“Old Woom, does this mountain have a name?”, asked young Winston, snitching his nose at a picture of the great majestic mountain in his new leather bound book on exploration, which he had just received for his fourth birthday from his father; a father whom he seldom saw.
“Now let me have a look. Ah yes Winston. That is a picture of Mount Everest. It is the highest mountain in the world and has never been summited. In fact I don’t think anyone will ever climb to the top. There is very little oxygen up there and it is very very cold,” said his nanny Elizabeth Ann Everest.
Mrs Everest was Winston’s confidante, nurse and mother substitute, all rolled up into one extremely capable person. Winston’s parents had very little time for him due to their many civil duties, especially his father; therefore Mrs Everest was his main knowledge base in those early years.
“It’s a gas which is found nearly everywhere, and we need it to breathe. It is very important to us Winston.”
“Why is your name Mrs Everest if this mountain is also called Everest. Is the mountain your Father?”
Old Woom laughed out loud. “Oh Winston! What a lovely idea, but no; it is not my father. My father did stand tall and proud though, just like Mount Everest.”
Winston looked even harder at his book and imagined what it must be like to be a real mountain. “Old Woom, I would like to be a mountain when I grow up,” he said with a serious screwed up expression of concentration.
“That’s enough reading for one day Winston,” she finally countered. “It is time for us to put on our outdoor clothes and take a walk around the park before it becomes dark.”
They dressed in warm overcoats because the winter was beginning to close in. It was early December 1878. Most days, especially during weekdays, they could be seen together walking or playing in Phoenix Park. This period was to be cherished in future years by Winston with fond memories.
Once out in the park Winston couldn’t stop thinking about this great mountain. He considered that he also wanted to become great one day, so that everyone would look up to him and talk about him while eating their boiled eggs with butter soldiers in the morning. He could just picture every household across the land talking about reaching the top of the unclimbable mountain ‘Winston Churchill’.
After some time his legs became tired and despite the cold air he asked his Nanny if they could sit on the park bench for a while “so that his legs could get some of their energy back.”
“Yes, ok Winston, but only for a few minutes. I don’t want you to get a chill.”
As they sat down, Winston gazed high up in the air at a huge tree. He began to snitch his nose again in that familiar way that told Mrs Everest that another one of his thoughtful and difficult questions was about to pop out of his mouth.
“Old Woom, is that tree as big as Mount Everest?”
“Oh no; although that tree is also one of the biggest in Ireland, it is much smaller than Everest. Just look at it though Winston. It also holds itself up majestically and strong, just like the mountain.”
“Does it have a name?”
“Yes. It is called an oak tree.”
Winston became thoughtful again and decided quietly that he wanted the tree to be his father. As he hardly ever saw his real father, he determined to talk to the big oak every time he came to the park with Old Woom. It would be a kind of secret friend.
As winter turned into spring and the oak began to grow its leaves, the true size and splendour of his ‘father’ tree revealed itself to him. Each day when they went for their walk he would want to sit on the bench and talk to his big proud oak. At night he would try to draw it in his sketchbook, always to his disappointment at not getting it quite right.
One day he sat with Mrs Everest and said, “I bet Mr Oak needs ever such a lot of oxygen to breathe. He must need a million times more than me.”
Mrs Everest put her arm around him affectionately, something which was rare due to her employee’s position with the Churchill family, and explained that trees give us oxygen in return for another gas called carbon dioxide. “So we help each other to live,” she said. “He breathes in carbon dioxide and breathes out oxygen, and we do the opposite.”
“Wow,” Winston gasped. “Then I must try to breathe out a lot more to help him.” He began breathing in and out as fast as he could until he began feeling a bit wobbly.
They both laughed and trotted all the way home singing ‘The Rising of the Moon’.
Winston’s affection to his big old oak tree never left him. As the years went by and he returned home from active service in the Sudan or Boer War, Dublin and Phoenix Park were never far away from his thoughts. When he steadily moved upwards into politics he always managed to find opportunities to visit his faithful old oak. During his most stressful times, when difficult decisions had to be made, he gained much comfort from doing his deep thinking under the umbrella of the oak tree in Phoenix Park. There was something mysterious about the tree that he had never quite fathomed. During the First World War, after the horrific failure of the Gallipoli campaign, for which he shouldered much of the blame, he was able to steel away for a couple of days to his beloved oak and ponder the decisions and failings which led to the huge loss of life. Here, under the shade of the old oak, he felt a sense of being home and of safety, which he never felt elsewhere. It was here that he made the brave announcement to leave the government and return to active service on the western front. A decision he would never regret.
Some years later, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Churchill realised that it was becoming increasingly difficult to make his excuses for fleeting trips to Dublin with the lame story that it was to see his remaining family and friends, when in reality he looked for solace in Phoenix Park. His work kept him tied to the mainland and he became acutely aware that he was missing his favourite place. He also had secret thoughts that he was finding it more and more difficult to make the right decisions without the comfort of his ‘thinking spot’ under his oak tree. In vain he tried to dismiss this thought as completely irrational and therefore eventually decided to commission a Dublin artist for a large oil painting of the tree, which he hung on the wall of his office directly opposite from his desk. He found that, with concentration, he could sit facing the picture and be transported back to the park and create in his own imagination the same feeling of security that he had experienced while physically sitting under the tree.
