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Once upon a time, leaders drank booze, were funny, and actually won their wars


Winston Churchill, who would be 135 this year, is one of my favorite people from history. Beyond his obvious accomplishments I always related to his sybartic ways. He enjoyed a bottle of wine for breakfast, and once told a friend that he “had a profound distaste on the one hand for skimmed milk, and no deep-rooted prejudice about wine, and that he had recounciled the conflict in favor of the latter.” On being told the Saudi King Saud’s religion forbade alcohol, Churchill replied that his own religion “prescribed an absolute sacred rite [of] smoking cigars and drinking alcohol before, after, and if need be during all meals and the intervals between them.” When he was ill, he would wash his pills down with brandy, and even as a boy, he had written his brother that he had all the necessities of life:”Hot baths, cold Champagne, new peas and old brandy.” Pol Roger, of course, was his great love; his doctor wrote how his patient, the P.M., would be drinking it by 11 a.m. Claret and Port were Churchill’s staples, but when he was working — as for instance, having vodka toasts at summits with Stalin — he could out-drink everyone.

Not only did Churchill drink well, he drank good. His tastes ran to Grand Crus, old Hine, and têtes de cuvée.

Maybe it was all the booze, but Churchill was a very funny man, albeit in that dry, tongue-in-cheek English manner. In her delightful little book, his granddaughter, Celia Sandys, relates how her grandfather described, fifty years later, being made to learn Latin around the age of 9. As you read it, think of why people are so confused by winespeak.

…Behold me then on a gloomy evening [Churchill recorded], with an aching heart, seated in front of the First Declension
Mensa: a table
Mensa: O table
Mansam: a table
Mensae: of a table
Mensae: to, or for a table
Mensa: by, with or from a table
What on earth did it mean? Where was the sense in it? It seemed absolute rigamarole to me. However there was one thing I could always do: I could learn by heart. And I thereupon proceeded, as far as my private sorrows could allow, to memorise the acrostic-looking task which had been set me…
In due course the Master returned.
“Have you learnt it?” he asked.
“I think I can say it, sir,” I replied; and I gabbled it off.
He seemed so satisfied with this that I was emboldened to ask a question.
“What does it mean, sir?”
“It means what it says. Mensa, a table. Mensa is a noun of the First Declension. There are five declensions. You have learnt the singular of the First Declension.”
“But,” I repeated, “what does it mean?”
“Mensa means a table,” he answered.
“Then why does Mensa also mean O table,” I enquired, “and what does O table mean?”
“Mensa, O table is the vocative sense,” he replied.
“But why O table?” I persisted in genuine curiosity.
“O table, — you would use in addressing a table, in invoking a table.” And seeing he was not carrying me with him, “You would use it in speaking to a table.”
“But I never do,” I blurted out in honest amazement.
“If you are impertinent, you will be punished, and punished, let me tell you, very severely,” was his conclusive rejoinder.
Such was my first introduction to the classics from which, I have been told, many of our cleverest men have derived so much solace and profit…

  1. Morton Leslie says:

    Declensions that Churchhill did learn?

    vinus meus my wine
    vinus exsisto pius o’ wine be kind
    quare vinui quare? why, wine, why?
    vinum opulentia wine’s richness
    vita meus per vinus my life with wine
    per meus vinu with my wine
    qua abyssus vinu meus est where the hell is my wine?

  2. Morton, I don’t know Latin but I know pig Latin. Or-yay ost-pay is ery-vay unny-fay!

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