As you would expect, it’s impossible to read this book without drawing fairly direct comparisons between its author and its subject. In promotional exchanges, with the well-worn practice of self-deprecation, its author will of course insist that there is no comparison between the great man and the present humble supplicant. The readership will, with tolerant amusement, conclude that there are plenty of points which could be brought to bear on the argument; plenty, indeed, which may have occurred to the author himself, emerging in some striking encomia:
He was eccentric, over the top, camp, with his own special trademark clothes — and a thoroughgoing genius… From his very emergence as a young Tory MP he had bashed and satirised his own party… There were too many Tories who thought of him as an unprincipled opportunist… His enemies detected in him a titanic egotism, a desire to find whatever wave or wavelet he could, and surf it long after it had dissolved into spume on the beach… He did behave with a death-defying self-belief, and go farther out on a limb than anyone else might have thought wise.
There are some irresistible points of comparison, of course. Churchill was a famously amusing talker and sparkling writer who made his reputation not as a politician but as a very well-paid journalist. Half-American, he was always considered within his party as a big beast, but often an isolated one; there were many black marks against his name. His dealings with the Tonypandy miners through to his catastrophic relations with Lord Fisher during the first world war, his backing of Mrs Simpson, and even the chaos of his last administration, 1951–55; these were redeemed by the events following 1940. But Churchill was unmistakably the sort of politician who got away with stuff. To that extent, the comparisons between author and subject seem fair enough.
But by the time we are brought to contemplate Churchill’s attitudes to ‘champagne-fuelled university high jinks’ and asked to wonder whether Churchill ever felt the temptation to commit adultery (answer: famously not), a certain wry amusement might be setting in. The Plutarchan parallel life, which runs a wishful self-portrait of the author alongside a portrait of the subject, has been revived as a literary form. In this case it will provide — is intended to provide, I’m sure — hours of entertainment to the literal-minded.
It is not altogether easy to turn from Johnson’s suggestive subject to his declared one. But what is this book for? There are a number of Churchills nowadays. There is the historian’s one, produced by examining the evidence and trying to see the shape of the career, and how it fits into events. There is a truly agonisingly boring politician’s one, wheeled out for the benefit of visiting American dignitaries, in which Churchill’s ideas of Europe, Commonwealth, mid-Atlantic relations, anything at all, can sometimes be traduced or invented, alongside a brief homage to the events of 1940. And there is an entertainer’s Churchill, who has become one of half a dozen national figures from history, like King Alfred, Lady Godiva, Queens Elizabeth I and Victoria, who can be relied upon to provide a mental image — with an expression and a couple of props — for comedians, cartoonists and the makers of pop videos. In Churchill’s case, he is depicted as a cross between a baby and a bulldog. He is usually clutching a cigar, though one of the definitive Churchill images, by Karsh of Ottawa, has a scowl that was achieved by the photographer rudely snatching the cigar away.
The historian’s Churchill does not have much of a role here. Some favourite Churchillian anecdotes are debunked, but not enough. To give credence to the one about the American woman who wouldn’t say ‘a chicken’s breast’ merely on the say-so of one of Churchill’s relations seems naïve: the English have been making jokes about genteel Americans offering their guests ‘a slice of the chicken’s bosom’ since the 1840s at least.
Overall, as a contribution to knowledge about important events, this book is negligible, and sometimes brutally omits obvious facts in order to present a consistent case. Here is one example, in defence of Churchill as imperialist:
His language on India sometimes seems unhinged, but you have to bear in mind that he saw the Raj as a restraint on barbarous practices — suttee, bride-price, the shunning of the Untouchables and so on.
Suttee (or sati) was banned in the Raj as early as 1829, and in all the princely states by 1861, so Churchill can hardly have seen it as an urgent justification for empire. More worryingly, to restrict Churchill’s attitudes on empire to some intemperate language, like describing Gandhi as a ‘half-naked fakir’, neglects some areas of real irresponsibility. When there was a danger of serious famine in Bengal in 1943–4, Churchill announced that the Indians ‘must learn to look after themselves as we have done… there is no reason why all parts of the British empire should not feel the pinch in the same way as the mother country has done.’ Still more disgracefully, he said in a jocular way that ‘the starvation of anyhow underfed Bengalis is less serious than that of sturdy Greeks’. This is more than amusingly politically incorrect language: it had real consequences. Three million Bengalis died of starvation. A true historian would not have neglected this in order to suggest that the imperialist was making a stand against ‘barbarous practices’.
But, pleasingly, we do not get a politician’s Churchill either — or not entirely; although what Evelyn Waugh called Churchill’s mastery of ‘sham-Augustan prose’ does infect Johnson’s own style from time to time: ‘Gone was Churchill the anti-American…. So began his relentless advocacy.…’ (in exactly the same way, when politicians start to talk about Churchill, a tendency they have, the verb so grandly at the sentence’s end to place). But this is not the whole of it. The book’s style is often chatty, enthusiastic and as funny as you would expect. It has been written in something of a hurry, to drum up interest and enthusiasm for the values that Churchill espoused, and not to hymn them sonorously.
Most valuable of all, and this is where the book does possess some interest, is the discussion of literary style. It comes to life when explaining what the structures of those famous sentences actually are, with reference to classical rhetoric, and examining some truly great early journalistic dispatches. Here, after all, is where the author can contribute something rather special, because brilliant professional users of language are often failures in the arena of politics — John Stuart Mill made no mark as an MP — and few politicians can write a book that possesses any life.
Whether or not this biographer, after years of being regarded as an intensely likeable but somewhat shambolic person, a gifted writer but not entirely to be trusted, is going to be presented with the great opportunity of disaster to test his mettle in the worst of all moments, we must wait to see. In the meantime — granted this volume’s entertaining as well as mildly preposterous elements — it is true to say that few people in the mid-1930s would have thought it remotely likely that Churchill would ever be regarded as his country’s saviour.
Whether that entirely justifies an index entry reading ‘Habits resembling Bertie Wooster figure, p.122’ (really, Boris? Really?), I can’t honestly say.
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