Schoolboy Churchill

Posted by T on September 09, 2007

Winston Churchill was educated in four schools. First, was St George’s near Ascot, where he attended from age 7 to 9. The main thing of note here is that the physical discipline was quite harsh, in the manner that has been made famous by English “public schools” of that period; only more so. Delicate health led to transfer to Brighton, where the family doctor resided. Next was prep-school Eton-competitor Harrow, aged 13-17. Winnie was not a particularly good student, and at some point Lord Randolph decided on a military trajectory for his career (but noting that, if worse came to worst, he could tap his connections with the Rothschild family to get Winny started in a business career [Gilbert 32]).

No: that deserves more than a parenthesis. Lord Randolph noted that “if he fails again I shall think about putting him in business.” Using his Rothschild connection “I could get him something very good.”

Oy Vey!

On the third try (spanning over a year of cramming), Winston finally passed the entrance exam for the military school of Sandhurst, and attended there from ages 17 to 19, being commissioned in the 4th Hussars at age 20, in Feb 1895.

Winston as young scholar

In general, there can be no concealing the fact that Winny was a poor student. Foreign language and mathematics were particularly opaque to him. But he did carve out a niche that preserved him: those areas where a capacious memory can come to the rescue. He could memorize vast tracts of poetry, even winning a prize for reciting 1,200 lines from Macauley’s Lays of Ancient Rome.

Winny also scored high in history. A good memory serves well in History, whereas in mathematics and science, not so much memory as reasoning and understanding serves.

Winny’s knack for history entailed more than just a capacious memory, however. He had an eye for the story; and history is nothing if not a story.

His memory allowed him to bluster his way through the foreign language exams as well (but—see below). His performance fell off dramatically, however, when new material needed to be translated.

The character of the young scholar

From the age of seven, Winny spent virtually all of his youth at boarding schools. This was more the rule than the exception amongst upper-class British of that era; but hagiographer Martin Gilbert highlights Winny’s longing for visits from his parents as a leit-motif of his youth (e.g. Gilbert 2, 4, 6, 8, 9, 12, 15, 17, 20, 21, 22). And undoubtedly, a pronounced desire to be loved continued to be a marked theme in WC’s life, even after childhood. We can therefore view that particular character defect with Christian sympathy. At the same time, however, it is fair to note that that childhood circumstance was, in fact, a common one among the British ruling class; and others were able to transcend it.

It may have had its positive effects on his character as well, however. The usually-frustrated desire not to displease his absent and often disapproving father was perhaps a contributor to his bulldog strength of will. This can be seen in an interesting incident, wherein Winny while at military school inadvertently dropped a watch that his father had given him into a deep pool (Gilbert 43). Mortified, he dived in, but could not find it; the water was so cold that he had to leave after ten minutes. He had the creek dredged; no luck. So he hired a detail of 23 soldiers to dig a bypass channel on the creek, and used the campus fire truck to pump all the water out of the pool: finally, the watch was found.

A second recurring pattern exhibited by the young Winston was an inordinate love of money. Gilbert does not try to hide this theme either (e.g. 6, 9, 12, 27, 29, 31, 32). Even the eternally patient pious governess Mrs Everest once wrote, “I think you are awfully extravagant to have spent 15/- in one week, some families of six or seven people have to live upon 12/- a week. You squander it away and the more you have the more you want and spend… I do so want you to have more discretion and judgment about spending your money. You do everything at random my Pet without thinking and it is a growing evil and unless you try and cure yourself of it you will have to suffer severely later on.” As a young man, and as a cadet, Winny even fell into betting on horse races. Mrs Everest wrote that he should “disappoint some of your relations who prophesy a future of profligacy for you.”

A love of the sensory pleasures that can be bought with money was a characteristic of Winston through his whole life, as we will see. At least it can be said, I suppose, that this motive did not drive him to robbing banks; from early manhood, he found ways to earn massive amounts of money within the legal system.

The third theme I would highlight from Winny’s youth is what I will call rhetorical cheating.

To approach this theme, consider Churchill’s advice of reading and memorizing Bartlett’s quotations.

It is a good thing for an uneducated man to read books of quotations. Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations is an admirable work, and I studied it intently. The quotations when engraved upon the memory give you good thoughts. They also make you anxious to read the authors and look for more. (Roving Commission, 116)

But this short-circuits the process of understanding another mind; as if the real point of that tome were a couple pithy lines extracted by Bartlett. It is the moral equivalent of laying down a bunt, then running straight for third base. It is laying claim to a treasure that has not been won fairly.

