I had a strange foretaste of Sir Winston Churchill’s death when my school class was given a tour of the now-defunct London Evening News in 1962. In the composing room we saw a printer studying a front page proof emblazoned with the words ‘CHURCHILL DEAD’.
We were all stunned, until our guide explained that it was a dummy page. Churchill was very much alive, he assured us, but he was unwell, and the paper needed to be ready just in case.
As it was, the great man lived on for another three years. After his death on 24 January 1965, his body lay in state at Westminster Hall, the only time a commoner was accorded this honour in the 20th century.
Paying my respects to Churchill
I was a pupil at Westminster School, close by, and was determined to pay my respects. The queue of people wanting to do the same stretched for three miles. So I climbed over the school gates at three in the morning and entered the Hall when the queue was short.
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No matter that the escapade landed me in trouble with my housemaster, for the image — magnificent, reverential, dignified, utterly British — has stayed with me ever since.
The oak coffin, draped in the Union Flag, rested in the centre of the cavernous hall on a catafalque covered with black velvet and lit by six large candles. Five watch officers, one at each corner and one on the steps overlooking it, stood with heads bowed in the dim light, their hands resting on their swords. I remember particularly the silence — the hushed respect of ordinary men and women filing slowly past in the middle of the night. Men removed their hats; women lowered their heads; many whispered ‘thank you’ to the man to whom we all owed our freedom.
The funeral procession
The next day my younger brother and I, armed with our father’s cine camera, joined the half a million people who lined the route of the funeral procession to St Paul’s.How Churchill would have enjoyed the spectacle — the Battle of Britain air-crews who led the cortège; the khaki coats and white helmets of the Royal Marines; the scarlet cloaks and white plumes of the Life Guards.
The artist in him would have loved the music, the steely jingle of harness, the slow clash of marching. His discerning eye would have noticed the old lady, clutching her shopping bag, numb with cold after hours of faithful waiting. And he would have shed a tear when, on that overcast day, a shaft of bright sunlight shone down on to his coffin during the singing of the Battle Hymn of the Republic.
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Perhaps he would also have heard about two cack-handed schoolboys who inserted a reel of 8mm film into their father’s cine camera the wrong way round — and whose only record of this momentous occasion was some blurred footage of horses trotting backwards. I like to think he would have laughed himself silly.
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