Riyadh: Monday 17th September 2012
He was not alone. Churchill might have led the country with great distinction during the war, but he had a long career and did not always endear himself to the working class.
Charlie Cleland, did not, as we have become accustomed to do, define the life of Churchill by his leadership of the Government during the Second World War or his leadership of the Admiralty during the first war. He defined him by decision as Chancellor of the Exchequer, to take Britain back into the Gold Standard in 1925, rendering British exports, particularly of coal, uncompetitive, and his subsequent role in suppressing the resultant General strike of 1926.
Charlie and I never actually met. There is a photograph of him holding me as a new-born baby but he was to pass away shortly after that. He was already quite old by 1977 and ill-health had rendered him frail, although, from the photo, there is some evidence of a formerly stocky and powerful man.
He had also mellowed by then into a kindly figure, much beloved by my mother, who sympathised with him for the way he tended to be led by his domineering wife, Nellie and who saw in him, a creative side that his working class background did nothing to encourage yet could never entirely suppress.
As a girl, she remembered Charlie would rig up wooden puppets and make them dance as if by magic, until her eldest cousin, unsportingly worked out that he had rigged string to the curtain rail and from there by a (presumably) circuitous route, to his pockets.
Even with his magic trick, cruelly exposed, Charlie would continue to captivate his grand-daughter with his funny sketches of neighbours or famous people.
Then there were his arguments with Nellie, played out in front of my mother with what appears to have been practiced showmanship.
Charlie: What dae you think of oor new Budgie, Diana, hen?
My Mother: Oh, he’s beautiful!! What is his name?
My Mother: Khrushchev?? Why is he called Khrushchev??
Nellie [from the pantry]: Dunnie listen tae that auld so-and-so, Pet. He’s no’ Khrushchev. He’s Joey!
Charlie: Rubbish, Nellie!! He’s Khushchev. [confidingly] Because he’s an aggressive bugger an’ all.
This exchange is by far the most quoted of my Mothers recollections of her Grandparents and reveals a great deal about all three protagonists. The warmth of the exchanges, and the way they appear to have been repeated before my Mothers arrival, define for her, something of what home life should be about, in a way that her own parents domesticity never quite did. In consequence, she married a very warm man, in my father; a man much closer in temperament and upbringing to Charlie, than to her own Daddy.
It reveals something of Nellie, too, a woman, who is much less visible and colourfully rendered than her husband and yet, who, was in her own way, a really remarkable woman. Nellie Cleland, was a campaigner, a participant in the Glasgow rent strike during the Great War, which ultimately spread during the to other cities and forced the Government to introduce rationing and restrictions on landlords pushing up rental prices while husbands were away fighting. She is recalled by her own daughter as a suffragette (although she may have been a member of the much less militant, suffragists, and a principal campaigner for a Woman’s Hospital in Glasgow.
She herself, was the daughter of an orphan, who never knew her own mother. I am told that she spent much of her life hoping to find out the identity of her mother but would only ever discover that her name had been Frances and that she had been in Domestic Service; a tantalising slither of information that gives rise to any number of Upstairs’ Downstairs possibilities, but which similarly reveals nothing concrete, whatsoever. It was perhaps this sense of sad injustice which informed Nellie’s own life and strength, for by all accounts, her’s appears to have been a battle for justice and fairness, not least of which was the battle to tame Charlie Cleland.
My mother’s memories are from the 1950’s and 1960’s when this battle was already over, but, her own mother recalls as a girl, the terrible fights that would accompany Charlie’s drunken return home. These battles suggest that Nellie was far from a cowering victim but a self-confident and protective matriarch, a woman who gave as good as she got and gradually, through attrition, gained the upper hand in their marriage, emerging into her senior years as the dominant force in the household as Charlie himself mellowed into the kindly Grandpa recalled so fondly by my mother.
Nellie and Charlie appear to have acted as unconscious role models for two very different women. My Grand Mother, Margaret, followed Nellie’s example and worked her entire life as a nurse in various Glasgow hospitals. She needed to be forced into retirement and, in the 30 years which have followed, has often seemed to me to have been in search of a role.
Charlie’s own kindness and imagination and warmth define to this day the role-model for what makes my mother comfortable and happy; and yet my mother’s story, reveals that he too was an indissolubly political animal.
It may not always have been thus. Both Nellie and Charlie had lived considerable lives before my Grandmother’s birth in the 1920’s. I have only one article which sheds any light on this period in their lives, the war medal issued to all British and Commonwealth Combatants after the Great War. This big round silver disk has, written around its narrow circumference, an inscription.