It is the same mistake that is made by those that use the odious Thesaurus when writing.

(There is one time only that this is permitted: when the right word is “on the tip of your tongue,” and you need a memory-jogger. But some people I have known use it as a cheat. They are pulling out words to showcase, words that are not part of their mental life; they would use a word they have never heard of before. “I have already used the word ‘eager.’ Now I should use a different word meaning the same thing… ah, I see here… ‘avid.’ Yes, ‘he was avid to go to the ballgame.’”)

Churchill’s use of Bartlett’s strikes me as the same mental cheat.

The issue is bigger than Bartlett’s: is has to do with a whole approach to the life of the mind, and how ideas are expressed. Churchill’s own mother, floozy though she was, was on to him: “You take too much on yourself young man, and write in such a pompous style. I’m afraid you are becoming a prig!” (Gilbert 36). Some years later, as a young MP, Churchill’s cheat was called by the PM Balfour after Churchill had dressed Balfour down in some pompous deliverance. Balfour extemporaneously observed,

It is not on the whole desirable to come down to this House with invective which is both prepared and violent… If there is preparation there should be more finish, and if there is so much violence there should certainly be more obvious veracity of feeling. (Jenkins 95)

Winston’s own assessment

The biographers stick to “the facts.” Fortunately, Winston himself saw fit to comment on his early life from the vantage point of middle age in his work, A Roving Commission. We can learn much from a study of this work. The omissions are themselves interesting. Failing to mention that his father’s premature death was due to the degenerative effects of syphilis was filially proper; the near absence of reference to the Rothschild connection and of his own aggressiveness in pursuing his war correspondent commissions is more questionable. Positively, the kind of examples he chooses to ingratiate himself with the presumed young reader is disturbing enough; what is shocking is the indifferent and confiding tone assumed while describing the ways he cheated, vandalized and lied. At rock bottom appears the foundation of a pragmatic approach to religion, and love of applause.

We learn, for example, that he early on had the gift of gab and was able to parlay that into a knack for whipping off a quick essay. So he traded that skill with a classmate, by writing the boy’s essays for him in exchange for that boy supplying him with the daily translation of the Latin (21). To set the stage for the reader to accept this, he had already poked fun at the very concept of studying ancient grammar by way of assuming the voice of his youth and feigning a dialogue with his master over the absurdity of the vocative case, “Oh Table” (mensa) (11). It is unlikely that a young boy of that era would have been so pert and gotten away with it; I suspect the whole dialogue is a fictionalization to make a point. But it sets the stage so that the reader shares a bit of Winny’s indignation at the requirement of learning grammar when he later explains his cheating scheme.

While in his last year at Sandhurst, he narrates a story that he obviously finds quite amusing (50-59). A woman on the London city council began a campaign against dissipated and alcoholic merry-making around the theatres. An ad appeared in the paper for a meeting of a society to resist this campaign, which attracted Winny’s youthful attention. He spent days preparing a speech which he would be ready to give on demand; but when the day arrived, he found the society consisted of no one more than just the man who had placed the ad. So Winny returned to the college, broke from train fare and deflated. His eager friends plied him for a blow-by-blow of what had happened, and Winny simply made up a fabricated story. Later, at the theatre promenade in question, a riot broke out that Winny participated in, using the opportunity to deliver his first public speech.

The story is telling at several layers. First is the unbashful egotism to think that he, just a young man, would be called upon to speak at the first society meeting. Second, his willingness to lie to his friends. Third, the vandalism. And finally the audacity to use the riot as the long-coveted platform to hear himself speak.

Enough. In summary of the Schoolboy Churchill, we find a student whose poor performance is still being rationalized well into middle age; a cheat, liar, vandal, gambler, Epicurean and poseur. But what is particularly disturbing is that we find no middle-aged ruefulness. There is no tone of sheepishness, or “Lord forgive the sins of my youth.” (I will address his religious views separately.) This is no Augustine whose conscience, quickened by God, mortified on the remembrance of stealing pears as a boy, is driven to the mercy of God. Instead, we find a series of chuckles purchased cheaply by a hollow man.


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