I stopped in to Blenheim, the Churchill family seat, before Christmas. In the swirling bad weather I walked, with my dog Miki, from the car to the great monument to Winston Churchill’s ancestor Marlborough (that stands in the grounds). Impressive, I thought, as I read the column’s detailed inscriptions, but I also reflected on what Marlborough had to do to achieve such splendid tribute – not only war with the French, but an earlier and somewhat mercenary defection to Orangeism.
Neither was his descendant a monochrome character. I have never been comfortable with the Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill of popular historical memory. All that cloyingly familiar bulldog spirit and ‘we will fight them on the beaches’ stuff tends to reduce the life and career of a very important historical figure to a series of cliches; moreover I worry that it lends itself all too easily some of the intellectual laziness of flag-waving. Few people associate Churchill, for instance, with championing European Union, which he did.
Neither does Churchill emerge entirely favourably from my latest book, ‘Ireland during the Second World War: Farewell to Plato’s Cave’, which reveals the harshness of the Churchillian economic squeeze on neutral Ireland during the Second World War, albeit that this economic war was pursued with the reasonable justification of defeating Nazism.
And so when asked what Churchill meant to me at interview at the Winston Churchill Trust’s Westminster HQ last week, I looked up to his portrait on the wall momentarily and resolved to answer honestly.
I spoke about the fact that Churchill often had to make decisions that ultimately resulted in mass starvation (i.e. Bengal in WW2) and about the difficulty of Churchill’s imperialistic visions from a British-Irish relations standpoint.
But I also mentioned how Churchill understood some of the finer points about food consumption and morale in time of scarcity. During WW2, we find him scolding his Food Controller for pursuing ‘trashy prosecutions’ against those infringing the ration, criticising this as typical of an attitude of ‘petty, arrogant officialdom’. We also find Churchill backing wartime communal feeding schemes while pointedly insisting they be re-branded ‘British Restaurants’. We don’t get too many glimpses of this Churchill.
This consideration spoke to my application: I was looking for the Trust to support me in a trip to Peru to research the history and current operation of community kitchens (‘comedores populares’). While community kitchens are few and far between here, there are tens of thousands of them in Peru, particularly in the capital Lima.
To cut a long story short, these Peruvian community kitchens have functioned as a vital yet informal welfare state for the best part of forty years. Run by local women, they are a great example of the triumph of a cooperative, communalist ethic amid hardship. Peru’s community kitchens have provided vital nutrition for the poor despite successive national crises: rampant price inflation, Maoist insurgency, and dehumanising austerity measures. They are an inspiration to those of us trying to establish the community kitchen movement here in Britain.
Happily, I have just discovered that the Trust have made me a fellow. I will be travelling to Peru for a month in the summer thanks to their support to work in and learn from the comedores populares. And I am very grateful to them for what promises to be a great opportunity.
Like Churchill, the story of Peru’s communal feeding ventures, is not black and white but rather all the more compelling for its complexity. Thank you, Winston Churchill Trust.