“Pvt. Charles Cleland R. A. M. C.”
Charlie was a member of the Royal Army Medical Corp. Charlie was not a Doctor. He was a stretcher barer.
Now there could be many reasons for this, but one of my Mother’s cousins has suggested that he was a pacifist. If this is true, it would be very likely that he would have ended up serving as a stretcher barer. Avoiding military service altogether, as a so-called Conscientious Objector, or “Conchie” was theoretically possible, but required approval by a court who would require proof that your religious convictions and conduct were solidly and irrevocably Pacifist. Even if this could be proved, and it would have been difficult, it was not an easy option. Concie’s were hated and pilloried, by the women folk who’s own husbands and sons were fighting, and the status could bring ignominy upon your family as well as yourself.
Most people whose convictions led them to reject armed participation, and who were not in reserved occupations such as Dock Working, Ship building or Coal Mining, would have been left with little option but to enter the army in a non-combat role. Perhaps this was how Charlie ended up spending four years on the western front.
What we do know, is that those four years appear to have fundamentally altered Charlie Cleland. His views on King and country before the war are unknown, but his sympathies on his return were with the Bolsheviks in Russia, and he would carry those convictions with him for the rest of his life.
It was no surprise that Charlie Cleland decided to call his budge Khrushchev. A Communist, himself, he would have been aware of Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech, ” denouncing the many crimes of his predecessor, Joseph Stalin. More-over, he would have been well aware of Khrushchev’s garrulous boasts that the USSR would soon overtake the United States in economic strength and production. Khrushchev’s period at the head of the Soviet Nomenclature, probably represents the high water mark for the Communist Movement. Industrial output and economic growth during his early years in power routinely reached 8%, comparing favourably with American growth figures of 5% per annum.
It would not have been necessary for Charlie Cleland to have known any of this, however, to have felt the optimism of the movement at the time.
But Khrushchev’s aggression, referred to by Charlie, to my mother, found its most famous expression in the brutal suppression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956. It was a moment that, coming swiftly on the heels of the Secret Speech, disillusioned many well-meaning British Communists, both the ideological and the merely sympathetic.
There is no evidence that Charlie Cleland ever fully abandoned his own Communist Sympathies, but neither is there any evidence that he was ever anything other than committed to the betterment of the working classes.
History, of course, has a habit of piling layer upon layer of hindsight and perspective upon the actions, opinions and motivations of men, the Churchill who took Britain back into the Gold Standard or who described Gandhi as a half-naked Fakir, is now largely forgotten, as is the Churchill who suppressed the General Strike and the slightly doddery Churchill who presided over a later peacetime government. Instead history has conferred upon Churchill a glorious legacy (one whose initial draft was essentially autobiography) as a result of his speeches and courage in 1940 to 1943. With the victory at Alamein and the arrival in force of the Americans, Churchill’s significance declines from that point, but his essential reputation is made. Churchill occupies that rare position in History as an iconic figure whose greatest achievements transcend his human errors, misjudgments and failings. It is a blessed place to occupy and is denied to most men and women.
Brilliant men such as Joseph Chamberlain, Herbert Asquith, David Lloyd George, Anthony Eden, Rab Butler, Enoch Powell, Harold Wilson, Michael Foot, Michael Heseltine, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, have often had massive successes to look back on and glittering careers. Yet their lot is to be regarded by history as flawed, if not failed figures.
Perhaps, in time, the legacy of Margaret Thatcher will rival that of Churchill. Many view this as unlikely owing to her particularly divisive persona and political career. Critics argue with justification that Thatcher’s many triumphs did not include bringing the country together behind a single collective goal.
Yet they forget that there were many in the East End of London, in the Industrial centres of the West Midlands, the North West and North East of England and the Central Belt of Scotland, who might have admired Churchill’s qualities but did not care for his politics. Charlie Cleland was among them.
He came from a very different time from my own and our respective generations barely brushed one another, yet, while Charlie Cleland lived a very ordinary 20th Century Life, he also saw and participated in a singular way in the great debates of his time, saw firsthand the industrialised suffering wrought by man and formed sympathies and prejudices based upon his own experiences.
He was among the first generation of working class people to possess a real democratic voice in the future of his country and despite the terrible sights, sounds and smells he will have endured in Flanders, continued to exercise that right by seeking the greater empowerment and freedom of mankind.
There is innocence to that, which we lack today, but also an optimism and a sense of the power of possibility, which we would do well to emulate. And if history now judges his sympathies to be misplaced, it does not disguise the fact that his fight, was an honourable one.