An example of a very modern problem which, of course, begins on Twitter…
It was over there that I read a “fact” which was so good that I had to verify it. Martin Rowson, always a great source of political stories, quoted something he remembered reading by Geoffrey Wheatcroft about the young Winston Churchill defacing the statue of Charles I in Trafalgar Square on Mafeking Night.
It’s such a good anecdote because the current debate around people defacing Churchill’s statue is so politically charged. It should rightly be called out for what it is: yobbish behaviour by a small minority. Yet what is happening is that this criminal act is being wrapped up in patriotism and the Churchill mythology to discredit the Black Lives Matter movement and, more broadly, anything critical of the government. The Churchill story, if true, would put that into wider context: it’s the yobbish culture that’s always found in the vicinity of protests (and, indeed, celebrations).
I should probably have left it at that but, no, it was the kind of fact that appeals to my sense of fairness, my cynicism, and my interest in history. So, off I went to look for it…
And five hours later, I still hadn’t found a single shred of evidence to support it. I checked everywhere: the Churchill biographies I own, Google, library databases, academic journals, and newspaper archives. I’ve trawled through god knows how many articles by Wheatcroft and there’s nothing.
That doesn’t mean the story isn’t true but I couldn’t find anything to back it up. I do know, however, that it can’t be true as originally stated.
Mafeking Night was on 19th May 1900, which makes it unlikely that Churchill would have been going around defacing anything unless it was in South Africa. He only returned to the UK on 10th July that year. Later in the year, he would stand in the General Election, coming in second and therefore elected as an MP. You would think that his arrest around those dates would warrant a mention.
So, okay, perhaps it wasn’t Mafeking Night but other details here make me wonder. Churchill was a drinker but I’m not sure he was a drunk drinker. He seems to have handled his drink well. As a young man, he was also critical of drunks so the image of him getting drunk and defacing a statue doesn’t sit well with the story as I know it. Then there’s another problem. Churchill considered Cromwell a “dictator” and his relative, the first Sir Winston Churchill, served “King Charles I as Captain of the Horse”. Deface a statue of the king his own family had served? Curiouser and curiouser…
So why does it bother me? I suppose because I wanted it to be true. My views of Churchill are suitably nuanced, and it doesn’t harm my sense of his considerable achievements by adding to his flaws. Yet I also condemn others for repeating stories that aren’t true and I shouldn’t do it myself. This “fact” has been retweeted 511 times, as I write this, and liked over a thousand times. When I queried it, my tweet hasn’t been liked once.
Now, not getting “liked” doesn’t bother me. I’m a nobody and I suppose it’s my stupid fault for wanting to authenticate something that people so obviously want to be true. But it niggles me that, as Swift said, “falsehood flies and the truth comes limping after it”. I have to leave the hunt now. I’ve wasted far too much time on it, but it will niggle me that I couldn’t figure out what was remembered or misremembered. Niggles me too that people contribute to their ignorance by never once challenging their own biases.