Wednesday, February 24, 2016

`He Has Earned His Season of Rest'

Sir John Rupert “Jock” Colville (1915-1987) is best-known for writing The Fringes of Power: 10 Downing Street Diaries 1939–1955 (1985), the diaries he kept while serving as assistant private secretary to Winston Churchill. About twenty years ago I went through a Churchill phase, hoping to turn the clownish caricature I had grown up with, beloved by second-rate comics, into a statesman and first-rate writer (a rare Nobel Laureate for Literature who deserved the honor). Along with the diaries I read Colville’s memoir, Footprints in Time (1976), and together they helped bring Churchill into partial focus (Colville was also secretary to Chamberlain and Attlee). This week, Roger Kimball at The New Criterion touted Colville’s “stylish literary mastery,” and moved me to reread the memoir. For a sample of Colville’s prose that suggests the subtlety of his wit and the mysteries of historical continuity, here is the concluding paragraph of his first chapter, “World War I in the Nursery”:

“November the 11th, 1918, dawned, though the dawn was unfortunately obscured by a threatening Pea-Souper. My father was in bed with the Spanish Influenza, my mother was working as a clerk in the Ministry of Pension and my two brothers were away at school. I was alone with Nanny when at 11 a.m. the maroons sounded to announce the glad news that Armageddon was over. `Quick,’ said Nanny, `there’s an air-raid’. And we bustled downstairs to the basement.”

Colville’s anecdote suggests that the Armistice didn’t so much end the Great War as pause it for twenty-one years. Such writing may be indelibly English. This will sound disloyal, but memoirs, histories and autobiographies written by public figures in the United States, whether the actors or front-row spectators like Colville, are seldom more than self-aggrandizing sludge, without redeeming literary qualities or even good gossip. Here is Colville equitably praising the three prime ministers he served:

“`They that have power to hurt and will do none’ are, according to Shakespeare, the people `who rightly do inherit heaven’s graces’. These three men all had power to hurt. Churchill in particular, at the summit of his war-time power and popularity, could have acted as a dictator. It is to their abiding glory that they never used their power to hurt and that all three looked on themselves as the servants of the House of Commons.”

Elsewhere, Colville freely criticizes all three of the prime ministers, especially Chamberlain, but he writes not out of vindictiveness or revenge (common motives among memoirists), but with an appreciation for the difficulty of their job and their forbearance in executing it. Colville concludes Footprints in Time with a lovely anecdote:

“One evening, a few years before Churchill died, he recited this poem to me. I cannot trace it, but I wrote it down because I thought he was applying the words to himself:

“`All is over! fleet career,  
Dash of greyhound slipping thongs,       
Flight of falcon, bound of deer,   
Mad hoof-thunder in our rear,    
Cold air rushing up our lungs,
Din of many tongues.’”

Churchill (or Colville) misremembers some of the words from the opening stanza of “The Last Leap” by the Australian poet Adam Lindsay Gordon (1833-1870). Colville finishes with these lines:

“He paused a minute and then he went on:

“`We tarry on; We’re toiling still;
He’s gone and he fares the best,
He fought against odds and he struggled up hill;
He has earned his season of rest.’”

The final four lines do not appear in “The Last Leap” but show up here, in a rather unexpected place.

[Thanks to Dave Lull for tracking down the source for those concluding lines: Gordon's "Gone."]

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