Winston Churchill populated his long political career with various writings about politics, the life of his ancestors, and his own life. In 1953, the former PM was even awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for his work. The Dream, his most mysterious and ethereal short story, was published on the first anniversary of his burial in 1966.
Intriguingly, Churchill had always held a fairly loose regard for the supernatural, and believed in a kind of spiritual connection with his ancestors.This belief was drawn upon in The Dream in the form of the sudden appearance of his father’s ghost.
Lord Randolph Churchill, a great political force of his own right, had died of a brain tumor in 1895, when his son was only 20. Randolph had been a very inattentive and unaffectionate father, who did not believe that his son would amount to anything. Despite this disdain, Winston harbored a great admiration for the man, which he carried into adulthood. Randolph’s early death prevented him from ever knowing what his son had truly achieved, and that had always been Winston’s lifelong regret. The need to gain his father’s pride and approval lead him to formulate The Dream as a response to his father’s early dismissal.
Asked to recount nearly 50 years of development to his father, The Dream is replete with Winston’s broad-sweeping accounts of the state of the world’s affairs up to 1947. Typical of Churchill’s near-photographic memory, he begins with the South African Boer War in 1899 and accurately covers everything through the Cold War. Some humor is injected into the tale when his father learns of the new American abbreviation “OK” and when we see his shock at women’s suffrage.
The Dream deals very openly with the chain of paternal parental relationships through its recount of the development of politics. It sheds light on Churchill’s capacity to remain positive in the face of adversity, and his to revere a father who overlooked him. Amidst the free flow of fearful facts of strife and war, Churchill remained fully tight-lipped on his involvement with it all.
When asked if the ghostly encounter was all fiction, the statesman-writer would simply smile and say, “not entirely”. Below you will find an excerpt from the story that sent chills up Churchill’s spine itself.
One foggy afternoon in November, 1947, I was painting in my studio at the cottage down the hill at Chartwell. Someone had sent me a portrait of my father which had been painted for one of the Belfast Conservative Clubs about the time of his visit to Ulster in the Home Rule crisis of 1886. The canvas had been badly torn, and though I am very shy of painting human faces I thought I would try to make a copy of it.
My easel was under a strong daylight lamp, which is necessary for indoor painting in the British winter. On the right of it stood the portrait I was copying, and behind me was a large looking-glass, so that one could frequently study the painting in reverse. I must have painted for an hour and a half, and was deeply concentrated on my subject. I was drawing my fathers face, gazing at the portrait, and frequently turning round righthanded to check progress in the mirror. Thus I was intensely absorbed, and my mind was freed from all other thoughts except the impressions of that loved and honoured face now on the canvas, now on the picture, now in the mirror.
I was just trying to give the twirl to his moustache when I suddenly felt an odd sensation. I turned round with my palette in my hand, and there, sitting in my red leather upright armchair, was my father. He looked just as I had seen him in his prime, and as I had read about him in his brief year of triumph. He was small and slim, with the big moustache I was just painting, and all his bright, captivating, jaunty air. His eyes twinkled and shone. He was evidently in the best of tempers. He was engaged in filling his amber cigarette-holder with a little pad of cotton-wool before putting in the cigarette. This was in order to stop the nicotine, which used to be thought deleterious. He was so exactly like my memories of him in his most charming moods that I could hardly believe my eyes. I felt no alarm; but I thought I would stand where I was and go no nearer.
‘Papa!’ I said.
‘What are you doing, Winston?’
‘I am trying to copy your portrait, the one you had done when you went over to Ulster in 1886.’
‘I should never have thought it,’ he said.
‘I only do it for amusement,’ I replied.
‘Yes, I am sure you could never earn your living that way.’
There was a pause.
‘Tell me,’ he asked, ‘what year is it?’
‘Of the Christian era, I presume.’
‘Yes, that all goes on. At least they still count that way.’
‘I don’t remember anything after ’ninety-four. I was very confused that year...So more than fifty years have passed. A lot must have happened.’
‘It has indeed, Papa.’
‘Tell me about it.’
‘I really don’t know where to begin,’ I said.
‘Does the Monarchy go on?’ he asked.
‘Yes, stronger than in the days of Queen Victoria.’
‘Who is King?’
‘King George the Sixth.’
‘What! Two more Georges?’
‘But, Papa, you remember the death of the Duke of Clarence?’
‘Quite true; that settled the name. They must have been clever to keep the Throne.’
‘They took the advice of the Ministers who had majorities in the House of Commons.’
‘That all goes on still? I suppose they still use the Closure and the Guillotine?’
‘Does the Carlton Club go on?’
‘Yes, they are going to rebuild it.’
‘I thought it would have lasted longer; the structure seemed quite solid.
What about the Turf Club?’
‘How do you mean, OK?’
‘It’s an American expression, Papa. Nowadays they use initials for all sorts of things, like they used to say RSPCA and HMG.’
‘What does it mean?’
‘It means all right.’
‘What about racing? Does that go on?’
‘You mean horse-racing?’
‘Of course,’ he said. ‘What other should there be?’
‘It all goes on.’
‘What, the Oaks, the Derby, the Leger?’
‘They have never missed a year.’
‘And the Primrose League?’
‘They have never had more members.’ He seemed pleased at this.
‘I always believed in Dizzy, that old Jew. He saw into the future. He had to bring the British working man into the centre of the picture.’ And here he glanced at my canvas.
‘Perhaps I am trespassing on your art?’ he said, with that curious, quizzical smile of his, which at once disarmed and disconcerted.
Palette in hand, I made a slight bow.
‘And the Church of England?’
‘You made a very fine speech about it in ’eighty-four.’ I quoted, ‘“And, standing out like a lighthouse over a stormy ocean, it marks the entrance to a port wherein the millions and masses of those who at times are wearied with the woes of the world and tired of the trials of existence may seek for, and may find, that peace which passeth all understanding.”’
‘What a memory you have got! But you always had one. I remember Dr. Welldon telling me how you recited the twelve hundred lines of Macaulay without a single mistake.’
Want to keep reading? Download The Dream, 1947 now.
This post is sponsored by Open Road Media. Thank you for supporting our partners, who make it possible for The Archive to continue publishing the history stories you love.
Featured photo: Public Domain