Spectator – Carla Carlisle

I really do hate those families who bring up their children in a television-free home. The children play musical instruments, paint watercolours, embroider tea-towels and read Martin Chuzzlewit in front of the fire. Instead of fighting over the remote control, they bake cookies and make all their Christmas presents. Life is like Little House on the Prairie without the Indians.

My television-free childhood wasn’t like that. Every Saturday morning, I’d scoot off on my bicycle to my friend Jim’s house where I would wait on their porch steps until someone woke up and let me in. I lived for the weekly episodes of Sky King and Fury on their television. One day, I heard Jim’s mother say: ‘Honey, tell your little friend not to come round here so early. It gets on my nerves finding her waiting every Saturday.’ I never went back.

My attempt at the creative highground in this small household is confined to a refusal to ever, ever have Sky. I mutter about Rupert Murdoch and satellite dishes protruding from ancient Suffolk farmhouses. But recently something happened. The West Wing disappeared to somewhere called More4. This drama series is set in a White House where morally good and emotionally kind people quote Woody Allen and Wordsworth. I watch and I weep because Martin Sheen isn’t really President Barlet and because President Barlet isn’t really the President. So great is my yearning for the articulate, the poetic, the competent and the good, that I quietly bought a DigiBox so that I could stay faithful. Every Friday evening, I have my rendezvouz with hope.

It was my weekly weep-a-thon that drew me to a new book in Heyward Hill called One Christmas in Washington. It begins on Christmas Eve 1941, 17 days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The pugnacious Winston Churchill has braved raging seas and violent gales to cross the North Atlantic to spend Christmas in the White House with President Roosevelt. The two leaders have much in common: both are sons of rich American mothers; both love tobacco, strong drink, history, the sea and hearing themselves talk. But it?s not a friendship of equals. Churchill’s daughter, Mary Soames, described it best with a French proverb: ”In love there is always one who kisses, and one who offers the cheek’. Churchill was the suitor, Roosevelt the elusive quarry.’

And in real life, neither man was as perfect as West Wing’s President Bartlet. Churchill instructs the White House butler that he wants ‘a tumbler of sherry in my room before breakfast, a couple of glasses of scotch and soda before lunch, and French champagne and brandy before I go to sleep at night.’ Even more damning, after his stay of 14 days, the Prime Minister leaves a stack of photos of himself instead of a generous tip.

Roosevelt was also flawed. He believed the archaic notion of ‘Empire’ was partly responsible for the First World War, a war America had entered late, in 1917, but paid with 126,000 American lives. Neither France nor Britain made great effort to repay their vast war debts, nor had either country risked blood to defang Hitler as he was building his war machine. This lay behind Roosevelt’s ambivalent and ambiguous foreign policy.

But that Christmas in Washington in 1941 shaped the friendship that saved the democratic world in the greatest war in history. Reading about it has stretched my Christmas wish list. I want leaders with the wisdom and courage to lead us out of the dark days of the war in Iraq. I’d also like to be C. J. on The West Wing, but I’ll settle for world peace.

  • This column was first published in Country Life (December 22/29, 2005)