Many years ago, when my son was at primary school, we were sitting round the table after dinner, and he was telling the rest of the family what he had done in school that day. He told us about a project on World War II his class were doing.
“The teacher asked if anyone knew who Winston Churchill was”, he said, “and I put my hand up. I said he was a bad man who wanted to shoot the miners.”
I was quite surprised by this, and asked him where he got that idea from.
“You told me! You said that your granda was a miner, and he didn’t like Winston Churchill because he said, ‘put the miners up against a wall and shoot them’, when he was on strike.”
It was true!
My grandfather had been a miner, and he had told that story about Winston Churchill. However, he’d never told the story to me, and as far as I was aware, I’d never expressly told it to my son. And yet, the story had passed through four generations of my family; my mother had heard her father talking about it, I had heard her talking about it, and my son had heard me talking about it. It brought home to me, in a very clear way, the power of stories to create reality, and to survive.
In reading about Churchill it has become apparent to me that the story, as a whole, is probably untrue. Churchill’s biographer, Roy Jenkins makes no mention of the episode, although he does describe Churchill’s general demeanour during the General Strike as being of “the utmost bellicosity”, noting his desire to put “tanks with machine guns” on the streets of London at the height of the dispute.
Jenkins does, though, refer to Churchill’s part in the ‘Tonypandy Riots’ of 1910, where Churchill was believed by the mining community to have ordered troops to intervene in the South Wales Miners’ Federation strike in Rhondda. Jenkins defends Churchill against this allegation, and states:
“On any objective analysis it is difficult to fault Churchill in the Rhondda for any sin of aggression or vindictiveness towards labour. Indeed at the time he was more criticized from the opposite direction.”
He goes on, though, to recognise that the incident soured Churchill’s relationship with the mining community for the rest of his life, and this is presumably the basis of my grandfather’s dislike of the former Home Secretary and Prime Minister. Whether or not Winston Churchill spoke those words, however, is largely immaterial; what remains is that a story about Winston Churchill survived in my family for over eighty years, without being consciously told or retold. It became, in a sense, part of the narrative of my family - one small part of our heritage, of how we see ourselves, of our past and, by extension, of our future.
That is how powerful stories are; whenever we think of our past, or think ahead to our future we are essentially telling ourselves stories – and stories define who we are now. So it helps to be aware that we are doing so, and to be aware of the impact of our stories on our present moment. The regular practice of Mindfulness Meditation helps us to recognise when we are being swept along in a story, and gives us the opportunity to do something about it. Sometimes, particularly when we find ourselves caught up in an unpleasant or distressing story, it can be useful to step out of the story and bring our attention back to something neutral, like our breath. No rocket-science, just taking the power back from the story and re-taking control of the moment, and taking control of our lives.
Join Graham and I at Giffordtown Village Hall on June 1st for a day of Mindfulness Meditation; it will be an informal, relaxed, and informative day. You've nothing to lose but your stories!