Anthony Churchill, sportsman, sailor, and champion of the arts, makes things happen – and has done all his life. Roz Whistance meets a man of action and adventure who has a passion for music.
You almost feel you need to make a list of his interests and achievements, but to tie Anthony Churchill down to anything so prosaic as a list is unconscionable, as well as nearly impossible. A map might be better, or one of those puzzles you set a child, where you have to draw a line showing the seemingly unlikely connection between one picture and another. For however bizarre it may seem, every interest and adventure in his past relates directly with his current passions, which in turn drive his fund raising and social events in Ventnor.
We meet in his oh-so-appropriate castellated and flinted home in Ventnor, and as Chopin plays away in another room and we sip red wine from cut-glass goblets, the life he describes seems so, well, unlikely. A beautiful Russian ballet dancer here, a lunch with the Aga Khan there, getting drunk on the Prime Minister’s pink champagne at Number 10 “All of these things get muddled up,” he says, part apologetically. “It’s marvellous because I hate doing only one thing in one’s life. You’ve only got one life so you might as well enjoy everything, try a soupçon of everything.”
His career reflected all the interests that he still has. He left Cambridge where he had studied politics and economics and went into financial journalism, joining the Express Group, then Thompsons, and then the Financial Times group. But working for other people wasn’t his cup of tea, so he decided to go on his own, and started his publishing empire developing a magazine called Seahorse, which, long since sold on, is still the technical bible of ocean racing.
“I thought why not have a stable of magazines,” he says, reeling off a list of titles which reflect his own eclectic interests: Powerboat and Water Skiing, Sub Aqua Scene, Canoeing, Windsurf, Ski, Dinghy, Tennis, Mountain Life, Sporting Horse, and then Films, Plays, the arts… “I always had a great love of the publishing side of things, I thought it was really rather important.”
Publishing niche titles led him into making films for television, a line his son William has followed: (William has four films showing on ITV and Sky this month, travelling with Joanna Lumley up the Nile, and with Ross Kemp to the source of the Amazon.) For where most of us might say ‘wouldn’t it be nice if…’ or ‘I’d love to…’, Anthony Churchill makes that thing happen. Because he loves the music of Chopin, and is friends with talented musicians, he feels the lack of a decent piano in Ventnor, so has staged a series of concerts to raise money for one. Because he feels an affinity with Shakespeare – like Anthony himself the Bard found it impossible to limit himself to just one path in life, he is a champion of the possibility that the great man visited the Isle of Wight. Because he has spent much of his life racing ocean yachts he is chairman of the Association of Sail Training Organisations’ annual race from Cowes, which gives young people a taste of the sea. Frequently as he describes his life he mentions in passing that he is a trustee of this charity or that organisation, but there is a discernible difference between those who support out of pity or conscience, and Anthony who wants others to share his passions.
His ‘why not?’ approach to life was doubtless honed at Marlborough College, the school he describes as “appropriate I suppose”. He was competitive not just in sport. He did a bit of acting at school, but gave up when another pupil, Julian Pettifer, (to become the BBC reporter), was lauded for a performance. “As Charley in Charley’s Aunt, I thought I was better than him!” says Anthony.
Cambridge University, he says, was the start of everything. “I got a scholarship to study history, but when I got there I moved to economics and politics. I had a lot of fun there in many things, particularly sailing and squash,” he says. He played the world champion squash player Azam Khan several times, but decided “unless I was going to spend 15 hours a day practising I wasn’t going to get much better than being captain of college squash and playing for the county. So that was an end of it.”
Playing for the county might satisfy most people but, as he says, he is not a unidirectional person. “Life’s too short to do just one thing.” Clearly so. He also found time to be president of the Cambridge Explorers and Travellers Club, satisfying a bit of wanderlust and following immediately after and in the prestigious footsteps of Brian Moser, a great explorer in the Amazon, and John Nott (later as Sir John, Margaret Thatcher’s Minister of War).
Neither was Anthony’s interest in politics half-hearted. “I wanted as an economist to know what was going on in a command communist country – Russia – and a satellite communist country – I chose Poland. Britain was a satellite capitalist system, and the USA was the command capitalist country. So I set my targets on visiting the three countries I didn’t know.”
He approached his (left-leaning) tutor Professor Joan Robinson about visiting Russia and she said she could access funding from the college on two conditions: that he read a book by Paul Samuelson, a sophisticated defence of capitalism, and join a seminar on economics at a youth conference at Moscow University.
“So I read the book, and made the speech in defence of Capitalism in 1957.” You could almost hear the Kalashnikovs taking aim. “It was not the done thing to do in front of 160 delegates who were not of my persuasion,” he says.
But Anthony was not one to be daunted by convention. He and his companions blagged their way into the Bolshoi to hear some concerts, and there met a beautiful Russian girl. It was a bit of a James Bond moment.
“We said we were students who weren’t allowed to go more than 20 miles outside Moscow, but desperately wanted to go to St Petersburg which was a few hundred miles away. So she took us there.”
The girl, it turned out, used to dance for the Bolshoi but was thrown out because she tried to seduce the ballet master. “We couldn’t stay in a hotel because we had no permits, so we had to camp outside at Petershof, Peter the Great’s palace, and on the wet grass she danced, without any music, the Dying Swan. It was really rather beautiful I must say,” says Anthony, adding: “And I love St Petersburg, its architecture is superb.”
