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Modest last wish

30 January 2015

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AFTER the full military funeral, the lowering of dockyard cranes, and a guest list that featured de Gaulle, Eisenhower, and numerous British Prime Ministers, the interment of Sir Winston Churchill in an Oxfordshire graveyard smacks of almost indecent modesty.

It was a message repeated in Churchill's Grave (Radio 4, Friday) with a regularity bordering on the irritating: everyone, from the local cabbie to the founder of Churchill Insurance, insisted that this showed Churchill to be at heart a man of the people, unpretentious, discreet, and humble.

Martin Long, the man respons-ible for the nodding bulldog commercials and the catchphrase "Oh, yes!" gave a surprisingly moving account of why he was so drawn to the Churchill legend, having himself been an under-achiever at school. But people will always find in Churchill the qualities they wish people to admire in themselves.

In fact, as David Cannadine's excellent series Churchill's Other Lives (Radio 4, repeat, weekdays) made clear, Churchill, all his other great qualities notwithstanding, was no man of the people. Surrounded by servants, he would have failed any of those modern tests of "in-touchness" which politicians must endure.

He would not know the price of a pint of milk, or how to get from Westminster to Kensal Rise by Underground. He enjoyed bricklaying, and even joined the Amalgamated Union of Building Trade Workers; but his dreams of being a greengrocer or a builder's apprentice, as expressed in his 1930 autobiography My Early Life, were nothing but fantasies, Cannadine said. Indeed, it was the servants who enabled Churchill to pursue his fetish for bricklaying, along with all the other pursuits that led to Cecil Day-Lewis's description of him as "a one-man ministry of all the talents". The reason that no present-day politician can compare in terms of other interests is that no present-day politician has all that time on his or her hands.

That Mr Long's company should adopt the Churchill name and the British bulldog speaks to the subject of a discussion on Radio 3, Free Thinking: Winston Churchill and Englishness (Wednesday of last week). Recent polls by the BBC and The Sun had Churchill topping the leader-board as "Greatest Briton" and "Greatest Englishman" respectively.

In an era when the two terms were used almost interchangeably, the distinction would not have been so meaningful to Churchill as it is today; for, then, Britain had a view of itself that extended across the globe. And, as Yasmin Alibhai-Brown pointed out here, he was immensely proud of the pluralism that that entailed, boasting that there were more Muslims in the Empire than there were Christians.

In what might have becomean unremitting celebration of Churchill, the unexpected party-pooper was Simon Heffer. The best he could say of Churchill was that he was the right man at the right time, capable of articulating a nation's will rather than persuading the people on a course of action they were set against. Churchill got many things wrong; but, for all that, in Heffer's opinion, he was a darn sight more impressive than Boris.

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