October 2018 . . . .

“Inflection”

Having recently watched, back to back, “Darkest Hour” and “Dunkirk,” from the comfort of my living room couch, alone, late last Friday night, I have thoughts and questions. OK, must I say “spoiler alert?” Is there anyone reading this who would be angry that I told them about something that took place seventy-eight years ago? I hope not.

In any case, at the end of “Dunkirk,” one young survivor of the rescue asks another soldier to read the leading story in a local newspaper as they ride the train. “I can’t bear it,” he replies when asked why he won’t read it himself. “They’ll be spitting on us in the streets.”

And so the soldier reads Churchill’s late May speech to the House of Commons, famous for the mighty “we shall fight in the hills, we shall never surrender” lines, in quiet clarity, as if he were reciting it, or reading across a breakfast table. Now, for some of you, this may be all that you know about Mr. Churchill’s monumental gift for speechwriting and oratory. Or perhaps you’re a bit more “word nerdy” like me. I have read the entire speech many times, listened many more to a recording of it by Churchill. And no matter how many times I do, or how frequently, I become choked-up when we reach the words, “we shall never surrender.” He made it clear that, should England actually be conquered by a Nazi invasion, the British Empire overseas, supported by the British Fleet, would fight until “in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.” Which, by the way, is the part of the speech that also chokes me up. But that’s not my point. It is that Churchill seems to make it sound, in a phrase, matter-of-fact. As if there was never a question in his mind that the British people would go on fighting.

It is the inflection of his spoken words, the emphasis given to certain phrases in delivery, that colors our perception of them. “We shall never surrender,” Churchill growls, offhandedly, in the recording that pops up occasionally on history channels. As a young boy, I heard this recording, and it moved me then. I knew my history, and I knew my Battle of Britain and the RAF and “The Great Escape” and the words “never before has so much been owed by so many to so few.”

What I didn’t know then, and only recently found out, is that we don’t know what Churchill’s original emphasis was on those words. We have the writing, of course, and after all, like many a good poet, his word choice was intentional. But it was meant for hearing more than reading. They were “speeches” not “essays.” So to discover that Churchill did not have this original delivery of the speech recorded in the House of Commons never occurred to me (why I do not know — it would be naïve to imagine the kind of openness we now see on CSPAN) and moreover the speech was only read in excerpt form on the BBC to the British public in May 1940 — by a professional BBC reader. Was that the speech I have in my mind’s ear — my auditory memory? No — it was a recording done in 1949 by Churchill for, of all things, Decca Records, the British recording studio that would go on to handle pre-Apple Corps Beatles. That stiff-upper-lipped, “Keep Calm and Carry On” sound of a man saying “we shall never surrender” is probably not how it was actually spoken to Parliament, but rather a comfortable-in-his-own-legacy, post-war Churchill.

And so arrives the second feature of my evening. Gary Oldman as Churchill. Trying to arrange a consensus government and determine the best course of action as the Nazis overrun Norway, Denmark, Holland, and Belgium. The BEF is trapped on the beaches. The 800 or so little boats are setting out across the Channel from the home island to rescue them. And this Churchill goes before the House of Commons with confidence, vigor, and the knowledge that you cannot bargain with tyrants. The repetitive exhortation rises to a shout, “we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender!” In “Darkest Hour,” Churchill lets us know without bluster, without flowery rhetoric, that it is the places that are important, the hills and streets and beaches of our home, because we already have committed ourselves to the act of fighting, before insisting what we also know — that we won’t give up.

According to Kristin Hunt in her Smithsonian.com article of 11/21/2017, we do have some feedback about the speech as a whole; by MPs who were there, in entries by Churchill’s own secretary in his diary. Eloquent and moving it was, as anyone with historical perspective and a grasp of the English language can read for themselves.

But with regards to Churchill’s original emphatic intent, we can only guess. For me, this marvelous speech has the same mysterious hold on my imagination as does the Gettysburg Address. I often wonder: is it government “of the people, by the people, and for the people . . . ?” Or government “of the people, by the people, and for the people . . . ?” Did Mr. Lincoln intend for us to think about ourselves, the people, or the various ways that we the people relate to our government and it to us — of, by, and for? I like to think it was the latter, because it’s a bit more demanding and thought-provoking. I also like the quiet, growling British Bulldog Churchill of my youth, almost talking over his shoulder to me through a cloud of cigar smoke. Hey, Garry; we shall never surrender . . . .

But then, I’m a word nerd. You make up your own mind.