My Family and England: Churchill and the Queen

On my father’s side, we were rather germanophiles. As with a lot of families after the war, mine was enrolled in the great crusade for the French-German reconciliation decided by De Gaulle and Adenauer in the sixties. Then a great number of cities were twinned with German’s, and that is how my father and his two brothers were sent regularly to Schleswig-Holstein to learn the language of Goethe and Schiller and spend their holidays with yesterday’s enemy. Much later, when at secondary school I had to choose my first foreign language, my father insisted on German, but my mother, who unfortunately didn’t share his weakness for Germany, imposed English.

However, I have two vivid memories which linked my father’s family to England. Firstly, my grand-father had a picture of Churchill in his study. It was not due to a common liking for whisky – my grand-father was a light drinker and anyway he used to drink only red wine – but because he sincerely admired this great English statesman, of course for his role during Word War II. The immortal orator of the “blood, toil, tears and sweat” speech had always remained to him the hero who by saving Great Britain had saved France at the same time.

Incidentally, this picture led to a regrettable incident with my grand-father. At that time, I didn’t know much about English history, but as I knew that Roosevelt was a Democrat, I had been thinking, by analogy with his comrade-in-arms, that Churchill was a left-wing politician. So, when I noticed for the first time his picture in the study, I asked artlessly, “Grand-dad, Churchill was a member of the Labour party, wasn’t he?” Grave mistake, naturally, and my grand-father was dismayed by such ignorance. As for me, learning that Churchill was a Tory amazed me – the same kind of revelation as at the end of Some Like It Hot, when Jack Lemmon removes his wig from his head and tells the millionaire, “I’m a man!” It was as if Churchill himself had removed his cigar from his mouth and had told me straight to my face, “I’m a Tory!” I could almost have answered, “Well, nobody is perfect.”

I like Churchill for his historical role as well, but what I prefer in him are his witticisms. He was very good at them, one of my favourites is his famous riposte to the Labour politician Lady Astor. They were both staying at Blenheim Castle visiting the Marlboroughs and they had spent the week-end bickering. Lady Astor became exasperated and eventually said to Churchill: “Winston, if I were your wife I’d put poison in your coffee,” which Winston replied to, “Nancy, if I were your husband I’d drink it.”

The second memory of my father’s family and England is about my uncle Alain: he made the Queen laugh! This amusing anecdote took place in 1965; my uncle was twenty then and was studying English in a private college in North London. In the first week-end of June, the school went on an outing to the Epsom Derby, and there my uncle had the pleasure not only of seeing the victory of a French thoroughbred, whose name unfortunately he had forgotten, but also of meeting a lady whose blood was much nobler than the horse’s: Elizabeth II.

This great event happened after the race. Outside the hippodrome, a long line of limousines were waiting for the members of the royal family, and a crowd of passers-by were watching the procession of these august personages, each getting into their own vehicle. Naturally, my uncle and his fellow students joined the onlookers, for it is not everyday that you can see something like a Royal Highness or a Prince Consort. The Queen suddenly was two metres from my uncle. My uncle is tall, has a deep voice and above all likes making jokes and mimicking people, so he didn’t let pass such an opportunity to play a trick. He took on the voice of De Gaulle and, keeping his composure, he addressed the Queen in French with the well-known intonations of the famous President: “Merci, Majesté, pour cette merveilleuse après-midi, cette magnifique course, etc.” (“Thank you, Your Majesty, for this wonderful afternoon, this magnificent race, etc.”) The Queen, who speaks perfect French, might have believed for a few seconds that De Gaulle was really there, but when she turned around she saw my uncle and started laughing.

Today, my uncle sometimes tells us again the story of his glorious exchange with the British monarch, but it is very improbable that the Queen does the same with her family at Sunday dinner at Buckingham Palace. It’s the whole difference between a wannabe De Gaulle and a true Elizabeth II: they don’t share the same memories.

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