Wednesday, August 18, 2010
The Grave Of Winston Churchill At Bladon
The grave of Winston Churchill at Bladon, which we visited early on the morning of August 18, 2008, two years ago today.
When we returned from our 2008 trip to Great Britain, I wrote about our journey.
I ended my post by describing how moved I was by Churchill's grave.
Andrew tells me it is the best thing I have ever written, and he suggested that I publish it again.
Andrew’s father always has insightful and original observations to make, and it is always a pleasure to learn what he has to say about anything. About halfway through our trip, he pointed out that everything in Britain worth seeing, and everything that makes Britain unique, pre-dates World War I.
World War I was the great turning point in Britain’s fortunes. The country has never recovered from the disaster of The Great War, from which Britain emerged as a titular victor but from which Britain also emerged as a spent force. Nothing created in Britain after World War I—whether buildings or institutions—is of anything other than parochial quality or interest.
Other than summoning one last burst of energy to get through World War II, Britain is a nation that has been in long-term decline since The Great War. After 1918, the nation turned inward, and shifted its focus to bitter domestic infighting over apportioning pieces of a dwindling national wealth. That decline will soon be one century old, and there is no sign of abatement in its depressing progress. Its insignia are everywhere.
The most obvious evidence may be witnessed in its citizens. Britain’s people are provincial and narrow-minded, poor and poorly-educated, unable to accept and adapt to the fact that Britain is now a Third-World country, more or less irrelevant on the world stage.
The standard of living in Britain is remarkably low, and the gap in living standards between Britain and the most advanced societies such as the United States, Japan and Singapore is great and ever-widening. The quality of goods is poor, the quality of food is poor, the quality of health care is poor, and the quality of education is poor. This has very troubling implications for the future of the Atlantic Alliance, an alliance many Americans assume will die (and rightfully so) over the course of the next two, three or four decades.
Thirty years ago, Britain enjoyed a standard of living that was the envy of Spain. Today Spain enjoys a standard of living that is the envy of Britain. The standard of living is today higher in traditionally-impoverished Ireland than in Britain, a situation genuinely unthinkable as recently as one generation ago. Soon enough, Poland will enjoy a standard of living higher than Britain’s.
Personal productivity is today higher in France, of all places, than in Britain. Personal productivity is also higher in Brazil, still an under-developed country by any reasonable measure.
For the cause of its decline, Britain need only examine its tax policies, which inhibit the creation of capital.
None of this will change unless and until Britain abandons its present course, and this is very unlikely to happen. Only a shocking external event could reverse the course of decline Britain has embraced, and even a shocking external event may no longer do the trick.
Ironically, Britain’s decline was set in stone, not in the first half of the 1940’s, while war raged, but in the second half of that decade. Having secured a victory over Germany for the second time in as many generations, Britain voted Churchill out of office even before victory in the Pacific theater had been secured. The new government instituted policies that guaranteed that Germany, the loser of the war, would be the ultimate victor. To what ends had the great sacrifices of the war years been perverted?
Churchill did not return to power until 1951, at which point he was too old to take a firm hand in shaping his country’s future, lacking the strength and the willpower necessary to dismantle the social welfare programs and revoke the draconian tax laws enacted by Clement Atlee and Ernest Bevin. Churchill led what amounted to a caretaker government until 1955, at which point he was gently eased into retirement by the senior leadership of the Conservative Party and succeeded by Anthony Eden, who was to fall from power only one year later, a victim of the Suez misadventure.
At least Churchill, upon his death in 1965, ten years after retiring from office, was awarded the honor of a grand State Funeral. His was the last State Funeral to be accorded to one not a member of The Royal Family. (It was recently determined that Baroness Thatcher, upon her death, will also be honored with a State Funeral).
We visited Churchill’s grave at Bladon very early on Monday morning, our last full day in Britain. We were the only visitors present at such an early hour.
Churchill’s grave is a simple stone slab in a small rural churchyard, only a short distance from Blenheim Palace, where Churchill spent his unhappy childhood years. His grave is surrounded by trees as well as the graves of his loved ones: his British father and his American mother, his devoted Clementine, and three of their children, including Randolph, Churchill’s favorite. (The grave of another Churchill relative, Consuelo Vanderbilt, wife of the Ninth Duke Of Marlborough, is also nearby. The Churchill men clearly liked to marry American brides.)
Churchill’s gravestone is white. This shocked us greatly. Alex and Andrew had visited Churchill’s grave in 2004, and they had told us that the gravestone was dark gray in color, almost black.
As things turned out, we learned that Churchill’s gravestone had been cleaned in 2006 and restored to its original color. The current gravestone, however, is not the original. It is the second gravestone installed over Churchill’s grave. The first gravestone had been replaced in 1998, decayed by the tens of thousands of visitors who had worn away the gravestone by touching its surface in tribute to the great man. The current gravestone, too, shows great signs of wear, and will probably have to be replaced in another decade or so.
It is very telling that such a great man, who could have elected to be buried at Saint Paul’s Cathedral and who could have commanded a great monument to rival the magnificent stone edifices erected for Wellington and Nelson, chose for his final resting place a simple grave in an isolated country churchyard near his native soil.
We spent twenty minutes or so standing and quietly paying our respects. We all touched the gravestone, which was somehow important to us. Churchill, half-American, one of the greatest Anglo men who ever lived, was THE great figure of the Twentieth Century, just as Abraham Lincoln was THE great figure of the 19th Century and just as George Washington was THE great figure of the 18th Century. Churchill, however, somehow seems closer to us than Lincoln or Washington, perhaps because he was not such a distant figure. There are millions of people alive today who lived through the Churchill years, although their number grows smaller with each passing year.
Visiting Churchill’s grave was a deeply moving experience. It was also, oddly, a very sad experience. Our sadness was almost inexplicable in view of the fact that Churchill had enjoyed such a long and fulfilling life, a life of vast achievement and vast accomplishment in many fields, a life of long and deep friendships, a life that produced a devoted circle of family members and admirers. At age ninety-one, Churchill had earned well his final rest, and at his death no one lamented the fact that the old lion, who had performed his services to his nation so admirably, had been called home at last. (His beloved Clementine survived him by a dozen years, but Clementine retired permanently from public life at Winston’s death. She spent the final twelve years of her life in seclusion.)
It must have been the passing, not of the man himself, but of what Churchill represented, that filled us with a great sense of sadness.
His like will not come again.
I wonder what Winston Churchill would make of the Britain of today.