Writing Portfolio


Boris on Churchill

It was with a strange combination of anticipation and trepidation that I picked up a copy of Boris Johnson's latest book, The Churchill Factor, which the Mayor of London has written to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the death of the wartime leader who was declared to be the Greatest Briton in a BBC poll several years ago. Anticipation because it sounded like a good read; trepidation because I wasn't entirely sure if there was a need for a new book about Winston Churchill.

More books have been written about Winston Churchill than any other British Prime Minister (some by the man himself, who once quipped that he knew that history would be kind to him because he intended to write it), from multi-volume biographies to compendia of his speeches and one-liners. So why another? We do all know how this story goes, right?

A.J.P. Taylor once described Churchill as "the saviour of his country". But, great historian though he obviously was, A.J.P. Taylor wrote those words just 34 years after the fate of Britain hung in the balance in the summer of 1940. It is now 75 years since that summer, and with the passing of time and the dwindling number of Second World War veterans, memories of Britain's finest hour (to borrow a Churchillian phrase) are fading. Perhaps there is a need for the story to be retold, for someone to keep the fire going.

But does this metaphorical fire need more fuel? Places that were intimately associated with Churchill, like the Cabinet War Rooms (which has actually been renamed the Churchill War Rooms) and Chartwell (his country home in Kent) are both receiving ever-higher numbers of visitors each year, and in the case of the latter I bet they're not going for the architecture or the view over the Weald. That tells me that Churchill still has some sort of pull, that people who were born long after the war (or even long after he died) still want to remember what he did.

Going back to A.J.P. Taylor (do bear with me on this), he added that while memories were fading even as he wrote of Churchill as his country's saviour, he was hardly an unbiased observer. "Was Churchill's policy mistaken and his victory barren?" he asked. "Future generations may give a confident answer. One of the present generation cannot speak with detachment." Well, future generations are definitely having a go at answering that question, although I'm not so sure about detachment; when it comes to Winston Churchill, we are still in his shadow, and it is arguable that Taylor was understating the case; he was the saviour of more than his country. 

The latest person to have a go at writing about Winston Churchill is one of our more colourful contemporary politicians, one of very few who are recognisable by their first name alone and one of those who has somehow managed to carry on writing books while holding public office. That last point is of course something that his subject knew all about, although any thoughts of a comparison are obviously wide of the mark, or at least they should be; no-one comes close to emulating Churchill, a fact that the author apparently recognises with characteristic self-deprecation: "For those of us who have tried feebly to do just some of the things he did," Boris writes, "it can be a little crushing". No doubt Roy Jenkins, a war veteran who had (like Churchill) served as both Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer, must have felt the same as he worked on his scholarly and much-acclaimed 2001 biography of the great man. 

By contrast, Boris's study of Churchill - as it takes a thematic rather than a chronological approach, one can't really call it a biography (for that, please refer to either Martin Gilbert - the single-volume version should suffice - or the afore-mentioned Roy Jenkins) - is written in very much the same vein as previous books like The Dream of Rome and Johnson's Life of London (both of which I'd enjoyed); much like Boris himself, his books are breezy and informal in tone, and wear their learning lightly.

He kicks off by outlining what he wants to do; after referring to one of those dubious surveys that says that young people today think of Churchill as the dog in the insurance advert, and acknowledging how he might not be the best-qualified person to have a go at telling the Churchill story ("I am not a professional historian, and as a politician I am not worthy to loose the latchet of his shoes..."), he argues that "we cannot take his reputation for granted ... I worry that we at in danger - through sheer vagueness - of forgetting the scale of what he did." Explanation/apologia done, off he goes with his take on Churchill.

This, by the way, is not the first time Boris has written about Churchill - there was a chapter on him in Johnson's Life of London and some of the points that were made in that book get a much more comprehensive outing here.

We start at the crucial point in Churchill's career; arguably the crucial point in British history: late May 1940. France is on the verge of collapse and the Dunkirk evacuation is under way. Churchill has been PM for a matter of weeks. The War Cabinet meets to discuss peace feelers sent out by Hitler, via his ally Mussolini; the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, is in favour of some sort of negotiated settlement. Fighting on - alone - is an option fraught with danger which will result in the deaths of thousands. But to the PM, agreeing to negotiate with Nazi Germany is tantamount to surrendering, and that will never do. Halifax is duly outflanked; Britain will continue with the war. It is hard to see this decision being reached had anyone other than Churchill, who had consistently opposed appeasement in the Thirties, been in charge. "He had," Boris summarises, "the vast and almost reckless moral courage to see that fighting on would be appalling, but that surrender would be even worse. He was right."

The appeal of the man has a lot to do with his wartime tenure as Prime Minister but there was more to him than politics alone (although, let's face it, over six decades in the House of Commons and a grand total - by my reckoning - of 27 years as a Cabinet minister including two spells as PM is more politics than most politicians have ever and will ever manage, and that's before you take into consideration the fact that he wrote his own speeches); he also had a prodigious literary output (more published words than Shakespeare and Dickens put together), got shot at on four different continents (three of those while wearing uniform), drew the map of the modern Middle East, knocked out over 500 paintings, had a go at flying at a time when it was considered an insanely dangerous pastime and he even managed to turn his hand to bricklaying - all while maintaining a booze and cigar intake that would floor most of us. 

