Of Churchill and Strangers on a Train

Sometimes something good comes from a sour situation.

Have been reading Stephen McGinty’s excellent book Churchill’s Cigar, which as the title suggests is a look at one of the twentieth century’s greatest figures through his life in smoking.

Well-written and humorous, it uses sources like interviews with Churchill’s family and friends as well as records of his cigar purchases to piece together the subject’s lifelong (90 years) love affair with the leaf. The book reveals how Churchill’s spirited mother bribed him to give up cigarettes as a school boy with the promise of a horse and a gun. Happily, his parents were not as successful at keeping him from cigars. Deployed in his twenties into the restive Cuba of the 1890s, he started the pursuit there in earnest, very quickly becoming a valued customer of some of the best purveyors.

While the book gives detailed accounts of Churchill’s smoking throughout his life, particularly interesting are the years of the Second World War when the British Secret Service jumped through hoops to ensure the cigars that the prime minister was receiving weren’t poisoned by the Germans. Least concerned, seemed to be Churchill himself, who sometimes smoked gift cigars received even before the verdict on toxicity was in.

One great anecdote comes from 1941 while Churchill was Canada. Photographer Yousaf Karsh was given exactly two minutes for a portrait of the busy English leader. Churchill arrived with a cigar in his mouth and kept with it. The photographer knew better than to ask him to remove it for the portrait. Instead he yanked the cigar from Churchill’s mouth while snapping way. The maneuver elicited a scowl and captured one of the most celebrated images of the prime minister.

Ultimately, Winston was good natured about the affront, commenting to Karsh, “You can make a roaring lion stand still to be photographed.”

It was while waiting out an hour’s delay (the third in two weeks) on the train during my morning commute Tuesday that reading this book kept me from roaring. A woman sitting across from me saw the title and asked if she I thought she might enjoy it. “You would if you like cigars,” was my reply.

She allowed that she didn’t smoke, but a telling observation about Churchill: “I like the way he lived his life. He smoked and drank without apology, which is refreshing in these days of political correctness. I think I’d like to read it.

I agreed with her, but wasn’t moved to give up my copy of this great book.
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