Magazine | December 21, 2009, Issue

Walking With Destiny

One of the most remarkable aspects of Winston Churchill’s sprawling epic of a life was the way that he was able to cram it all in — to do all that — in a mere 90 years. It is only marginally less miraculous that Paul Johnson has now managed to make an excellent job of summing up that life — and, no less important, offer up a good measure of the man who lived it — in a book of a little under 200 pages. 

This is not a “definitive” Churchill. For that, turn to the massive official biography begun by his son and taken to a triumphant conclusion by the indefatigable Sir Martin Gilbert. Nor is it a full-length (if not Gilbertian in size) work on the lines of Roy Jenkins’s Churchill (2001), a fine, feline interpretation (Johnson rates it as the best single-volume account of Churchill’s life) made all the more interesting for having been written by a man who had, like Churchill, been Britain’s home secretary and chancellor of the exchequer, although not, mercifully (he was a socialist of sorts, and a Europhile of conviction), prime minister. 

Paul Johnson’s take is something else, a deft, brisk, admiring Life of a Great Man, a book for a country-house weekend, perhaps, crafted in vintage style and best read, I’d think, in the company of some vintage port. A distinguished journalist (and a regular NR contributor) and successful popular (in the best meaning of that term) historian, Johnson writes in a slightly archaic rhythm, a lavish, lively prose that is sometimes old-fashioned (“At this moment providence intervened”) and occasionally orotund (“the two worked together to bring the great fleet of measures into harbor, wafted by the winds of their oratory”). This is an author who cares about narrative, and who relishes grand, sweeping (frequently, very sweeping) judgments, faintly irritating pulpitry (“It is a joy to write his life. . . . None holds more lessons, especially for youth”), well-chosen anecdotes, and neat, shrewd observations (“Churchill had always used clothes for personal propaganda”). The resulting mix comes as a rich treat after the dense jargon and denser preoccupations that characterize the efforts of so many contemporary academic historians. Readers looking for an attempt to squeeze Churchill into the straitjacket of early-21st-century attitudes will be disappointed, as will those looking for some rote revisionism, but then they probably should not have been reading Johnson in the first place.

Despite going a little easy on his subject over what were, at least arguably, his two most notorious (and very different) blunders — the Gallipoli campaign and his 1925 decision to put Britain back on the gold standard at too high a parity — and making no mention of some of the more harebrained schemes Churchill dreamt up in World War II, Johnson shows that he is prepared to criticize, at least on occasion. Thus he takes aim at Churchill’s quixotic, last-ditch defense of the poisonous Edward the Abdicator, and at more serious, if lesser known, errors of judgment, such as the role that Churchill played in carelessly pushing 1920s Japan on a path that was eventually to transform the Japanese from allies into antagonists. There was, Churchill told the then–prime minister of Britain, not “the slightest chance” of a war with Japan in their lifetimes. The eerie intuitive sense that enabled him to be one of the first Englishmen to understand the true nature of both Nazism and Bolshevism was, this time, nowhere to be seen. Less than 20 years later, Singapore fell.

But if Johnson has (for the most part) avoided the temptations of hero worship, he has an appreciation for the heroic qualities of Churchill’s life. This is only underlined by the obvious pleasure he takes in demonstrating how far Churchill could stray from more conventional notions of how heroes should behave, perhaps most charmingly in the story of when, in 1946 and aged 17, Johnson (lucky fellow!) had the opportunity to ask the greatest of Britain’s leaders to what he attributed his success in life: “Without pause or hesitation, he replied: ‘Conservation of energy. Never stand up when you can sit down, and never sit down when you can lie down.’ He then got into his limo.” A seasoned veteran both of dusty, sand-blown imperial campaigns and of the mud of the Western Front, who had, as prime minister and aged nearly 70, to be dissuaded from showing up for the D-Day landings, Churchill was a warrior as much as he was a warlord, yet somehow I suspect this is not the sort of reply, self-deprecatory and sly, that an Achilles would have given. 

What Achilles would have recognized, however, was Churchill’s relentless pursuit of glory and fame. Along with his romantic ideal of nation, and his gargantuan appetite for excitement, it is as close as we can come to finding a key to understanding what drove this complex man. With the idea of an afterlife appearing as unlikely to Churchill (for all practical purposes an atheist, but in a very English way: he was, he once said, a buttress of the Church of England, “support[ing] it from the outside”) as to the heroes of the Iliad, his achievements could be the only sure route to the immortality that he craved. 

In bidding farewell to the outgoing Labour members of his wartime coalition, Churchill told them “the light of history will shine on all your helmets.” To make sure that it shone on his, he became his own Homer. “Words,” he had once remarked, “are the only things that last forever.” The sole reward he requested for his services during the war was that a large quantity of Britain’s wartime papers be classified as his personal property. By effectively gaining exclusive access to so much of the official record, he was able to be among the first to get in his word (or, more accurately, more than 2 million words) on the topic of the war; and so, aided by a dedicated team, he did. The six volumes of his The Second World War were to shape our understanding of the conflict for a generation, and in no small respect they still do. They also made Churchill a great deal of money ($50 million, at today’s value, not including serialization rights), something that was never a small consideration for a man so skillful at turning ink into gold.

His account is highly partial and, even allowing for what was known at the time, it leaves out much of the story, but, as Johnson explains, “by giving his version of the greatest of all wars . . . he was fighting for his ultimate place in history. What was at stake was his status as hero. So he fought hard and took no prisoners. On the whole he won the war of words, as he had earlier won the war of deeds.” But then, given Churchill’s way with language, a talent so profound that there was a time when it seemed only his speeches stood between the island race and defeat, this could not have been an entirely unexpected result.

And it’s a mark of Johnson’s sensitivity as a writer — and his keen eye for good material — how often he is prepared to let Churchill speak for himself. If there’s a drawback to this biography it is that it doesn’t contain much fresh detail for those already familiar with the story: The only two things new to me were the revelation that Churchill couldn’t stand the sound of whistling (by contrast, Johnson relates that Hitler was “an expert and enthusiastic whistler: he could do the entire score of The Merry Widow, his favourite opera”) and the claim that Churchill’s liver, “inspected after his death, was found to be as perfect as a young child’s,” something that might suggest that this peripatetic and famously bibulous statesman regularly included Lourdes in his wanderings.

But this lack of new information, almost inevitable in a brief summary of a well-known life, is compensated for by the pleasure of rereading the quotations from Churchill, familiar, well-loved friends for the most part, that Johnson weaves through his text as the best of all guides to the man who first said them. There are the jokes, the asides, and, of course, extracts from those great, rolling, resonant speeches. To read them is to hear again that voice, a voice (in this case speaking on the threat to British India) capable of conjuring up imagery that has not yet lost its power to chill or, in what may be our own coming age of Western retreat, sound the alarm: “Greedy appetites have been excited and many itching fingers are stretching and scratching at the vast pillage of a derelict Empire.”

And then there’s this, from 1940, on the Anglo-American “special relationship”: “The British Empire and the United States will have to be somewhat mixed up together in some of their affairs for mutual and general advantage. For my own part, looking out upon the future, I do not view the process with any misgivings. . . . No one can stop it. Like the Mississippi, it just keeps rolling along. Let it roll. Let it roll on full flood, inexorable, irresistible, benignant [regrettably, Johnson omits that splendid ‘benignant’], to broader lands and better days.”

If I admit that rereading those words in the age of the EU, of Gordon Brown, and of Barack Obama left me sad, I hope that you will understand.

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