Monday, January 22, 2007

Churchill Slept Here

For the past week, I have been sleeping in a rather expensive broom-closet that the hotel management, with that loveable sense of humour of their calling, jocularly refer to as “my room.” As broom-closets go, it was certainly at the top of its class. Equipped with every modern convenience, save acreage, I’m sure that it rated five stars in the International Guide of Broom Closets, that invaluable compendium that should be part of every world traveller’s luggage. And the world travellers amongst you will by now have deduced that last week I was staying in London, a city that has cornered the market in providing such accommodation. You might, of course, have guessed Tokyo, but no, it was London. Nice try though. As I had not planned to throw any parties nor to practise ball-room dancing, the room was, unlike the Home Office, fit for my purpose.

Whilst there I understand there were several world conflicts, a few typhoons, plagues and other trivial matters but these were driven from the pages and screens of the British media by the verbal punch-up that broke out in that national institution of erudition, Big Brother.

Now I have long been a vocal critic of this television programme and have always been slightly embarrassed by the fact that I was fortunate enough never to have watched it. I appreciate that modern critics aren’t expected to have seen any performance that they damn, but to me, old-fashioned as I am, it does seem slightly unethical not to have done so. Not any more. I was bombarded, swamped, drowned and intoxicated with Big Brother from the front pages of the newspapers to the television screen in the lobby of my hotel. There was no escape and whichever way I turned, the jelly-fish like image of the principal “celebrity” was mouthing at me.

If one were charitably inclined, it would be fair to describe Miss Jade Goody as an ugly, pig-ignorant, foul-mouthed bitch but that would be doing something of a disservice to the animal kingdom. It seems equally unfair to blame her fully for the mere existence of such a programme such as Big Brother. Surely the management that saw fit to foist such an abomination on the public are equally at fault, to say nothing of the millions that, in their own pit of ignorance, watch it.

Having been subjected to an unwilling examination of this nadir of British taste and intelligence, it was with some relief that I realised that, just around the corner from my temporary abode, had dwelt a man who represented all that was best about the British. Winston Churchill had his home at Hyde Park Gate and, strangely enough, Churchilliophile that I am (I’m sure he would have liked that word had he thought of it) it had never occurred to me to go and see where he had lived. I had always had it in my mind that he would have resided in one of those be-pillared, be-porticoed and be-stuccoed palatial houses that front on to Hyde Park. I visualised him, pacing up and down as he dictated, occasionally glancing out over the park for inspiration and sometimes being brought up short by catching a glimpse of the Albert Memorial out of a corner of his eye.

But I was wrong, for number 28 was tucked away down the cul de sac that is also part of Hyde Park Gate.

On my way, I passed the former home of Lord Baden-Powell, founder of the scout movement and also of Enid Bagnold, who must have done pretty well out of “National Velvet” to have been able to afford a home here. Virginia Woolf grew up in the same street but only her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, compiler of the “Dictionary of National Biography,” seems to have merited one of those blue, biscuit-tin lid type of plaques that they stick on the houses of the rich and famous here.

Churchill, far from having an expansive view across the park as I had imagined, just had one of the houses opposite. And his house looks as though it came from the same architectural stable that designed the millions of low cost accommodations that blight the suburbs of England. Slab fronted and of dark red brick. Perhaps his love of bricklaying had endeared him to the place.

However, now I had seen the home of the great man and I reflected the unlikelihood of my paying a similar pilgrimage to Sedgefield. Not even if Tony Blair paid my first-class fare both ways and threw in a fish and chip meal at the local pub, as he had done for his pal, George W.

And when Sir Winston was gravely ill, crowds flocked to gather outside of his house to pay homage.

Somehow I doubt that a later Prime Minister will merit such devotion. Or even one of those blue, biscuit-tin lid type of plaques.


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