Churchill’s death, the Queen dedicated a plaque. It reads, “Remember Winston Churchill.”
Indeed we do.
This is Peter Gilbert in Montpelier.
Peter Gilbert is the executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.