Friday 30 January 2015

Fifty years on

It hardly seems possible, but 1965 was 50 years ago, and I have connections with 30/1/65 (other, of course, than being so very young on that date). It was Sir Winston Churchill's funeral, and I remember it clearly. Not because I was especially knowledgeable, then, about who he was, and certainly not because I even saw the funeral on TV - we were away on our family summer holiday, staying in a caravan at Kaiteriteri camp ground at the top of the South Island and, to be frank, the main event for me of that stay was falling out of the top bunk in my sleep and injuring my arm. (Not that there was any possibility of my visiting a doctor, let alone the hospital: a former-nurse mother and family tradition of frugality saw to that. "Probably just a greenstick fracture," she sniffed; and a day in a home-made sling was the sum total of my treatment.)

No, what really struck me then was hearing on the radio that there would be a 90-gun salute in England to mark the event, one shot a minute: ridiculously young as I then was, I could still work out that that meant they would be firing the cannons for a whole hour and a half, and I was astonished. Of course, any visitor to England is hard put not to rub up against the great man in one way or another: his hulking statue near the Houses of Parliament; the unexpected maroon velvet jumpsuit he favoured while taking shelter in the underground bunker of the War Rooms in Westminster; the display of his childish auburn curls and letters home from boarding school displayed at Blenheim Palace near Woodstock ("Papa, I will take your advice about the cigars and don't think I shall often smoke more than one or two a day"); his unpretentious grave at Bladon nearby.
I've been to all those places and understand the respect, and feel it myself of course - but, as a New Zealander, not quite as whole-heartedly as the Brits. There's a one-word explanation: Gallipoli. It was a disastrous campaign, responsible for the carnage of cannon-fire Kiwi and Aussie soldiers beginning on April 25 coming up to twice as long ago - 1915 - and whose idea was it? None other than Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty. Not his finest hour (although as we all know his reputation was more than redeemed during WW2) and he was sacked from the war cabinet for it.

Naturally, it's not as black and white as that, and he was right to see the importance of trying to bail out the Russians by the only route possible; but from the Anzac perspective the predominant colour is poppy-red, and when I'm at the centenary in Turkey this year I doubt there'll be many apologists for Winston there.

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