Churchill's achievements are laid out for all to see - as well as the Second World War, there are also such things as devising the tank (the prototypes were developed by the Navy when he was First Lord of the Admiralty), creating the RAF (partly - one of its forbears, the Royal Naval Air Service, came into being on his watch) and laying the foundations of both the welfare state (with David Lloyd George, prior to the First World War) and the NHS (it was he who hired Beveridge to write his famous report).

The lows are chronicled as well as the highs - space is found for his role in the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign (following which he ended up leading a battalion on the Western Front), his role in the Chanak crisis (which brought down the Lloyd George government), his at-times hysterical stance on India and his support for Edward VIII in the Abdication crisis, following which most people reckoned he was finished. Even the attack on the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir gets several pages ("butchery, but it was necessary"). The conclusion Boris draws from these is that Churchill "had so many enterprises and initiatives that it is no surprise he had setbacks" before noting that, unlike most, he tried to change events - and his refusal to go with the flow was the cause not only of his cock-ups but also his triumphs.

There's even a chapter on Churchill and Europe which, given who the author is, can only be seen through the prism of present-day politics. Both Europhiles and Eurosceptics are as fond of quoting Churchill as they are irritated by the fact that the other side is also doing so. Boris looks over where the quotes come from (he seems to like looking into the various Churchill anecdotes, and is quite disappointed when his favourite ones turn out to have been mis-attributed), and he concludes that Churchill's outlook was remarkably consistent, seeing Britain as playing three distinct roles - European power, imperial power and member of the English-speaking world (that last bit explains the pro-American outlook that resulted in the Atlantic Charter); Boris comments that "the promiscuous internationalism of the approach seems ever more sensible today" - provided you substitute the bit about the Empire for something about the Commonwealth.

If it wasn't already obvious, Boris is a bit of a fan. He's also not averse to inserting himself into the narrative; he describes going to Blenheim Palace (where he gets to see the room in which Churchill was born), visits Chartwell at least twice and in one where's-he-going-with-this moment he cycles out to an East London cemetery in the rain while wearing a suit - a typically Boris self-deprecating moment, but there is a purpose to it. He's there to visit the grave of Mrs Everest - Churchill's nanny - and the reason is to provide evidence of the man's humanity; after she left the family's service, he (then a cadet at Sandhurst) supported her financially, and when she died he paid for the funeral and the gravestone. 

He also looks at what made the man 'tick' and turns his attention to his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, the man who "really moulded him - first by treating him abominably and then by dying prematurely". As well as inadvertently installing in his son a desire to succeed, Churchill senior (who was in turn inspired by Disraeli) was also responsible for much of his son's political outlook, most notably a somewhat lax approach to party loyalty, a taste for self-projection and a formula that he called 'Tory Democracy', a rather vague notion of being above the left/right distinctions - "Randolph campaigned for servants to be entitled to compensation for industrial accidents, and in the same spirit Winston is the author of important social reforms: bringing the pension age down to sixty-five, setting up Labour Exchanges ... while always remaining, on the whole, a steady defender of free markets." 

Boris comes across as a bit of a Disraeli fan too, describing a recent biography of the Victorian PM as "finger-wagging" and "unfair". In one easy-to-overlook passage, he notes that as well as social reform, "Disraeli and the Churchills also have in common the journalism (and in Winston's case, the novel), the love of show, the rhetorical flourishes, the sense of history ...  the slight air of camp and the inveterate opportunism." Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

There are a few typos; for example, fairly early on, Boris refers to the Second World War as having started on 1st September 1939, and later on HMS Belfast is described as a battle-cruiser armed with 12-inch guns, whereas it is in fact a cruiser armed with 6-inchers; I am usually of the opinion that such mistakes, while excusable for a first draft, should have been corrected by the time publication comes around (and should definitely have been corrected for the paperback). That they have not been is the joint responsibility of the author and his editor.

Boris finds that Churchill's character is somewhat akin to what we might see as characteristics of the (his?) ideal Briton: "Broadly humorous but occasionally bellicose; irreverent but traditionalist; steadfast but sentimental; rejoicing in language and wordplay of all kinds; keen to a fault on drink and food". But he has a more universal appeal: "He means something ... to a huge spread of humanity. He is there as a role model for anyone who wasn't much good at school ... He speaks for all those who have worried about living up to the expectations of their parents, anyone who has felt that they are a failure, anyone who has struggled with depression ... anyone who feels they must battle on against the odds." 

Boris goes on to describe Churchill as "the resounding human rebuttal to all Marxist historians who think history is the story of vast and impersonal forces." What Winston Churchill showed was that one person can make all the difference; he was perhaps the ultimate example of just how much of a difference one person can make.

To conclude, what we have here is a book that entertains as well as providing a narrative that interweaves the various strands of Churchill's long and impressive life, with (perhaps inevitably) a few bits about the author as well. These would irritate people who don't like Boris, in the unlikely event of their reading this book. 

Apparently his next book is going to be about William Shakespeare (who it so happens also got a chapter in the London book). He may be over-reaching himself here - there's hardly anything new that can be said on that subject, and there has already been one outwardly light and informal (but actually highly informative) study on Shakespeare that confounded the scholars in recent times - by Bill Bryson. Whether the Boris Factor can top that remains to be seen, but that won't stop him from trying.

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