The Magazine

Winston’s Table Talk

Churchill and the art of delicious conversation.

Dec 3, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 12 • By TRACY LEE SIMMONS
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It was Lord Birkenhead who said that Winston Churchill, a friend of decades’ standing, was a man always “easily satisfied with the best.” This sharp declaration could cut in sundry ways, of course, and Churchill’s friends could have as much sport with him as his enemies did: It was Birkenhead who also said that “Winston has devoted the best years of his life to preparing his impromptu speeches.” Cutting, indeed—but one senses more than a few drops of affection dripping from these ladlings of wit. They were amused attempts to bring greatness down to where we commoners could see and understand it.

Some characters of history’s drama cannot readily be summed up. Little wonder, then, that we’re eager to get at them through back doors, through muddy facts from their biographies rather than straightforward accounts of their achievements. They feel more like one of us that way.

Cita Stelzer, journalist and Reader at Cambridge, has opted to help us understand one side of Winston Churchill’s greatness by demonstrating his buoyant use of the dinner table as a means of vigorous coaxing and high-spirited entertainment. For Churchill was a natural deipnosophist, a master of table conversation—and had he not been, the history of our times might have been vastly different. Andrew Roberts writes, in a helpful introduction:

His great gifts of conviviality, intelligence, humor, memory, anecdotal ability, wit, hospitality, and—not least—alcoholic hard-headedness, all helped him to charm and ultimately persuade all but his most intellectually prosaic of guests.

Cita Stelzer shows us how he did it. And since “intellectually prosaic” most kindly describes the type of company Churchill would find in today’s political circles, Dinner with Churchill serves up more than a nicely documented study of the past. It’s a record of manners and mores that have passed away in a world in which the smart set isn’t so smart, or even identifiable, anymore, but is instead a menagerie of policy wonks and verbally fumbling hucksters. This was a period when men in power, even some of the most despicable of them, could read real books and furnish their minds with ideas older than yesterday’s headlines.

And nobody of this robust time quite combined Churchill’s qualities of intellectual amplitude and social flair. From early on he was a spirited raconteur and shone brightly in conversation, especially when dining with the beau monde. In 1906, Violet Bonham Carter, daughter of the future prime minister H. H. Asquith, sat “spellbound” at dinner next to the 32-year-old Churchill:

I was transfixed, transported into a new element. There was nothing false, inflated, artificial in his eloquence. It was his natural idiom. His world was built and fashioned in heroic lines. He spoke its language.

Nor did the light dim over the years to come. John Maynard Keynes dined with Churchill four months after he became prime minister, during some of the most anxious and distressing days of the war, and found him “extremely well, serene, full of normal human feelings and completely un-inflated. Perhaps this moment is the height of his power and glory, but I have never seen anyone less infected with dictatorial airs or hubris.” Churchill might have been a creature of his time and class, a brilliant man in a (fairly) brilliant milieu, but he struck his contemporaries as exceptional. 

“Diplomacy,” Churchill once said, “is the art of telling plain truths without giving offense.” And where better to exercise this delicate juggling act than over meals, when nerves tend to be less taut? The dinner table had always been a venue of choice for a gourmand like Churchill; yet he also came to believe that the act of dining together made for equanimity and good feeling among opponents as well as allies. He was not the first statesman to practice dinner diplomacy, but he sought to make it an artform and a basis for amity among rivals. Nothing engendered sympathy more predictably than breaking bread (along with smoking and drinking, in the days before both became semi--criminal practices).