Image: Brijesh Patel
October 02 2010
As a cigar smoker and someone who writes history books, I am disturbed by the creeping retrospective censorship that seems to be afflicting Sir Winston. Churchill, who took over from the Duke of Wellington as the nation’s greatest son, also found time in his hectic schedule to be an enthusiastic patron of the torcedor’s art. However, it seems that someone is determined to erase all traces of the great man’s fondness for the fine tobaccos of the Vuelta Abajo. Earlier this year Winston Churchill’s Britain at War Experience exhibited a photograph from which our wartime leader’s cigar had been removed – but then with the exception of the Jimi Hendrix Experience I am always suspicious of anything that rebrands itself as an “experience”.
The sad thing is that this airbrushing is not an isolated act of cultural and historical vandalism. At the confluence of Old and New Bond Streets, right next door to my favourite London flower stand, is a bench on which are seated Churchill and Roosevelt in bronze, the shiny patches on the sculptures testifying to the tourists’ fondness for sitting between the two leaders of the free world for a souvenir photo. Perhaps I imagined it, but I have a strong recollection of there being a cigar in Churchill’s hand and now it is no longer there.
Part of me objects to this but then another part of me wonders whether Churchill himself might not see the funny side of it; after all, this was a man who understood that history is not absolute but is always open to nuance and interpretation – “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it” is one of his more quoted aphorisms on the subject. The trend for so-called revisionist history is after all only what Lytton Strachey did when he debunked the reputations of four 19th-century totems in his 1918 quartet of biographical studies, Eminent Victorians, and maybe in years hence Winston Churchill will prove not to have been the wisecracking drinker and cigar-lover that he was, but a teetotal pioneer in the anti-smoking lobby.
After all, even the world of cigars is susceptible to the multiple drafts of history. The Churchill is a large cigar, seven inches long with a ring gauge of 47; if you ask anyone to name a size of cigar, they will probably give you this one. However, it was not always thus; before Churchill distinguished himself as Britain’s wartime leader, this size of cigar was known by the name of another wartime leader, Georges Clemenceau, who, after becoming prime minister of France in 1917, led his country to victory in the Great War.
I can’t help thinking that Winston would allow himself a wry chuckle over this example of the vicissitudes of history, as well as our age’s pusillanimous attempts to change his image… before lighting a large cigar.