It was a secret that he intended would go with him to the grave. He saw the comfort that he received from the oak tree as a weakness which no-one must be made aware of.
One Monday morning the information was passed to him of the intended abdication of Edward VIII. His immediate reaction was one of incensed anger. “How dare he give up the throne for this woman?” he shouted loudly from the privacy of his office. Without any careful thought he decided that he would fight it with every ounce of his political power. This behaviour and subsequent actions was to become so controversial within political circles that he was again almost required to resign from politics altogether. At one particularly low point he realised that his decision had been made too emotionally and without the proper thought. He promised himself that in future he would only make strong political moves after thorough consultation with his advisors and, of course, finally with his old oak. One important topic which demanded his full commitment was what he should do about Hitler and Nazi Germany. He had tried endlessly to gain support for his views and warnings about the build-up of aggression coming from Germany, with little success. He sat late in his office discussing with Father Oak the various ways to tackle the problem.
And so it went on through the tumultuous years of the Second World War, even after he became Prime Minister. He had his office at number ten moved around to accommodate his beloved picture of the oak tree. The tree had been with him for so long now, that he would never consider making a strategy without finding the time to sit before it. He often pondered the irrationality of his actions, but was always convinced that he made better, stronger and more calculated decisions only after he had his audience with the old oak. It was as if the tree silently spoke to him. His thoughts became more acute and his confidence was fully established only after such sessions.
The oak formed his vision of how Britain should stand up to oppressors. The tree became his image of how Britain should behave; strong, proud and unmoving. The steadfast refusal to consider defeat or compromise against the Nazi regime spilled over into his speeches. Such speeches were made always with his oak in the back of his mind. His strength and determination not to waver was contagious and poured out into the population as a whole. Churchill believed wholeheartedly that his oak was somehow passing on to him the strength to keep Britain strong against the tyrant. He began to spend more and more time alone in his office conferring with his tower of strength.
It was during these years of the Second World War that Churchill became vulnerable to extremely emotional moments. He would often break into tears, sometimes in public view. It was after one of these occasions in the White House when the US president witnessed the emotional vulnerability of Churchill and offered United States help that Churchill came to a severe weak point in his life. Suffering from acute depression and emotional instability, he also knew how critical it was for him to stay strong for the sake of his country. At night, with a whisky in one hand and a cigar in the other, he would sit before his old oak with tears streaming from his eyes. Oh, how he prayed for the peace and the comfort of Phoenix Park under his Father Oak. The responsibility was almost too much, but he daren’t give way to the pressures. His country needed him.
On 12th February 1945 Churchill sat again in his office with what he considered to be the most difficult decision of his life. He was trying to weigh in his mind the balance between ‘area-bombing’ of main German cities as a military strategic objective and bombing simply for the sake of increasing terror. The imminent bombing of Dresden would surely cause the massacre of tens or hundreds of thousands of innocent people, but it would also almost certainly bring the war to a more rapid close.
He looked up at his old oak, hoping for the invisible message to come to him, but could find no answer. He felt lost. He began to feel panic that he would not be able to make such a historic decision. In a huge emotional outburst, and at risk of political ruin, he ordered a plane to be organised that night to Dublin. In the dead of night he was taken to Phoenix Park where he told his aides to wait at the entrance. Many believed that Churchill’s depression had gotten the better of him and the stresses of the last five years had finally taken their toll. Some even muted having him removed immediately from office due to insanity.
Despite being fully aware of their suspicions he continued with his plan. He walked alone into the park and sat on the cold frosty bench staring up at Father Oak. He didn’t speak; he just sat in deep concentration for more than an hour. On returning back to London he instructed the Air Force to continue with the planned bombing of Dresden. He was later to publish the following statement:-
“It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of the so called ‘area-bombing’ of German cities should be reviewed from the point of view of our own interests. If we come into control of an entirely ruined land, there will be a great shortage of accommodation for ourselves and our allies… We must see to it that our attacks do no more harm to ourselves in the long run than they do to the enemy’s war effort.” (1)
This message had come to him during the visit to Dublin. It was a way to halt the terrible senseless destruction, but at the same time provide some justification to the British public for the previous bombing raids, including the one on Dresden.
Churchill never told anyone about the secret of his oak tree. Even his wife and children were never informed. In his later years as his fight against clinical depression became ever more difficult he began talking much in his sleep. It was one of these nights in 1953, shortly after he had suffered a stroke that his son Randolph, was sitting by his bed during which he began rambling about Father Oak. From the distorted words and his previous knowledge of Churchill’s activities his son managed to piece together enough to understand his father’s dedication and reliance on the oak tree in Phoenix Park. He subsequently discreetly spoke with Churchill’s old colleagues until he finally had built the full picture of his secret.
Randolph never told his father, or anyone else, that he knew about his tree. He considered it was best left unsaid.
During Winston Churchill’s state funeral, which was to be the largest in world history, the Queen looked on at the lead-lined coffin which, together with the ninety year body of the great statesman, contained a small oil painting of the tree in Phoenix Park. Randolph had privately insisted on it.
(1) Taylor, Frederick (2004). Dresden: Tuesday, 13 February 1945, London: Bloomsbury, ISBN 0-7475-7078-7; pp. 432– 33