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An undated file picture of Winston Churchill. Photo: AFP
An undated file picture of Winston Churchill. Photo: AFP

Déjà View | Flawed greatness

Can we just stop pretending personalities of historical relevance exclusively occupy opposite ends of the virtuosity spectrum?

Two or three years ago, I do not remember exactly when because it happened by chance, I landed up at the Bletchley Park historical attraction near Milton Keynes. Bletchley railway station is around an hour out of London, and the complex of parks, huts, museums, mansion and cafe is a brief walk from the station. It was an utterly unplanned trip. Earlier in the day I was on a train to Milton Keynes for a meeting when I spotted the station en route.

“Wait a minute," I told myself in in that deep, majestic voice that I use for all mental musings. “I wonder if this is the very same Bletchley where they broke the Nazi Enigma code during World War II…"

And indeed it was. A very enjoyable afternoon was spent in the company of codes, primitive computers, enthusiastic guides, slightly shabby exhibition rooms and some very picnic-friendly green spaces.

More recently, and in no small part thanks to that Benedict Cumberbatch biopic on Alan Turing who did some of his best work at Bletchley, the complex has received numerous upgrades and embellishments. It reopened in June last year after an £8 million refurbishment.

Irrespective of your feelings about Cumberbatch, the complex is well worth a visit and makes for a very good day trip from London.

However, you will no longer be able to enjoy what used to be one of the more odd aspects of the Bletchley Park complex back when I first visited the site. Back then, a large hall on the estate was used to house a bewildering private collection of Winston Churchill memorabilia. This collection included all kinds of things from ceremonial mugs to Churchill toys, to the bell rung on the boat that carried his coffin up the Thames when the British wartime leader died in 1965. This has since been removed as part of the refurbishment.

It was not so much a museum as a cluttered, wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling display of one man’s lifelong obsession with Winston Churchill. That man, a wonderful, wrinkled, old chap named Jack Darrah, shuffled over just as I was leaving the hall after looking around. He wanted me to sign the visitor’s register.

“We get people from all over the world you know. Churchill is famous everywhere."

“Indeed," I replied, “But he didn’t like Indians at all. He did some terrible things to us."

I half expected to get thumped on the head with a vintage ceramic bulldog or some such. But Darrah just nodded looking a little sad.

I don’t recall his exact words. But he said something along the lines of: “Great people always come with great flaws."

It is a sentiment I am constantly reminded of in the course of grappling with history and research. Especially so in the last few weeks as there has been a surfeit of articles seeking to reassess Winston Churchill. The BBC website recently had a piece on The 10 greatest controversies of Winston Churchill’s career, while the 15 January issue of the New Statesman magazine had a cover story on the Churchill myth. In it Simon Heffer says that “unquestioning idolatry of Winston Churchill prevents a true understanding of his life and career".

Hallelujah. This is true not just of Churchill, but of every single figure of historical relevance.

Churchill’s role in mobilizing the Allies against Nazi Germany is without question. But he constantly meddled in military affairs to the consternation of his Generals, had appalling views on race, and responded with an utter lack of urgency or humanity to the Bengal famine in 1943.

George Washington is perhaps the most lionized American there is in the history of the US. He famously turned down a salary when he was chosen as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. Instead he merely asked that his expenses be reimbursed. Over the next eight years Washington filed $449,261.51 in expenses. Or around four and a half million of today’s dollars. Much of it was spent on spirits. No surprise then that when he was made the first president, Washington was given a salary instead of another expense account.

Closer to home there is plenty to quibble about Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar and every other luminary in the history of Independent India. Gandhi had some very unrealistic ideas about economics and self-sufficiency. Nehru’s legacy when it comes to freedom of speech is well known. And there is rich fodder to criticize Ambedkar in Arun Shourie’s controversial book on the man.

We know this. The all too human frailties of all “great" people is not some state secret. Everybody—Gandhi, Bose, Padukone, Modi, Binny, Vadukut—has feet of clay when it comes to something or the other.

So must we really get all finger-waggy and “How dare you?" and “What about?" and all that when we discuss our great historical figures? Can we just stop pretending personalities exclusively occupy opposite ends of the virtuosity spectrum? Can we perhaps agree that some of the dregs of humanity were capable of assorted goodness, and some of the heroes could be tactically reprehensible?

Because once we get that nonsense out of the way, maybe our historical debates will actually get a little more productive?

Every week, Déjà View scours historical research and archives to make sense of current news and affairs.

Comment at views@livemint.com. To read Sidin Vadukut’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/dejaview

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