Interview: Sir Nicholas Soames
PUBLISHED: 12:47 02 September 2015 | UPDATED: 13:11 04 September 2015
Sir Nicholas Soames will be talking about his grandfather, Winston Churchill, at Gloucester History Festival this month, in this, the 50th anniversary year of Churchill's death, and the 75th of him becoming Prime Minister. Katie Jarvis asked him (a little) more
There’s an obvious comparison between this interview and the life of Sir Winston Churchill. In Churchill’s case – as his grandson, Sir Nicholas Soames tells me - had his story ended in 1939, the great man would have been classed by British historians as a failure.
But let’s save that comparison for a moment…
My mission is to write a piece previewing Sir Nicholas’s appearance at Gloucester History Festival this month, when he will give a talk entitled Growing up a Churchill.
The problem is this. I’m told he can only speak to me at 3pm on a certain Thursday afternoon. And when I do phone, bang on the money (so precise was the directive, I do a countdown), Sir Nicholas is in an almighty rush.
“We need to do this as quickly as we possibly can, to be frank, because I’ve got exactly three-and-a-half hours left in my office before I go on holiday.”
R-i-i-i-g-h-t... So let’s rush in – angels and all that - with a wonderful story I’ve read about Sir Nicholas, then a chubby five-year-old, discovering he had a rather important grandfather. The charming anecdote revolves around the young lad making his way into Churchill’s bedroom at Chartwell and…
I hope, I suggest to Sir Nicholas, winningly, that he doesn’t mind repeating it for me.
“No, I don’t!” he says, while not repeating it. “That’s really not… I mean, I was 16 when my grandfather died so I wasn’t an adult and, sadly, for the last two or three years of his life, he was a very old man so I never settled the world with him. But, of course, I knew him just as a child and as a very affectionate grandfather.”
Indeed – so what other memories does he have?
“None that I’m going to tell you now because I’m going to save them for the talk,” he says, brooking no argument.
I brook one anyway. “Oh! That’s rather unkind!”
“No, it’s not.”
“But I’ve got to put something in my article.”
“You can just say it’s going to be marvellous.”
(That makes me chuckle. But you’ve still got a while to wait for our 1939.) So I ask instead about Churchill’s own pre-1939 war experience (Cuba, Afghanistan, The Sudan – where he took part in the last cavalry charge of the British army – South Africa). Sir Winston used his connections not to obtain promotion but to visit some of the most dangerous spots in the world. How did that help him as a war leader – and do our own leaders lack that kind of first-hand experience when making decisions nowadays?
“Can you imagine,” Sir Nicholas replies, tartly, “if I announced to the members of Mid Sussex, my constituency council, that I was going to go off and fight in a war for three weeks for fun and then come back! It doesn’t happen now; we don’t have an Empire. We don’t indulge in these great punitive expeditions; so the answer is, you couldn’t possibly have someone who had that much experience of life as it was then.”
We’ve not finished the argy-bargy yet. We have more, over Churchill’s wonderful use of language, in which we both accuse the other of misunderstanding questions. But then, finally – after our war has broken out – successes on all sorts of fronts come thick and fast. Thank god.
The first breakthrough concerns Churchillian rhetoric. I unexpectedly heard a speech only the other day and – despite it having no direct relevance to me – I was moved beyond measure.
Ah yes, Sir Nicholas agrees. “My grandfather’s words were his great friend. The two things he was always very good at were English and history. He read very extensively when he was in the army in India – read the whole of Macaulay; he read all the French classics in French. He read every book he should have read to master the history of his country and the world. And, from that, he derived his tremendous love of words. And his extraordinary vocabulary.”
Sir Nicholas is also with me on the horror of so many of today’s children having so little knowledge of this greatest of Britons.
“We’ve already lost the teaching of history, unfortunately, but there are two books that every child, in my view, should read. One is Boris Johnson’s biography – a brilliant, brilliant work. And the other is my grandfather’s own book, My Early Life. If you want to learn about Victorian history and an extraordinary life at the turn of empire, you should read that.
“But,” he rightly complains, “children don’t get a chance in school to learn that kind of stuff. They learn about THE Romans or THE Nazis or THE this or THE that. The great thing is: if you read Churchill’s life, you read about the history of England for two centuries.”
The funny thing is, despite all the tough gruffness, I do quite take to him. If you stand firm against the thundering, the sun does start to come through the clouds. Even though I nearly blow it by asking about Churchill’s struggle with depression.
“He didn’t have a struggle with depression! There’s nothing to talk about! Absolute rubbish!” (There’s a fascinating article backing this up on the Churchill Centre website, called The Myth of the Black Dog.)
He’s also interesting on the wider Churchill story which, after all, tends to get eclipsed by the war years. Because, of course, we’ve so much more to thank Churchill for: house-building; a focus on hygienic living conditions…
“The whole benefits system. He had an extraordinary back-story. One of the best biographies ever written of him was called A Study in Failure by Robert Rhodes James, which ends in 1939. It was only in 1939/40 that the House of Commons started listening to Churchill. And the minute they started listening, they understood the nature of the problem and - like the Brits always do - they rallied behind him. But it was a narrow call.”
There are other interview highlights – my particular favourite being during our discussion on having famous forebears, which Sir Nicholas concedes is a double-edged sword. He’s very honoured, he says, but, “It’s not where you’ve come from – it’s where you’re going to that matters in life. If people don’t like it, well, they can bugger off, frankly.”
So let’s try to get this back to the personal – the focus of the talk, after all. If Sir Nicholas (I ask with a certain trepidation; I have to be honest with you here) could see his grandfather one more time, what would he most like to ask him?
“That’s a very good question. Nobody’s ever asked me that before. If I saw him for one last time, I suppose I would ask him what his view was of the way the world was shaping. I can’t tell you what it would have been, but it would have been a very well-informed view. Of course, he would have been very anxious, as he always was, about Britain’s relationship with the Americans…
“Listen, Katie, I’ve got to go. Sorry I’ve been so hurried.”
No problem. I had been intending to write this as a straight, factual question-and-answer session - but that would have been a waste. I hope this, instead, gives some indication of the treat in store: a speech that promises more anecdotes than I managed to extract. And a true flavour of personality.
On Monday, September 14, Nicholas Soames will be one of three speakers celebrating Churchill From All Angles, at Blackfriars Priory, Gloucester, as part of a week-long series of history talks; gloucesterhistoryfestival.co.uk