Earlier this month on this organ fellow Ruster Henry Elkins posted a thought-provoking review of Andrew Roberts’ biography Churchill: Walking with Destiny (Allen Lane, £35), see here – NATIONAL RUST
A week or so later I called him to salute his effort because by chance last December I had gifted my aged father said tome for Christmas and, on my regular trips to spend time with him since, had begun reading it myself during periods whenever I had time on my hands because he was either silent, otherwise preoccupied or asleep.
Yesterday morning, shortly before departing to return home at the conclusion of my latest visit, I had reached about the year 1932 in the saga and the beginning of the period (he turned 60 in November 1934) of his ‘wilderness’ years when he was trumpeting from the political sidelines about the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany and the dangers that it represented to the world.
I cannot disguise that, for all his faults – and these were legion, often happily-admitted by the man himself – I have always been a Churchill fan. Partly this is because he was, inevitably, a man of his time and I am one of mine.
Growing up, a small child and beyond, at my parents’ – and particularly my grandmother’s – knees I had been steeped in stirring tales of Britain’s history and position in the world, not least the extraordinary wartime years of 1939-1945 during which, of course, (as it was told to me) Churchill had been a demi-god.
An indication perhaps of our circumstances and middle class status was that my family elders – and in consequence therefore myself as a child – could quite belief or understand the ungratefulness of the British people in throwing Churchill out at the first opportunity (the 1945 General Election) after he had – in our collective perception – ‘won the War and saved the world’.
[I should perhaps add here that Churchill was Prime Minister when I was born, having been restored to the position six days earlier as a result of the General Election of 25th October 1951].
My comments today spring entirely from my renewed appreciation of Churchill’s life, so far to the above-mentioned stage in his life, that I have gained from Mr Roberts’ book, which incidentally I regard as an excellent addition to the crowded genre of Churchill biographies, of which I learned somewhere recently there are over a thousand, the best of which that I have read being the Martin Gilbert ‘short’ (one volume) version and that of Roy Jenkins.
I say that because, time and again, his contemporaries – whether personal friends, political colleagues or enemies – testified or admitted as much.
That is why who saw his faults (in political circles their number was legion) were so wary of him. The fact was that, whatever the subject and whatever the view upon it he alighted upon, he could carry or persuade others to it by the sheer force of his personality, charisma and oratory.
[I shall be generalising extravagantly below in order to make my points].
In his time, once they had come to a viewpoint on some issue of policy, those in politics who were principled – or felt constrained to appear so – tended to stick to it through thick and thin.
Not so Churchill, or so it seemed to many of his peers. He often gave the impression that to him politics was little more than a grown-up version of an organised school activity by which his reputation and position could be advanced.
Rather like a mooting competition, perhaps, for which the contestants pitch up without knowing either the proposition to be debated or on which side of it they will be required to speak.
Churchill was such a formidable performer that he could represent either side of an argument with equal persuasiveness – the danger with that was nobody could ever be sure in advance which he was going to plump for.
You can see their point.
For me, bounding forward to a modern context, there are some telling comparisons.
In an age in which so many of our politicians are tarred with the brush of knowing precious little about the ‘real world’ (having chosen politics as a career, they advance by first being interns, then researchers, then eventually Party-selected candidates for safe seats) and, consumed by ambition and dreams of advancement, they come to a position where principles are a movable feast – and indeed sometimes the electorate taken for granted or fools.
That is where Churchill was different.
Reading Mr Roberts’ biography – and again here I need to stress that I’ve only reached the 1930s – what strikes me again and again is the towering nature of his personality.
Many human beings, I’d venture to suggest the vast bulk of us, ‘advance’ in a general sense to a point in their lives where they are satisfied and/or happy in their professional and private lives and then ‘stop’, simply on the basis that they’re comfortable with the status, relationships, wealth, activities, hobbies etc. they’ve acquired and simply want to continue with things as they are.
I’m not criticising this because I’m prey to such an attitude myself.
Churchill had limitless energy and a restlessly inquisitive mind which – coupled with his capacities for action, hard work and assimilating information – made him a polymath.
He was also an outgoing social animal. However, unlike most politicians, who tend to gravitate mostly towards those of like mind and interests, he was fascinated by high-achievers in every walk of life and went all-out to meet and converse with them whenever he could: world leaders, senior military figures and thinkers, economists, film stars (I raised my eyebrows at the revelation he once wrote films scripts and talked of making films together with Charlie Chaplin), scientists, doctors … the list was endless.
Lastly, he was a voracious reader and student of history – but a humble and reflective one.
I’ve just read a chapter in which Churchill breaks cover to begin warning all who will listen about the rise of Hitler and its potential consequences.
The gist of his counter-argument was that his own considerable study of history informed him that the biggest mistakes are made not by those who do the same thing over and over again whilst expecting a different result, but by those who regard the present as both the culmination and height of human achievement and embrace the status quo. Rather, human achievements and discoveries were infinite and only the ability of humans to cope with them limited.
Food for thought, perhaps, the way the world is going.