Saturday, 22 September 2012

London - Churchill's War Rooms

Big Ben
Sue woke feeling well, after fears that she would deteriorate over night. Unfortunately I barely slept, the next week weighing heavily on me. Regardless, the promise of rain tomorrow got us out on a cloudless Saturday.

Walking up the stairs from the Westminster tube station, the first thing we saw was Big Ben. We had emerged right across the road from the tower clock. Its such a beautiful building and the decorations above the clock are as ornate as anything we saw in Paris.

Our destination was one of our last three must do's for London, the Churchill War Rooms. Located below Whitehall, the rooms were used throughout the second world war but intensely for periods when London was under the sternest attack from the Luftwaffe. When Churchill began as Prime Minister in 1940, England was already in trouble after the previous Prime Minister - Neville Chamberlain - had been duped into believing Hitler had no intention to conquer Europe. Churchill was already 65 and a veteran of being the cabinet minister responsible for the armed forces in the first world war. He was a decorated soldier, an author, an orator of note and a member of parliament for thirty years. Add to that, a credible painter who took to the brushes when suffering from depression during WWI.

A war headquarters was set up under the government buildings at Whitehall, protected by a steel reinforced six foot slab of concrete poured under the existing building and designed to withstand a 250 pound bomb. Modern experts say it would never have performed its role with success but in the event, it was never tested.

Communications, map rooms, dining, sleeping and conference rooms were all installed under the watchful eye of Sir Hastings Ismay, using a technique commonly used to repaired the hull of damaged ships. Huge rough cut timber props (30cm sides) were jacked into position under similar suspended roofing timbers and then held by triangular bracing timbers and 25mm x 450mm bolts. One in place, walls were lined and heavily braced brick and stone walls were constructed to partition rooms.

Churchill lived and worked down there, spending much of his legendary 19 hour days pouring over maps and in meetings. A special room which most of the staff thought was the only flushing toilet in the complex and therefore reserved for Churchill, was in fact a transatlantic phone hook up with President Roosevelt of the USA. Despite the need for his security, Churchill would regularly leave the bunker and go to the top of the above building - right at the heart of London - during air raids and watch his city be attacked. It was from his office in the war rooms that three of his most famous and most rousing speeches were made via special outdoor broadcast facilities the BBC invented for the purpose.

The amazing map room
The map room - the central nervous system of the entire complex - has become famous for its authenticity. The week after the war ended, the lights were switched off, the doors closed and neither were left untouched until the late 1970's, when the locks were removed and the rooms opened. Then, as now, the maps, the papers on desks, the push pins, telephones and coloured wool lines strung across the maps, are all still in the place they were when left. Apart from adding lighting and a few dummies in uniform for effect, what you see in the map room is how it was nearly 70 years ago.

Each room had its own entertaining and informative commentary from a hand held, easy to use device(included in the admission price) and you are invited to take all the pictures you want.

Five years ago, the adjunct of the Imperial War Museum, added the Churchill Museum to the underground complex. Its a very modern display space with subdued lighting and many different interactive displays about Churchill's life. There is a certain degree of honesty in describing him from the time he was a boy through to irascible old age. The recent conclusions that he was more than a sufferer from depression and almost certainly had bipolar, jumps clearly from the information available. His mood swings were legendary. He was an author of many books and good enough to win a Nobel prize for Literature in 1953. He was an artist of some ability. His oratory was probably matched only by his greatest adversary, Adolf Hitler. His ability to problem solve was both ordered and careful and then equally reckless and without consideration. He could be harsh and generous within moments. He slept little, drank as much and as well as any man with a frequent thirst and professed a great passion for his wife of more than fifty years, Clementine.

His naming of his depressive side - the Black Dog - is now recognised throughout the world as the standard, but just as clearly, he was always happy at the sound and resonance of his own voice. "We are all naught but worms," he once said, quickly following it with, "but I am a glow worm."

Cometh the hour, cometh the man but without the illness, its doubtful any man might have had the capacity to beat a foe who was better equipped and rendered twice as mad from non-selective sexual activity whereever he could get it. The next time you think of bipolar as a quality which might make you have doubts about the suffer, think of Churchill.

Downing Street
While your at it, you'd best consider that down here in Australia, making a stand against Churchill's desire to keep our Australian boys from returning to defend their country against the Japanese flooding through New Guinea, was John Curtin.

He was also a member of the bipolar club! Between the two of them was America's FDR ... and you guessed right ... like Churchill and Curtin, FDR fought bipolar mood swings all of his life.

By the time we left the War Rooms, the afternoon was well past halfway, so instead of heading across town to the Tate Modern Art Gallery, we walked up Whitehall and stopped at Downing Street. Heavy security, with Police armed with automatic rifles but never the less, happy for us to take photos. We watched a reporter file his report live to camera from the main gate and I had a chat with one of the coppers. He was telling  me how the force is hurting after the shooting of two unarmed policewomen earlier in the week. Coming from a community which has undergone the same shock, I expressed sympathy.

Nelson took the high road,
I took the low
Down Whitehall a little further was the Horse Guards Parade, which seemed open to the public so we wandered through the parade ground, watching a besieged guard keeping a strait posture and face as woman tried to kiss him for photo opportunities. He would have only had to fix bayonets to scatter them.

We eventually made our way up to Trafalgar Square, with many of the roads still closed following the running of the London Marathon. People were all over statues and a seething mass of them were populating the forecourt of the National Gallery. We got some snaps of Nelson, who, for the record, had a longer column than the Duke of York but then he lost ten thousand men.

Retreating, we walked up to Leicester Square - familiar territory by now - and caught the tube back to our digs, stopping for a meal at our local and an abbreviated chat to some new chum Americans who had arrived in London today. They seemed expert enough without our assistance.

I'm certain we will leave London knowing that there are things undone owing to circumstances which over ran us but, so what if we can reflect on the things we have done and their significance to us.

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