Long life

Westminster Abbey was a fitting setting in which to celebrate the life of Winston Churchill’s last child

Mary Soames was a remarkable woman in her own right

29 November 2014

9:00 AM

29 November 2014

9:00 AM

The Times has given way to the Daily Telegraph as the bastion of the established order, for— with the one exception of the Prince of Wales and his wife — it listed the thousand or so people who attended last week’s memorial service for Lady Soames in Westminster Abbey in alphabetical order. This meant, for example, that my name, since it begins with C, came hundreds of places ahead of all the members of the Soames family, and even further ahead of the eighth Duke of Wellington, who is to be 100 years old next July.

On the other hand, the Daily Telegraph observed the traditional order of social precedence, starting with dukes and working its way down through the ranks of the aristocracy — marquesses, earls, viscounts, barons, and so on — before arriving at commoners like me. I don’t know for how long it has been the Times’s practice to deny priority to the titled in its reports of such occasions, but it suggests repudiation of the social pyramid on which the monarchy has traditionally perched, leaving it isolated above a sea of equals. It is a surprising decision, perhaps influenced by Rupert Murdoch’s distaste for the British establishment, but it might be thought to reflect a growing reality.

The screen across the abbey’s central nave, however, perpetuates a slight feeling of ‘them’ and ‘us’; for those below it, forming much the greater part of the congregation, can see almost nothing of what is going on beyond it, where the service is conducted around the high altar and where, quite properly on this occasion, the most important and distinguished people were assembled. These included not only the close family and friends of Mary Soames, who died six months ago at the age of 91, but also a collection of Tory ministers from the Thatcher era, some with walking sticks — Lord Carrington, Lord Hurd, Lord Patten, Lord King and Sir John Major among them. There seemed to be no members of the present government there — no Cameron or Osborne, for example — and while it struck some people as odd that no current Tory bigwig was there to celebrate the life of Sir Winston Churchill’s last child, they would have felt out of place, so far removed does politics now feel from the era to which Mary Soames belonged.

Mary, who wrote a much-admired biography of her mother, Clementine, was devoted to her parents and made it her mission in life, as William Shawcross said in his eulogy, ‘to keep the Churchill memory green and the record accurate’. Shawcross ended the eulogy by quoting some words she had written to her father in his old age: ‘In addition to all the feelings a daughter has for a loving, generous father, I owe you what every English man, woman and child does — liberty itself.’ She did her own bit for liberty, too, commanding an anti-aircraft battery in Hyde Park in 1944 (at the same time, as it so happened, that Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, was manning an anti-aircraft gun in Munich).

If Mary had not been Winston’s daughter, her memorial service would doubtless have taken place in a less august setting. But she was in her own right a very remarkable woman, and Westminster Abbey seemed just the right place for it. It was a magnificent service, culminating with the British establishment in full throat singing the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’, as it had done at Churchill’s funeral in 1965. I think Mary would have been very pleased, if somewhat astonished, by the splendour of it all.

I wish I had known her better, but there was a time many years ago when my wife and I used to see quite a lot of her. On one occasion she telephoned to ask if we could possibly look after her little dog for the weekend at our house in Hammersmith. The reason, she explained, was that she was going to stay with her Churchill cousins at Blenheim Palace, Britain’s largest country house, and it couldn’t accommodate a dog. I felt it inappropriate to comment on the absurdity of this, as she appeared to consider it perfectly normal.

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