I want to be Winston Churchill.
Well, not Winston himself, obviously. That would just be silly. Besides, he’s dead, and I still have a novel to publish.
But on Monday I visited Chartwell, home to the great man for many years, and it left a pretty big impression.
Of course, I knew the esteem in which Churchill is held in this country. I’ve visited the Cabinet War Rooms. I’ve heard some of his speeches and seen some of his correspondence. I knew he was considered a great war-time leader. At the same time, I believe we’re all of us a mixture of strengths and weaknesses and that one man doesn’t win a war, no matter how stirring his oratory. I’ve never been sure about the decision on Coventry.
But what Chartwell showed me was a man who was loved, sincerely and gratefully, in his own time and by people across the world who believed they owed him their liberty.
On show were astonishing gifts from world leaders: cigar boxes in gold and silver and polished wood, painted and inlaid and carved; medals and scrolls and swords; an ebony fly swatter from an African tribal leader; carved boats with silver figures from Stalin; an ashtray, three feet tall, with model bombers flying in formation around the central stand.
More moving were the gifts from ordinary people. The pendant in a matchbox sent by an old lady from Edinburgh. The plain wooden snuff box, hand carved by a chap in Nottingham. Gifts sent by people who had suffered through the war and wanted to show their gratitude to the man they believed had led them to victory.
Then there were the honours. In addition to his knighthood, Churchill was given the freedom of over thirty British cities. Parliament published a resolution on his retirement to put on record its admiration for his achievements. He was made an honorary citizen of the United States. Oh, and he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
He found time to paint over 500 pictures. He owned racehorses – that won races. He even spent seven years building an impressive brick wall around the garden at Chartwell. (I like to think his wife started encouraging him to “get a man in” around the end of year 2.)
And this was a chap whose dad told him to stop mucking about after he finished school, or he’d end up a miserable failure.
What a remarkable life.
The truth is, though, I don’t want to be Winston for the presents, or the honours, or even the love. I’m still not sure what I’d have done with that decoded German message about Coventry, which is probably a sign I’m not cut out for wartime leadership. I know my painting is amateur and I don’t really like horseracing. I’ve never built a wall.
But what a mark that man left on the world!
His words are still read. His speeches are still listened to. Sitting here, I can call to mind his voice as clearly as my own mother’s.
And that’s the thing I want. I want my voice to outlive me. Even if it’s in a scruffy, dog-eared, paperback in a second-hand bookshop somewhere. Because there’s always the hope that one day, someone will pick up that paperback and blow the dust off the cover and read a story I wrote; and then my words will make them feel something, long after I’m dust and ashes.
Perhaps that’s the dream of everyone who writes. Not fame, or glory, or six-figure publishing deals (note to any agents: those things would be nice too); just a chance to live on, in however modest a way, through the words we leave behind.