‘We are all worms, but . . .’

Syed Badrul Ahsan
Wednesday, June 21st, 2017


Politics without repartee and politicians without wit can often turn out to be an abrasive concoction. And it is especially in these present, some would say mediocre, times that a sense of humour in politicians remains acute by its conspicuous absence. We are rather unfortunate that ours happens to be an age when, for much of the time, we laugh at politicians rather than laugh with them. That is the pity, given that there used to be a time when men like Piloo Mody, Atal Behari Vajpayee, Syed Badrudduja, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan injected good doses of humour into their politics and left people feeling pretty light-hearted, even jocular, about conditions that were otherwise quite weighty.


It was such humour, an abundance of it, which shone through Winston Spencer Churchill. Well, he may have been a bad student in school and then, paradoxically, a tough wartime leader for Britain. But he was also a clear thinker and a good writer, as his speeches and his books were to prove so conclusively. What was, however, an even bigger quality in Churchill was his natural ability to lighten up a serious situation through barbs that left everyone around rolling in laughter. Imagine the wit that comes with the ego when he describes himself thus: “We are all worms, but I do believe I am a glow worm.” It is such gems of humour that Dominique Enright, whose compilation, The Wicked Wit of Winston Churchill, I have been re-reading, packs her work with.


All too often, the Churchillianisms, if one may so use the term, that come through this collection leave one most amazed at the sheer ability of one individual to produce such a long stream of humour. Think of the time in 1900, when Britain’s future prime minister went about seeking votes in an upcoming parliamentary election. As he goes around shaking hands with some constituents, one of them snaps at him: “Vote for you? I would rather vote for the devil.” An unfazed Churchill responds, “I know, but if your friend decides not to run, can I count on your support?” Such repartee, you can be sure, will leave even a hardened detractor entertaining second thoughts about his political position.


Sometimes there was the obviously rude that came into Churchill’s attitude to others. Remember that snide comment on half-naked fakirs when it came to speaking of Mahatma Gandhi? Churchill did not even spare his political contemporaries in Britain. “An empty cab drew up outside 10 Downing Street, and out of it stepped Clement Attlee.” That was how he denigrated a foremost politician of his day. Once, as a loud lawmaker was busy talking on the phone, Churchill asked his young aide about the identity of the parliamentarian. The aide shortly returned, to tell him who it was and that he was talking to Scotland. “I know”, replied Churchill, “but ask him to use the phone.”  In one of the more memorable of his wartime speeches, Churchill would declaim: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills . . .” As a loud roar of appreciation went up, it is said Churchill muttered to a colleague nearby, “And we’ll fight them with the butt ends of broken beer bottles because that’s bloody well all we’ve got.”


The rudeness was sometimes of staggering proportions. Asked by a young MP if the maiden speech he had just made in Parliament should have contained more fire in it, Churchill replied coldly, “What you should have done is put the speech into the fire.” His opinion of Arthur Balfour was searing: “If you wanted nothing done, Arthur Balfour was the best man for the task. There was no equal to him.” The British leader had nothing but intense dislike for France’s Charles de Gaulle, who in turn was not willing to be treated as anyone but an equal by other Allied wartime leaders. This is what Churchill said of De Gaulle: “He looks like a female llama who has just been surprised in her bath.” He was forever on an assault on Attlee, who to him was “a sheep in sheep’s clothing.” And he was scathing about Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Mikhaikovich Molotov: “I have never seen a human being who more perfectly represented the modern concept of a robot.”  He was also clear about the way he felt about Stafford Cripps, London’s ambassador to Moscow in December 1940. Cripps simply was “a lunatic in a country of lunatics.” Of US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, Churchill came forth with a mere three words, “Dull, Duller, Dulles.”


There were of course people, generally individuals at the receiving end of Churchill’s attacks or irritated by his wisecracks, who sometimes hit back. One of these was his American ally, President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The US leader once blandly remarked, “Churchill has a hundred ideas a day, of which four are good ideas.” Lord Beaverbrook was merciless. Churchill, he stated, “has the habit of breaking the rungs of any ladder he puts his foot on.” Aneurin Bevan had this to say about the man: “He is a man suffering from petrified adolescence.” Margot Asquith, Herbert Asquith’s second wife, was certainly harsh in her view of the wartime prime minister. Churchill, according to her, “would kill his own mother just so he could use her skin to make a drum to beat his own praises.”


Despite all the attacks on him, of course in response to his attacks on others, there was no mistaking the natural sense of humour that flowed through Churchill. As a young MP in 1900, he sported a moustache. A woman soon came up to him and told him loudly, “There are two things I don’t like about you, Mr. Churchill — your politics and your moustache.” Churchill’s satisfying retort must have left the woman floored: “My dear madam, pray do not disturb yourself. You are not likely to come into contact with either.” In his advancing years, Churchill was confronted by his young grandson, who wanted to know if he was really the greatest man in the world. And this was the reply: “Of course I am the greatest man in the world. Now buzz off!”


Dominique Enright includes, for good measure, a reasonable number of Churchillian epigrams at the end of the book. They remain proof of the wisdom that once underlined the career of politicians, and not just in Britain. Here, as you might see, are some nuggets of ever brilliant wisdom:


Never trust a man who has not a single redeeming vice. A nation that forgets its past has no future. Never stand so high upon a principle that you cannot lower it to suit the circumstances. You will never get to the end of the journey if you stop to throw a stone at every dog that barks. Perhaps it is better to be irresponsible and right than to be responsible and wrong. Civil servants — no longer servants, no longer civil.


And there we are.

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