Ian Clayton remembers Winston Churchill’s funeral. An extract from Song For My Father.
Some of my earliest television memories are of seeing the misty black-and-white images of Churchill’s funeral. For years I thought the mistiness was because, according to my dad, ‘we had a worn out tube’ on our telly. I’ve since found out it was a foggy day.
My grandfather is booing the television coverage. ‘What are they all crying and upset for? I’m glad the old swine has gone!’ My gran nods her agreement.
My grandfather cannot abide Churchill. He says that Churchill hates coal miners, that he was responsible for killing two unarmed colliers in Featherstone in 1893. He wasn’t, but you can’t tell my grandad that. He also says that Churchill ordered troops to open fire on striking miners at Tonypandy in the Rhondda Valley, after he sent the cavalry in.
My grandfather turns his back on the funeral pictures. ‘Turn the bloody television off, Hilda! I don’t want to see it! All this bloody nonsense for that thing!’ My grandad saved the word ‘thing’ for the people he really couldn’t stand. Churchill was a ‘thing’. Later, and said with equal venom, Margaret Thatcher became a ‘thing’ and also ‘a creature’. A man who once stole his pint of beer in the Girnhill Lane Club was ‘nowt but a thing’, he also got a punch in the face for being a thief as well as a ‘thing’.
My gran turns off the television and places a folded cloth over it, as though to completely shut out any trace of an image of Churchill’s funeral being accidentally beamed into our front room. She then sits on the chair beneath her budgie’s cage and tells her favourite anecdote about the woman she calls a thing.
‘Lady Astor was another… she once asked, “Do they let the coal miner’s out of the pit everyday?”’ She puts on what she thinks is a posh voice. She is not used to talking without the glottal pauses that her dialect demands, so it sounds doubly funny, the dark humour of the actual words combine with the way she pronounces them, to make a sentence that at first makes us laugh and then makes us think, and you end up feeling sad at the same time as smiling.
I don’t know who told her that Lady Astor said that, I’m not sure that Lady Astor did say it, perhaps if she didn’t she would have done if she thought of it. It’s just one of those likely apocryphal tales that are passed around our area, like the one Mick Appleyard told me, a friend and former union man from Sharlston Pit.
Mick is talking to me about Winston Churchill. ‘Churchill and Lady Astor were invited to a shoot on the Nostell Priory Estate. In them days Nostell Pit backed on to the woods. They were walking down the edge of these woods with their shotguns bent over their arms. They saw a gang of black-bright young lads of about fourteen dressed in filthy rags. These lads were scurrying home from the pit to their mams. Lady Astor says to Churchill, “What on earth are they?”’ He puts on a posh voice to imitate Astor. ‘And Churchill says, “They are coal miners.” So Astor says,’ posh voice again, “‘Oh! My goodness, are we allowed to take a pot at them.’”
I ask Mick, ‘Is that true?’
Mick says, ‘I don’t know, lad, but if it isn’t true it ought to be!’
I ask Mick, ‘If a lot of people in this country worship Churchill as a hero, why do people like you and my grandfather despise him?’
Mick shrugs, ‘I can’t say as I’ve ever met anybody who liked Churchill, apart from Tommy Mottram and he was the pit manager.’