March 15, 2010

CHURCHILL by Paul Johnson

Never give in – never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense.”

There is no figure of the 20th century – of any century, really – that fascinates me as much as Winston Churchill. During Britain’s finest hour (also his finest hour), Churchill famously said, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” Indeed, the same should be said of him; I don’t think it is overstatement to say that he is largely responsible for saving Western civilization as we know it. So much about him – his energy, his endurance, his personality, his talent for so many things – make him a great man, and the perfect subject for biographies. It seems there are always new books coming out on the man to add to the shelves devoted to him at libraries and bookstores. I’ve read a number of the less intimidating ones (I have yet to muster the courage for Martin Gilbert’s definitive and massive biography, let alone Winston’s own many-volumed autobiographies). Of the ones I have read, this slight work by Paul Johnson, one of the most eminent (and amazingly prolific) modern historians, offers a nice overview of Churchill’s life while still managing to look deeper into what made him so powerful. In its brevity, Churchill brings to light aspects of Winston that may sometimes get bogged down in the density of the massive tomes. By looking at the big picture of Winston’s life, Churchill offers a nice introduction to the masses of information and biography available on the great man.

One thing about Churchill that has always struck me, and that Johnson touches on often, is his sheer energy for life. How did he accomplish so many things, in so many arenas, to such a great extent, and through so late in life? It wasn’t until he was 66 that he became wartime Prime Minister and reached his full potential, and by that time he had already accomplished an incredible amount. Politically, Winston had lived many lives: in the early 1900s he worked his way up to Home Secretary and then First Lord of the Admiralty, only to be shamed and cast out of government following the disaster of the Dardanelles. He rose again, however, in the 1920s to become Chancellor of the Exchequer and eventually First Lord of the Admiralty (again) before entering 10 Downing. That’s not to mention his second go at Prime minister in the 1950s, a role he took up when he was 77.

Politics aside, his life was filled with adventure and accomplishment. He learned to master the English language, and used it to make his living. Following his time at Sandhurst, he aligned this talent for writing with his position in the cavalry to act as both a soldier and war correspondent. He both fought in and wrote about Cuba, India, Egypt, and South Africa (where he was captured by the enemy and magnificently escaped on foot – an incredible story for another time). He continued to write throughout his life; indeed, it was his many articles and books that earned him the majority of his money throughout his life. For the wealth of important books he published, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953. In between all this fighting, writing, and politicking, Churchill also became an accomplished and prolific painter.

So how did he have all the energy for this? In an attempt to answer this, Johnson points to an encounter he himself had with Churchill when he was young and was able to ask the man to what he owed all his success. Churchill replied, “Conservation of energy. Never stand up when you can sit down, and never sit down when you can lie down.” These are words I can happily live by. And, looking at what we know of Winston, they certainly fit. Throughout his life, even during the war when possible, Churchill started his days early but remained in bed until early afternoon, giving dictation and orders with his documents and maps spread around him. Also along these lines, he considered his comforts and personal pleasures important parts of his day, and vital to keeping him sane and successful. Thus why he was often seen in his comfortable (and amusing-looking) leisure suits, with his cigar in mouth and glass of scotch or champagne at the ready. This is also where his talent for painting comes in; he first took up the hobby as a distraction from his ‘Black Dog’ of depression, then found it so soothing that he could scarcely do without it. The same went for Chartwell, the country home he came to love so much. He took to bricklaying and gardening, and saw the home and his personal upkeep of it as his oasis from London and all that it accompanied. So then, Winston’s offhand remarks to Johnson carry much weight, and represent a philosophy that I can stand behind: the key to success in life is the art of relaxation.

As my Dad (who read the book before me and is a far bigger authority on Churchill than I am) pointed out to me, there is one major point in which I think Johnson has it wrong. In discussing Winston’s early life, Johnson brushes aside the effect of Winston’s father, Lord Randolph Churchill, on the development of Winston’s psyche. Lord Randolph was by no means a kind or encouraging father; reading his letters to his son while Winston was away at schools that he hated and did poorly at make your heart break for this young, boy who ardently sought the love of his parents. Winston was always a poor student – eager to please, and passionate about what interested him – but a poor student nonetheless. Lord Randolph thus had little hope for his future, and constantly made this known to Winston. He, of course, died before Winston could prove his worth to his father, but Winston spent the rest of his life proving himself and is known to have lamented (particularly during his Black Dog days) the fact that he never did get to show his father what he was capable of. Even when looking back at his father late in life, he sometimes chose to remember him in the best of lights – a reminiscence that is very much at odds with what we know of Lord Randolph’s role as a father. In short, I think that Lord Randolph’s disappointment of Winston as a child played a major part in his successes later in life – and that Johnson’s dismissal of this effect neglects a major part of the development of Winston’s life.

I, as I think many people do, feel some sort of strange personal connection to Winston. The tendency for many, myself included, to comfortably refer to him as Winston speaks to that. I don’t fully know what it is about him that causes that sense of closeness, especially considering that he probably wasn’t actually a very pleasant man to be around most of the time. It seems that people peripherally around him felt the same way, however. Accounts of servants or secretaries or those working in close proximity with him are often very similar: he was a gruff man who yelled often, didn’t tolerate much (especially whistling!), was supremely demanding, thought very highly of himself, forgot people’s names, and was often mean. And yet, these same people talk about how much they admired him and how proud they are to have worked with him. He inspires something, through his personality and perseverance and, of course, what he did for the world. I could go on much longer about Winston, but I’ve gone on far long enough, so I’ll leave you with some of his own words about himself that are pretty indisputable:

“We are all worms, but I do believe I am a glow worm.”

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