by Stuart Millson
In 2002, the late Albert Finney starred in a film for television, directed by Richard Loncraine, about the “wilderness years” of Winston Churchill. With Vanessa Redgrave co-starring as his devoted wife Clementine, The Gathering Storm depicted the efforts made by the then marginalised Churchill to warn Britain of the growing power of The Third Reich and the possibility of the invasion of our islands if its defences were not improved.
With great attention to period detail, the drama concentrated on domestic life at Chartwell, the large house in north-west Kent, near Westerham, which was Churchill’s home and political power-base for much of his life. Sir Winston adored the grounds and the old building, with its 14th-century foundations and profoundly rural setting in the wooded Kentish hills. Here, the ridge of the North Downs gives way to lower-lying land, and country roads eventually lead on to the castles of Chiddingstone and Tonbridge – and then to the leafy Weald of southern England, which thanks to ‘The Few’, the panzers never reached. Visiting Chartwell today, one has a sense of the house as a redoubt; a personal fortress in the immemorial English landscape, where one of our most remarkable political figures predicted the gathering storm presaging world war.
Now run by the English charity the National Trust, Chartwell, despite the cafes and visitor centres and the steepish entrance fee, preserves an authentic atmosphere of its life and times, and memories of the Churchill family that once lived there linger. Set near the house is Churchill’s studio. We tend to forget today that this grand old man of British politics was also an enthusiastic painter. Landscape painting in the Atlas mountains or in the South of France helped Churchill drive away the “black dog”, the depression that followed him throughout his life. Ditto writing and brick-laying.
In the aforementioned studio is – or was – a bust of that renowned poet of the imperial era, Rudyard Kipling, presented to Chartwell’s owner in 1935 by the patriotic organisation, The Royal Society of St. George, a body founded in 1894 and still extant. Ever since the death of George Floyd on 25th May of this year, cultural Marxists – both in Britain and the United States – have declared war on historic monuments. Several agencies and cultural bodies, notably The National Trust (which, after the Second World War took over the ownership and protection of many impoverished stately homes) decided to “review” their activities and purposes. For the National Trust, this meant compiling a list of their properties which have – horror of horrors – links to “colonialism and slavery” (note the Trust’s indicative conflation of the two terms); a list that stretches to no fewer than 93 sites, including Kipling’s home in Sussex – and Churchill’s in Kent.
That Churchill and Kipling both lived after the age of slavery – and that Britain and its navy ruthlessly cleared the slave traders from the oceans – evidently means nothing to the ‘National’ Trust’s senior management. That Churchill saved us from the slavery of a foreign invasion also, seemingly, means little more. Any flicker of our imperial history is something to be frowned upon, or packed away in a crate – the latter being the fate of Chartwell’s bust of Kipling.
What does the removing of the bust of one of our greatest poets – from the home of one of our foremost statesmen – say about the ‘National’ Trust, or indeed, the Britain of today? Having won an empire (and lost it), defeated Hitler and saved the British homeland, it is beyond belief that we are currently tearing up our history. What enemies beyond our borders failed to achieve, a new enemy within has come close to achieving.
But another storm seems to be gathering: criticism grows each day of the misnamed Trust now running down our stately homes, castles and other historic places. British people are losing patience with the politically-correct elite, which – despite a Tory Government in power– has seized control of our cultural life. The tide, so memorably evoked by Kipling himself in the poem My Boy Jack, is starting to turn.
Stuart Millson is QR’s Classical Music Editor