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If you ever manage to make it to Winston Churchill’s old, bumbling, and beautiful country retreat, Chartwell, deep in the hilly English countryside, then you will find, among a prehistoric mess of violin-style ferns, a small pool.
By the pool, tucked among the reeds, is a dumpy little garden chair. This was Churchill’s favorite seat, in which he’d doze, paint, and chase away the blues by watching the large, slick golden orfe fish (goldfish with six-packs) slip beneath the dappled water.
I travelled to Chartwell in the course of writing the second volume of the Dining with Destiny series. Tantalizingly, you are allowed to march through the cordoned room where Churchill used to trip over the carpet when he was dictating speeches.
Unfortunately, though, you cannot enter the little bedchamber in which Churchill used to eat breakfast in bed every morning. How happy was I, though, when I wandered out into the gardens. There was Churchill’s pond and the fish are still there to this day, goggling mindlessly up through the weeds, no longer privy to Churchill’s worries.
Here’s the thing, then: When Churchill met up with Stalin, “Uncle Joe,” being the perfect Communist host, housed Churchill in the glamorously named State Villa Number 7, and outside State Villa Number 7 was a pool of rather handsome goldfish. Old Winston’s admiring gaze was easily drawn, and at some point, perhaps that evening, over the vodka and pig’s heads, while “Uncle Joe” was wrestling with a porcine cheekbone, Winston told him how pretty his goldfish were.
Stalin grinned wolfishly at Winston and said something along the lines of, “Would you like one for breakfast? I can arrange it.” And in that moment, I put it to you, the nature of each man is revealed: one wants the fish as pets, and the other sees everything as eatable and expendable.
When he was at home for breakfast, either at Chartwell or No. 10 Downing Street, Churchill was a creature of delightful, bluff food eccentricities: The day began when Churchill was immediately handed his glass of orange juice. It was always bottled orange juice—he didn’t like freshly squeezed—and if it was raining, he’d roundly swear at the weather. He always slept with his own pillow; wherever he went at home and abroad he carried it with him, with his black satin eye mask tucked under it.
Clad in his baroque black silk dressing gown with silver dragons, he’d brace himself for the day to come with a substantial English breakfast of cold chicken, or partridge and grouse when in season—though he was very partial to a grilled sole, too. But he always had something hot with something cold—if breakfast was bacon and eggs, then he had to have a slice of ham accompanying it, racks of hot toast with lashings of butter and jams and jellies. All with a pot of hot tea and an outsize cup.
Wiping the last toast crumb from his lips, Winston perched in bed, his arms propped up with sponges placed at each of his elbows to elevate his arms (he said the breakfast table hurt his elbows). He always smoked a cigar in bed after breakfast—which ended at 9 A.M.; his ashtray was right next to his wastepaper basket, so there was always the danger of fire.
He never inhaled his cigars, though, and liked to chew on the cigar when deep in thought, collecting his cigar ends for the pipe of his gardener. This was helped along by a post-breakfast whiskey and soda to moisten his throat—served an hour after breakfast.
And all this happened in bed.
The cigars, the whiskey, British policy, the battle against Hitler, and breakfast. Winston worked through till lunch in bed. Pets were never far from Churchill’s bedside: His poodle Rufus, whose breath could wither flowers, was close by, panting gently through decayed gums.
In later years, Churchill’s budgie Toby might be about, ready to do crash landings on people’s heads and argue with himself in the breakfast silverware. A friend suggested to Churchill that he should teach Toby his telephone number in case he got lost, to which Churchill replied, “I don’t know my telephone number. . . .”
Churchill’s valet, Norman, used to try to prise him out of bed by various ingenious means, such as running downstairs to clang the front doorbell and then rushing back up to breathlessly declare, “The guests have arrived!” But then, instantly, Winston insisted on taking a bath, which he executed with a number of foibles, running his toes under the taps, blowing bubbles in the water, and making a “whale blowing” noise when finished.
He was also rather fond of muttering in the tub; when Norman first heard Churchill holding forth in the bath, he asked if Winston were talking to him. The reply came, “I wasn’t talking to you, Norman, I’m addressing the House of Commons.”