It was my turn to go into London and spend the day with Heidi. I wanted to visit the Churchill War Rooms, which are an underground complex near Parliament that are operated by the Imperial War Museum. Heidi had already been there, or wasn’t interested, I can’t remember—so we planned to meet at the Houses of Parliament for a tour at 2pm.
I bought tickets online for both places which enabled me to breeze past the block-long line of suckers hoping to get in to the Churchill rooms. There’s a reason they control the number of people who enter. These were the underground bunkers where Churchill and his team lead the war effort, and so they are dark and cramped. I was only inside for a couple hours and I felt claustrophobic. I can’t imagine spending days and nights down there—breathing in thick cigar smoke and hearing bombs falling overhead.
Winston Churchill was complicated. He was born into wealth—at Blenheim Palace, near Oxford, where I had enjoyed many long walks on the pleasure grounds. He joined the army, was captured in South Africa during the Second Boer War, and made a movie-script-like escape. He was elected Prime Minister and indisputably led the nation through World War II with world-famous speeches with lines like:
“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.”
“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
“… we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, 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; we shall never surrender.”
“Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.”
World War II—and the US making England repay every penny we contributed to support them during the war—and lots of other factors, broke the Empire. The official end wouldn’t be until 1997, when they turned Hong Kong over to China, but many would argue that it really ended with decolonization/independence of India, Malaysia, Singapore, Jamaica, Sudan, Ghana, Kenya, Jordan/Israel/Palestine, and many, many others after the war and into the 60s.
Churchill opposed Indian independence on paternalistic grounds—the Indians needed the British to get them organized. If Ghandi went on another hunger strike, he said, they should let him die. When Churchill was elected PM a second time, he had a front-row seat for the Empire’s dismantling. He lived to be 90 despite being—famously—a chain cigar smoker and heavy drinker.
I feel so inadequate when I write these posts about which hundreds of books have been written and dozens of movies and TV shows made … go see the film that’s just out now, called Churchill. All I can do is repeat my caveat that I am not a history professor, although sadly I think I could play one on TV. I am just a curious person traveling around, learning a bit here and there, and forgetting most of it by dinner time.
One thing I can say with certainty: the War Rooms have a really good cafeteria and gift shop. After spending time and money in both I emerged into the rainy street.
I had hours to kill before meeting Heidi. I opened my souvenir Wimbledon umbrella and fought my way through the crowds to the Houses of Parliament bookstore, where I bought more stuff which forced me to carry more bags.
I made my way to Victoria Tower Gardens, a quiet park on the west side of Parliament, and gazed out over the Thames through the rain.
Suddenly I felt something like an electric zing. I have few photos of my father. Being here triggered a memory of a black and white photo of him standing in this exact place with his umbrella open, 50 years ago.