Saturday, February 2, 2013

Photo of the Day: The Last Lion, Facing the Gathering Storm

London, I discovered late last week, in a short tour of the British capital, is a city of varied and multitudinous statuary. Parliament Square—dotted with sculptures of the men who led the government, just across the street—is a particularly striking example, with the likes of Robert Peel, Benjamin Disraeli and David Lloyd-George represented.

But one bronze statue in the northeast corner of the square, above all, was instantly recognizable—so much so that I could easily figure out the likeness from the back, without even a hint of the familiar bulldog expression. There was the naval overcoat, of course, ready not just for that damp London weather but even those occasions when he had to venture overseas to confer with allies in a war of the highest stakes.

The bald head and stocky frame might have led some of the unsuspecting to see elements of a contemporary, the authoritarian Benito Mussolini. But instead of il Duce’s cocky lift of the shoulders there was also that frame, already slightly bent from years in the public eye and the full weight of four decades of his own mistakes and disappointments. And now here he was, with not only the fate of a nation but even that of Western civilization and representative government resting on his shoulders. 

“The Last Lion,” William Manchester called him. There's only one word in the inscription on the base of the sculpture, but we don't even need that for identification. The greatness of Winston Churchill, as man and statesman, lies in the fact that it surmounts all the true faults charged by detractors. He was an arch-imperialist, with little sympathy for the nationalist aspirations of India and Ireland. He did support feckless King Edward VIII in the abdication crisis. He did display an overaggressive streak—a desire to strike anywhere (e.g., as First Lord of the Admiralty in WWI, at Gallipoli; in WWI, in Norway, again at the Admiralty, then, as Prime Minister, in Italy, the “soft underbelly of Europe”) that appalled his military advisers and meant unnecessary loss of lives.

None of that mattered during his nation's darkest hour--but his own finest one. He was right, nearly before everyone else in the West, on the preeminent issue of his time: the rise of a totalitarian state in the middle of Europe that was not only a danger to its own people but to the peace of the world. And when, because of predecessors' errors, Britain and its empire stood alone against this menace, he steeled its spine with oratory still remembered nearly three-quarters of a century later.

All the figure in Parliament Square (created by sculptor Ivor Roberts-Jones, and installed in 1973) has for support is a cane, which Churchill seems prepared to use, nonetheless, to propel him and his country towards their destiny. He might be aging, but he’s not undone—only alone, the way he’s been so often, and while he might not be smiling, his gaze is resolute.

The army might have fled back across the English Channel from the disaster at Dunkirk, leaving Churchill only with words, but what words they are: “We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and the oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. 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.”

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