THE WIT OF WINSTON CHURCHILL #4
From a book compiled by Dominique Enright
CASTING PEALS: SPEECHES
Making speeches, WSC is said to have claimed, is 'The art of
making deep sounds from the stomach sound like important messages
from the brain.' It is a great deal more than this, of course, as
Churchill well knew. His friend Lord Birkenhead's quip, 'Winston
has devoted the best years of his life to preparing his impromptu
speeches', carries more than a grain of truth. Unlike many, if
not most, statesmen, Churchill did not employ a speechwriter - he
worked hard preparing his speeches, usually in bed, often
remarking of those that were taking a lot of effort, 'This speech
is hanging over me like a vulture.' He would also sometimes say,
'I'm going to make a long speech because I've not had the time to
prepare a short one,' which is not as illogical as it sounds, as
anyone who has had to condense an argument into a limited number
of words will recognize. He also said of verbosity, 'it is sheer
laziness not compressing thought into a reasonable space'.
One of Churchill's most famous speeches is that of June 1940: '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 . . .' It is said that, as he paused in
the great uproar that greeted these words, Churchill muttered to
a colleague next to him, 'And we'll fight them with the butt ends
of broken beer bottles because that's bloody well all we've got!'
'Call that a maiden speech? I call it a brazen hussy of a
speech.' The novelist, humorist, lawyer and politician A. P.
Herbert recalled Churchill's view of an overconfident first
address to the House of Commons, recorded in Leslie Frewin's 1973
Churchill compilation, "Immortal Jester."
The Chamber had - as always when he was about to speak - filled
up with MPs, to whom Churchill delivered a masterful and forceful
speech. At the end of it a disgruntled Member remarked 'Here
endeth the book of Jeremiah'; his neighbour watched all the MPs
flock out now that the speech was over and added 'Followed, I
see, by Exodus.'
Churchill's opinion of the admiral and intermittent MP Lord
Charles Beresford (given in a speech to the House of Commons in
1912) as an orator gives us a taste of his firm views on public
speaking. It is worth noting, however, that Beresford was one of
those who made very clear his opposition to Churchill's election
as a Member of Parliament. 'He is one of those orators,' WSC
snorted, 'of whom it was well said, "Before they get up, they do
not know what they are going to say; when they are speaking, they
do not know what they are saying; and when they have sat down,
they do not know what they have said."'
During a long and boring speech from one of the many less
inspiring MPs, Churchill spotted an elderly Member straining with
an ear trumpet to hear what was being said, and demanded loudly,
'Who is that fool denying his natural advantages?'
'I can well understand the Honourable Member's wishing to speak
on. He needs the practice badly.'
Asked - unwisely - by a young MP how he could have put more fire
into the speech he had just made, Churchill's alleged answer was
predictable: 'What you should have done is put the speech into
When another Member of Parliament remarked to Churchill on the
fact that he never began an address with the words 'It is a
pleasure to . . .', Churchill answered, 'It may be an honour, but
never a pleasure. There are only a few things from which I derive
intense pleasure, and speaking is not one of them.'
A BBC broadcaster described once sitting next to Churchill as he
gave a speech, keeping his audience hanging on to his every word.
The broadcaster noticed, however, that what appeared to be notes
in Churchill's hand was only a laundry slip, and he later
remarked upon this to Churchill. 'Yes,' said WSC. 'It gave
confidence to my audience.'
'Let us not shrink from using the short expressive phrase even if
it is conversational.' Two of Churchill's most famous speeches
made use of colloquial exclamations, to good effect.
In a speech in Ottawa, 1941 - 'When I warned them [the French]
that Britain would fight on alone whatever they did, their
generals told their Prime Minister and his divided Cabinet: "In
three weeks England will have her neck wrung like a chicken."
Some chicken! Some neck!'
('Some chicken! Some neck' aroused laughter and applause not only
for its spirited language, but also because, unknown to him at
the time, 'neck' in Canada was slang for'nerve').
And in a speech to the US Congress in December that same year
(referring to the Japanese, and quoted later): 'What kind of
people do they think we are?'
Many speakers in the House of Commons liked to adorn their
speeches with Latin tags - most of them could, after all,
understand Latin - at least, most of those who had the advantage
of a public school education ... Churchill, on the other hand,
usually stuck to the English language. On one occasion, however,
he did include a quotation in Latin: '. . . which I will now
proceed to translate for the benefit of those . . .' he paused.
The Labour members, hackles beginning to rise, waited to hear
'lacking the advantage of a public school education', to be
completely deflated as, smiling benignly, the Prime Minister
repeated, 'For the benefit ... of any Old Etonians who may be
Churchill enjoyed teasing his audience in the House of Commons
and - as the stuff of parliamentary speeches can sometimes be
pretty heavy going - no doubt the gathered MPs looked forward to
his speeches partly for this very reason.
'Of course it is perfectly possible for honourable members to
prevent my speaking, and indeed I do not want to cast my pearls
before . . .' he conceded one day, pausing as the entire House
waited expectantly for 'swine', '. . . those who do not want
(They no doubt knew that Churchill was fond of pigs).
AH, THE ART OF SPEECHES, AND THE ART OF SURPRISES WITHIN THOSE
SPEECHES, SELDOM IS IT HEARD TODAY. FEW HAVE THE SPONTANEOUS WIT,
SARCASM, COMMAND OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE, LEADING TO THE EDGE OF
EXPECTATION BY OTHERS TO THE "BIG FALL" AND QUIETLY WALKING AWAY
TO THE SHOCK AND AMAZEMENT OF ALL.