When he and his travelling companions (Tom Enfield, who became Lord Stafford, and Peter Adams, whose father later ran the London School of Economics) returned to Moscow, the authorities fell for their story that they’d spent those unaccounted days suffering from excess of vodka, but all in all the trip cemented in Anthony’s mind the belief that ‘all this James Bond stuff’ had to stop between the two countries. “Europe had to get on terms with Russia because unless Western Europe and a reluctant America moved in with the Russians we could never solve our major problem – of sitting down to talk out our differences with the Islamic countries.” He adds, barely pausing for breath, “so even now I’m involved with that kind of area because here on the Isle of Wight I set up, with Johnny Caulcutt of Yarmouth, the British Russian Sailing Trust.”
And so we have the first of Anthony Churchill’s connections, which will build into something of a spider’s web as this article progresses. The friends and contacts that began when he was a student in Russia are good for the Isle of Wight today:
“We invite people over, such as the then number two in St Petersburg, Admiral Grishanov, and his colleague Andrey Berezkin who stays here frequently”
As he talks you wonder why you hadn’t noticed all the Island’s links with Russia before. “Ventnor used to be known as a Russian enclave,” Anthony tells me. The famous Russian author Ivan Turgenev dreamt up his epic novel Fathers and Sons while he was bathing off the sea in Ventnor. And he stayed in the house which is now owned by the violinist Richard Studt who performs at Anthony’s annual “Piano for Ventnor” concerts. “So all these things meld in. The policital side of my life and the sailing side.”
Time to get the pencils out again to make those connections. Anthony’s second place of study, Poland, also has strong Island connections. Many remember Cowes’s wartime debt to the Blyskawica, the ship which was moored in the harbour during the bombardment on Cowes: it fired off so much ammunition in the town’s defence against the Germans that her guns had to be cooled by sea water. “The Captain of the Blyskawica has a concert pianist granddaughter Eva Maria Doroszkowska, who came over and played Chopin for me at the Royal Yacht Squadron, which even my friend [Prime Minister] Ted Heath bothered to attend,” says Anthony, adding: “Ted didn’t really like Chopin very much. He was a Bruckner, Beethoven and Brahms man.”
Here is a junction. Do we follow the Chopin connection (he lived the first half of his life in Poland), which runs like a vein through Mr Churchill’s life, or do we veer off towards sailing? Though in fact even these two are linked.
It was while he was president of the Explorers and Travellers Club at Cambridge that he got involved in sailing. “We bought a very old boat to do an expedition down the west coast of Africa, and we sailed it up the coast to be repaired. But a big gale came and unfortunately I was shipwrecked off the Essex coast.” Africa ending in Essex didn’t put him off sailing, however, and after university Anthony started racing big yachts for the Swiss, Hong Kong and the British Team, with Olympic medallists such as Jazz Blackall, and Dick Pitcher.
“On Phantom I’d raced in the Admirals Cup for the British team, and come in about 5th in 120 yachts,” recalls Anthony. “A gentleman approached me and said [and here he adopts a pretty near Heath-like tone] ‘Eur, I’ve been thinking of getting my own ocean racing boat. Are you interested?’” Anthony was, so Ted Heath invited him to his Albany flat. “He didn’t turn up to begin with. So I was in his lovely flat, which was fairly bare except for a Steinway piano at one end. So with him not turning up I played a little bit of Chopin.” A pause. “Then I started playing Scott Joplin. There was a crash! Ted Heath rushed downstairs, and burst in saying ‘I heard your Mayday!’” He’d been on the phone upstairs and heard his piano being massacred.
Edward Heath, then the Leader of the Opposition, asked Anthony to help him get an ocean racing team together, so he introduced him to four of his friends who, with one Owen Parker, became the crew of the first Morning Cloud. “We went out and won the Sydney-Hobart race, which had not been won since 1945 by any foreign team.”
It would be hard to imagine a PM of today zapping off to race boats – the team won the Round the Island race five times – but Anthony insists racing was healthy for Edward Heath and for the country. “He’d say: ‘If I’m not capable of choosing a Cabinet that can run the country when I’m not there, I shouldn’t be Prime Minister.’”
The crew were a family to Ted – he was later to become godfather to Anthony’s daughter, Lucy. And he was always concerned with the ups and downs in each career and home trouble. The crew reciprocated with loyalty. They trained in the pool at Chequers, and gathered at Number 10 itself. “What Ted loved was to surround himself with people who knew more than he did about anything – this applies to his music, his politics and his sailing. He could pull us all together. He had an extremely good and retentive brain, but regarded himself as the first among equals.”
When there wasn’t a wind Ted would put them in taxis to pitch up at the Crab & Lobster in Bembridge or Peacock Vane in Bonchurch. Ted adored food and wine. Racing to France’s St Malo each year carried the added incentive of getting Ted his much-loved oysters before the restaurants closed. “When we lost a race, it was a cup of tea ashore. If we won, we were seduced by the promise of champagne”. Did the crew come near to alcoholism after a successful year?… “Once, when he’d been given a crate of Russian pink champagne, at No 10, the crew were asked to ‘make sure it was good enough for my political guests'”. Ted ducked out of the dining room, frequently, on ‘business’. And soon there was no champagne left to serve.
“Well, what did he expect, asking rogues and vagabonds to his home?” muses Anthony Churchill.
Part 2 of 2: Music, maestros and Ventnor connections