John McDonnell might think Churchill a villain, but he’s beloved in America. I’ve just returned from a ten-week, 18-state, 27-city, 87-speech book tour there, and can report that the enthusiasm for all things Churchillian in the USA is stronger now than at any time since his death. Merely bringing out a new biography of him secured me interviews on all the major TV morning news shows, invitations to speak at three presidential libraries, and a place on the New York Times bestseller list for nine weeks. There are active Churchill appreciation societies in 14 states and more being set up.
Of course it can go too far: in Coral Gables, Florida, a lady came up to me at a book-signing and calmly informed me that ‘Sir Winston’ came to her in her dreams to tell her certain things about himself that he wanted the world to know. After double-checking that she wasn’t armed, I did what any biographer would do, and asked her the hitherto unknown secrets that Churchill needed to impart from beyond the grave. Sadly they were all already in my book, as I had to point out to the crestfallen lady, who nonetheless insisted that I sign the book to her as the reincarnation of Winston Churchill. Never wishing to disappoint a customer, I did so — albeit within quotation marks.
Being driven to a party that Churchill’s granddaughter, Edwina Sandys, kindly gave in honour of my book at her Manhattan apartment — also courtesy of Pol Roger — I fell to musing about what the world would have been like had Churchill been killed when a car ran him over on Fifth Avenue between 76th and 77th Streets in December 1931. As I looked up out of my taxi window, completely coincidentally, I found that I was right there. If ever memorials were raised for things that did not happen, that would be an excellent spot to have one.
The livid scar down the centre of his forehead that Churchill received in that accident is visibly to the fore in George W. Bush’s excellent portrait of him that hangs in the Dallas Country Club. At dinner à trois with the former president and Laura Bush there, ‘43’ — as everyone in Texas seems to call him — pondered whether he might turn out to be the last Republican president in American history, because clearly Trump doesn’t count. We discussed the Whig-Democrat struggles of the 1830s and 1840s, and the way that no political party has an inherent right to exist. I told him about the new Independent Group in Britain, which seems to believe in independence for itself, but not for the United Kingdom.
At a dinner Henry and Nancy Kissinger generously threw for my book at their apartment on the Upper East Side, I was interested to see if Henry, who is 95, had lost any of the vitality he had shown when I’d last seen him a year before. ‘I’m sorry to have to say goodnight,’ he told us at 11 p.m. ‘I’ve got an early flight to Washington tomorrow.’ A week later my wife attended a dinner for him in London. The inventor of shuttle diplomacy is clearly still firing on all cylinders.
Being flown from speech to speech in the Texas Panhandle on billionaires’ private jets appealed to me. I’m not saying that I’m not looking forward to my train journeys to and from the Stoke-on-Trent, Wimpole Hall and Chalke Valley literary festivals, but any method of transport that doesn’t include the phrase ‘wheels up’ will be something of a letdown from now on. The economies of the Panhandle cities are growing at a rate of 10 per cent year-on-year, fuelled by fracking and nil income tax. It’s what California must have been like in 1849, or Klondike in the late 1890s.
If you’re ever being chased by an alligator, run around in circles, a Texan former border security guard advised me when driving me down Alligator Alley, an 80-mile road through the Florida Everglades. It’s not a place to break down. He also told me that rattlesnakes can leap the length of their bodies. What he didn’t explain was where to run if there’s more than one alligator.
In all the speeches I gave in the US, I wasn’t asked once about Tonypandy (John McDonnell’s supposed reason for thinking Churchill a villain, though I suspect his hatred of Bolshevism was the real one) or the equally groundless accusations levelled over his supposed act of genocide during the Bengal Famine. McDonnell would put this down to American ignorance, but in fact their distance from these issues lends perspective. Americans love Churchill for his foresight, humour, eloquence and physical and moral courage, just as the response to McDonnell’s outburst proved that Britons still do.