The novel Churchill At Munich is a work of alternate history. It orchestrates events such that Winston Churchill becomes Prime Minister a couple of years before he actually did. The lion-hearted man of legend then attends the pivotal Munich Conference in place of the deluded and spineless Neville Chamberlain. In this passage, the exceptional events that take Churchill to Downing Street have not yet occurred. It is April, 1937. He is still just an M.P., not even a member of the Cabinet. In fact, he is widely disliked and distrusted within his own party, and regarded by many in the general population as a warmonger. Since the advent of Adolf Hitler four years earlier, Churchill has been warning of the Nazi threat and urging massive British re-armament. In this excerpt, the narrator of the novel is attending a Churchill lecture with his wife Mary, a fierce admirer of Churchill. With them is their precocious nine year-old daughter, Vicky.
Churchill At Munich. Excerpt
Back safe and sound from the wilds of Hackney. Not a single savage beast was sighted, and the humans appeared evolved. Mr. Churchill too came away in one piece, though not unscathed. As things turned out, our darling Vicky … well, let me tell you things in proper order.
Mary bullied us to the event early and we snared seats in the second row. Mr. Churchill is looking good for a relic in his sixties. The notorious pale blue eyes are still prominent, even youthful. When you think about it the man embodies the last forty years of our history, and here he is kicking and snorting as if in his prime. We should give the old steed credit for his unflagging energy.
The audience numbered in the hundreds and included a group of Fleet Streeters scribbling into their notepads. I was disappointed when Mr. Churchill started his lecture with painful understatement. He seemed distracted, almost subdued. He stood with shoulders hunched, hands gripping the lapels of his coat. In a low drone he paid homage to the volunteer spirit and splendid works of the Hackney Women’s Institute and sister organisations throughout the Empire. Oh my god, I thought, is he off his game? Are we in for a protracted bore? The spindly fold-up chair was punishing my gluteus maximus, and Vicky’s fidgeting started the moment we sat down. The rain beating against the windows was a consolation. At least the afternoon we had travelled halfway across London to destroy wasn’t fine.
“Giv’ it ‘em, Winnie!”
The shout came from a cockney sailor in a bush jacket. He was egging Winnie on, because so far Winnie certainly wasn’t givin’ it ‘em.
Mr. Churchill unbuttoned his suitcoat and hooked his thumbs into the armholes of his waistcoat. An inscrutable smile shivered on his lips. Maybe he was about to share a tease. He looked up at the ceiling, playfully, roguishly. Then his expression turned icy – the incorrigible ham. He could have been on a war footing in the Commons ready to inveigh against his usual foes. His tone remained low, measured, sombre.
“Good citizens of Hackney, I have been invited into your midst to discuss developments in Europe. I shall do so with the aid of vivid facts. Be warned, the details of current reality paint a dire picture. The signals from the continent grow more ominous. They augur little but crisis for our island.” His next words came in a sudden growl. “Yet in the face of approaching storm, we are being led by brittle and timid men!”
A scattering of applause triggered a catcall from the back of the room. Mr. Churchill smothered the interruption with an engulfing roar: “THE BRITISH PEOPLE MUST BE TOLD THE TRUTH.”
That brought a hush. The master thespian charged in and started telling it as he sees it. The threat to peace in Europe, he said, has been maliciously fired and stoked. Dreams of conflagration prosper in Berlin. The fist of autocracy has cowed and mastered the German people. The productive power of that immensely energetic nation now serves a racist, oppressive, totalitarian regime. The vigorous youth of Germany, increasingly indoctrinated and regimented, are marching in thrall to an odious ideology. The democracies must brand Germany’s grievances as fraudulent, indict its goals as abhorrent, and pledge themselves to this truth: that the current predicament in Europe does not stem from the Great War rightly won, but from the Big Lie nurtured in its wake. It is plain deceit to claim the victorious powers imposed a Carthaginian peace on Germany. That is the myth leading Europe to the lip of war. In fact the German people have not been unjustly punished. It is the Versailles Treaty that has been unjustly condemned. Twenty years ago the Germans were defeated in a ghastly conflict of their own instigation, yet the victors left them whole, did not divide them, nor break up their state, nor loot them of their lifeblood …
Of course we’ve heard it all before. We have heard it for years in newspaper articles, wireless interviews, speeches in the Commons. Although Mr. Churchill was saying nothing new, I must admit he has a way of saying it and an uncommon gift for holding your attention. As expected, Mary sat motionless, eyes rapt. Vicky too sat stock-still, her fidgeting banished by the speaker’s spell. The hecklers meanwhile seemed content to keep their powder dry.
