November 30, 1895 was a hot day in Cuba. Arroyo Blanco, a small village in south central Cuba, was the scene of fighting between Spanish troops and rebel Cuban forces. It was Winston Churchill’s 21st birthday, and a birthday present was to come in the form of gunfire. “There is nothing more exhilarating than to be shot at with no result,” he would later say. How Churchill got to Cuba is an interesting story. Recently commissioned in the army, Winston was bored. In 1895 there was very little action in which a young of officer could shine. Churchill, above all, wanted a reputation for bravery. Looking around the map, it seemed that only in Cuba was there any fighting taking place. The young cavalry officer used his in influence to get himself attached to a Spanish regiment, which was then given the forlorn task of defeating the Cuban freedom fighters. Young Winston would leave Cuba in December 1895. He spent only a month there, but it was in Cuba that he developed his lifelong passion for cigars.
Although excellent at English and history at Harrow School, young Winston had a patchy academic record, and his father felt that the army was the only option for his son. Randolph, Winston’s father, was a wayward and brilliant M.P. A great platform speaker and a witty orator, he was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer in August 1886, aged 37. Everyone talked about him as a future prime minister. However, there were concerns about his judgment. In December that year Lord Randolph offered his resignation to Lord Salisbury, the Prime Minister, on a trivial matter relating to the budget. Salisbury called his bluff and accepted the resignation. Lord Randolph did not hold high office again. He died in 1895, a month before his 46th birthday, of a brain-related illness. Lord Randolph’s early death and his frustration with his son’s lack of early academic progress go a long way to explaining young Winston’s drive. His ambition was the stuff of legend. By the end of 1900, at the age of 26, Churchill had visited India, Cuba, Sudan and South Africa as a young army officer. He published three books, and in October 1900 was elected to parliament as the M.P. for Oldham, the first of five different constituencies he would represent in a 64-year period.
Churchill’s literary output was extraordinary. The speed of his composition was aided by the fact he would dictate speeches and books to rafts of secretaries. As one of his last secretaries, Jane Williams, the mother of Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, told me, “words simply poured from him”. It is estimated that Churchill wrote 8-10 million words in more than 40 books and thousands of newspaper and magazine articles. Huge literary output was combined with a love of painting, which he took up relatively late in life, and a well-known love for whisky and cigars. Churchill was a man of great appetites, with an enormous zest for life. Like many of his upper-middle-class contemporaries, he loved spending time in France, with the south of France and Deauville in Normandy being favourite haunts.