Anthony Churchill: Living not too wisely, but well

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Hold tight for the connecting game that is the life of Anthony Churchill: the lines are very wiggly and very long. They stem from interests and enthusiasms, ideologies and passions which have been pursued throughout his life, which have led him to far-flung places and adventures. In Part II of her look at his life, Roz Whistance finds his interests always round back upon the Isle of Wight and are celebrated in the company of friends.

An approach from the Conservative leader, later prime minister, Edward Heath, had led Anthony Churchill to amass a crew for him to pursue an interest in ocean yacht racing. This had had unlooked for benefits for Mr Heath, since the crew became like family – even if they sometimes spent a little too much time together:

“Ted was a great Bruckner fan, and once was in his bunk with his radio balanced on his chest, listening to a concert. This was during a race, which was pure sacrilege, and it was driving the crew mad: some were more Beatlemanians than Bruknerians. Yet no crewman dared lean over the sleeping man to turn it off.”

Ted Heath retired from racing after the notorious Fastnet race in 1979, when ferocious storms led to the deaths of many yachtsmen. Anthony was not with him on that race. He had a new bee in his bonnet:- Round the World Yacht Racing.

“Yes, I initiated and backed the first such race which I handed over to Whitbread. It’s now the Volvo Round the World Race,” he says. “That had four stops. So why not push out the boat and have a race with only two stops?” In 1979 he was working for the Australian government on a second race, from Britain to Western Australia: “Western Australians are very proud that while the East is founded by convicts, the West was founded by free men, in a ship called the Parmelia. I was asked to organise a race to celebrate that.”  A third Round the World Race he organised, the Financial Times Clipper Race, went a step further, having only one stop. The press claims these three as the birth of this demanding sport.

Later, itching to scupper the Americans’ long victorious run in the America’s Cup, Anthony financially backed a sail maker, John Oakley, who had come up with a design of mast which bent over at its top, so increasing the amount of sail. The Lionheart was to sail with the new design, but the Americans became suspicious that the mast design was a winner and outlawed it. “Britain rules the waves, but America waives the rules, as the saying goes.” However a keel design, hidden underwater, was easier to keep secret. Anthony, as proprietor of Seahorse magazine, followed closely the work of an Australian, Ben Lexcen, with whom he had sailed for the Admiral’s Cup. In Sydney, Ben secretly made model boats with keels carrying exotic bulbs and wings: Anthony was sworn to secrecy. But later, when the world knew that “Australia II” had indeed been built with such a revolutionary keel (too late for the Americans to object) he shared the good news with the racing world about what it might look like. And that got him into trouble.

“There was a sticky moment. I was in Cowes in front of the TV men with Ted Heath,” he says “The girl interviewer there was a bit of a bimbo. When Ted said to me ‘I saw La Traviata last night, her reply was: ‘Oh, what kind of a boat is that?’ The interview didn’t last long after that. But in the background was the financier of Australia II, Alan Bond, who I’d been warned had reached for his solicitors when I published what I thought Ben Lexcen’s secret keel looked like.” Australia II went on to be the first non-American ever to win the coveted Cup.

Anthony’s sailing days with Edward Heath might have been over but the overarching memory is of a man who enjoyed the company of others, whatever their backgrounds or political differences. Which is something Anthony shares. Saying of somebody that he or she “has a good brain” is the ultimate accolade, and he relishes the company of those who share his loves.

One such friend was an artist, Jack Lawrence Miller, who, until his death was married to Anthony’s lady, Linda. The walls of his Ventnor home are hung with Jack’s oils and watercolours, which are striking for their free lines and energy. Their friendship developed through a shared love of Chopin.

“Jack loved Chopin’s Preludes,” Anthony says, as we look at an extraordinary picture which depicts the contemporary holiday makers – Jack himself, Anthony, and Jack’s then-girlfriend – playing with 13th Century occult cards which summon up the ghost of Chopin. With Miller, Anthony went to Majorca, where Chopin had lived, scandalously, with his lover George Sand. “In their monastery cell, I played Chopin’s piano while Jack would paint,” says Anthony. “He hated selling pictures except to friends, and sometimes would ask me to buy one just for the price of the canvas.” He and Linda feel the artist should have achieved a greater recognition before his death.

Meanwhile the love of Chopin and the companionship of Miller led Anthony to spend time on neighbouring Menorca, and another great friendship developed.

“I had a villa there and used to get in my little inflatable boat with my swim suit, flippers and snorkel. At one time I’d sailed round to the other side of a bay and dived on what I thought were parts of a Roman wreck. Exhausted, I flopped down on the sand, by a convenient bar, but with no cash. This debonair man came over and said ‘You look exhausted, would you like a drink?’” It was Ted Branson, father of entrepreneur Richard. “I was invited back to his villa where I met his wife Eve, their children and grandchildren. They all scolded: ‘Who’s Ted dragged off the beach this time?!”

He admires, he says, the Bransons above all families he’s met, for their dynamism and curiosity about people. He describes staying with Ted and Eve and hearing the phone go at 5am, because that is the time Richard gets up. Or when the Bransons came over to Cowes for the America’s Cup Regatta in 2001 and Richard hadn’t a room: Eve and Ted had to share a single bed for the first time in many years, so their entrepreneurial son could have the second bed and rush off the next morning by helicopter.

The Bransons became friends and often visit the Island. Anthony would dearly love Ted and Eve to buy a home here – Eve has fond memories of being a WRAF in Yarmouth during the war – and feels a Branson presence would do more for the Isle of Wight than any politician could. “Eve put her name down for a Cowes flat, but there was a problem the planning department failed to solve, and she backed off. What a shame. Where one Branson goes, the family follow suit, and what a fillip that might have done for the Island economy.”

Anthony is hungry for the company of intelligent people, and on the Isle of Wight he creates occasions to celebrate his heroes who have Island connections – such as Shakespeare, Sir John Betjeman, Sir Edward Elgar, Tennyson and Swinburne. His house is on the land owned once by another Victorian poet, John Sterling, who died in Ventnor and is buried in the church nearby.

He also brings yachting events to the Island: in the past, a Maxi series, a Multihull series, and each year now, an event for youth with the Association of Sail Training Associations, which sees 30 yachts and 400 youth sailing at Cowes. “Participation by Island youth is growing, which is a joy to see.”

He is still basking in the recent success of this year’s “Ventnor Piano Fund” concerts. “We filled the church twice in one day – it has never been so full – and raised another £1,500 for the fund.” He is determined that the town shall have a decent piano on which the young could learn and which would be worthy to accompany Richard Studt and his Stradivarius, and others he invites to play.

Shakespeare’s birthday saw a gathering of Bardic fans in the Rex restaurant – run by Abdel Kaissam, another man on whom Anthony heaps the accolade of “a good brain”. They ate, drank and each table quoted their favourite Shakespearan lines. With Ryde’s Adrian Ould, Anthony is a champion of the possibility that the great man visited the Island, as the closest friend (or could it be more?) of the Earl of Southampton, made Governor of the Isle of Wight in 1603.

Anthony has great fun with the alchemy of socially mixing people. “I enjoy putting people together who are second removed from their usual lives.” And does he ever get it wrong, put people together who don’t get on? “Oh absolutely,” he says with a wicked twinkle.”But if they can’t get on, that’s their own fault, not mine!”

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