“Think of the Teutonic might and wrath now glowering over Europe. If we had reduced Germany to a vassal state, would it have possessed the breath and sinews to become the menace it is today? The question answers itself. In violation of its treaty obligations, Germany has rearmed. On land, on the sea, in the air, it flexes the muscles of a malignant war machine. Hitler’s factories produce five hundred tanks a month, a fresh U-Boat every ten days. The dictator said he would tear up the Versailles Treaty, and he is keeping his vicious vow, while the democracies stand back, mutely watch, do nothing. Our own factories remain idle and our research goes to rust. The consequence? We have made ourselves mortally vulnerable to Nazi threats and Nazi aggression.”
I was irritated by Mr. Churchill’s pronunciation of the word Nazi. He rolls the ‘z’ off his tongue like the mellow ‘z’ in zipper. It drains the wickedness out of the word, even makes it slightly comical. I must write and tell him!
Mr. Churchill then took up his pet theme of the importance of air power. He said the number of active squadrons and reserves in the Royal Air Force remains dangerously inadequate. He called for the number of aircraft and qualified pilots in the RAF to be doubled, then re-doubled, then doubled again. At this a woman’s voice rang out from the row behind us:
Vicky and I turned to see the source of this epithet rise to her feet and brandish her umbrella. “WARMONGER!” she added in a near scream, pointing her brolley at the stage and trembling with fury. This was no practiced firebrand but a nondescript lady in her forties wearing a well-ironed white blouse and modest grey skirt. Reminded me of our dear Patty turning insurgent.
At the lectern Mr. Churchill was patting the air in front of him as if to calm a whimpering dog. “Madame,” he said in a tolerant drawl, “thank you for that lively contribution, no matter how imprecise. Be assured of my sole aim. It is to alert the British people to a grave disservice being done them. You should know for yourself, your loved ones, your countrymen, and equally for our cherished traditions of freedom … at the primary and indispensable task of guarding the nation, your government is failing!”
“BOLLOCKS!” The loud vulgarity came from a man as aged as my father. “You are creating panic,” the old fellow croaked, as he made his way into the centre aisle. He stayed rooted there after his outburst, shaking a fist at the speaker.
“Sir,” said Mr. Churchill, “I salute your spirit. If our country continues down the dark corridor our leaders have chosen, we may need your passion to fuel our survival. For the time being let me say this: do not think that those who back down from the snarl and menace of Hitler have a monopoly on the desire for peace. I am – ”
This comical insult issued from a tall pencil-thin young fellow at the back of the hall. I turned in time to see him follow up his rejoinder with the two-fingered salute.
“Scandalous!” shouted another man, and I could not be sure if he was agreeing with the heckler or rebuking the uncouth gesture. The dam broke then and numerous taunts rose up of Brandy man! and Remember Gallipoli! Answering cries came from Churchill supporters, including from one livid man who bellowed, “He’s the greatest Englishman alive!” So we had a rumpus of boos and retorts as hecklers jeered hecklers and I was confirmed in my view of Hackney as an untamed feral backwoods …
It was at this point when my nine year-old daughter made me feel as if I were in a dream. Responding as she explained later with ‘a sort of instinct’ to those ‘mean shouters’, our darling Vicky rose, turned to face the audience, stepped up onto her chair, waved her skinny arms in the air, and screeched:
“Please, please! Kindly be still! Can’t we hear Mr. Churchill speak?”
Our little girl’s voice, pitched to its uttermost squeak, had the effect of creating a shocked and amused quiet in the hall. Mary and I sat stunned. From one instant to the next a beloved prepubescent daughter can transform into a mysterious stranger and declare astounding independence.
Mr. Churchill rushed into the moment. “From the impulse and courage of our youngest should we take instruction,” he said, coming round to the front of the lectern and bowing to Vicky, who had retaken her seat and appeared dazed. “Thank you, my dear brave girl. It will be my honour to shake your hand at the close of these proceedings.”
When the lecture ended I dashed out for some fresh air while Mary and Vicky stood in line to meet the speaker. Mr. Churchill did better than shake Vicky’s hand. He swept her up and gave her a proper hug. Then he took both of Mary’s hands into his own and complimented her on rearing ‘a young lioness’. Imagine the thrill for my spouse. She has only idolised the man forever. She came out of the hall looking nineteen.
Michael Carin’s novel Churchill At Munich recently won the fiction prize at the Whistler Independent Book Awards. His previous works include The Kremlin Papers, The Future Jew, and The Neutron Picasso. His novel Five Hundred Keys has been optioned by Serendipity Point Films. Trained as a political theorist at McGill University, Michael was for many years Editor-in-Chief of Montreal Business Magazine.
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