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An Artist’s Churchill

books and culture

An Artist’s Churchill

Andrew Roberts delivers a masterly, standard-setting biography of the British leader. February 8, 2019
Arts and Culture

Churchill: Walking with Destiny, by Andrew Roberts (Viking, 1,152 pp., $40)

In his massive new biography of Winston Churchill, Andrew Roberts recounts how Major-General Sir James Edmonds, editor of the government’s official war history, helped Churchill compose The World Crisis, his history of the Great War, by supplying him with pertinent maps and documents, after which Churchill, striding up and down his study at Chartwell, his country house overlooking the Weald of Kent, would dictate his account of events to his secretary. For Edmonds, the experience was unforgettable.

I heard what seemed to be a spirit voice whispering to him, but the whispers were his own; he murmured each sentence over to see how it sounded before he dictated it. He took infinite pains to polish up his prose; after two or three typewritten versions, he would have four or five galley-proofs—an expensive business for his publishers . . . He has the soul of an artist.   

As to Churchill’s artistry, Evelyn Waugh had his doubts. While appreciative of Churchill’s desire to have his histories embody a certain “magnificence,” he also thought that his “historical writings . . . though highly creditable for a man with so much else to occupy him, do not really survive close attention.” Why? “He can seldom offer the keen, unmistakable aesthetic pleasure of the genuine artist.” T.S. Eliot was less unfavorable, convinced that Churchill’s “historical style possesses beauties that the charm of no other personality than his could give.” Moreover, he was “honester than Macaulay.” However, Eliot also saw how oratory colored Churchill’s writings, especially his biography of his ancestor, John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough.

In a style formed by oratory, we must never expect intimacy; we must never expect the author to address us as individual readers, but always as members of a mob. The mob of course may be assumed to possess every intellectual and moral virtue, as mobs addressed by orators usually do; it may even be a select mob. That addressed in the pages of Marlborough is a kind of Whig-Tory amalgam, men of the world of course, used to good manners and to downright plain speaking, virtuous but tolerant of the morals of Restoration times; recognizing the importance of good blood, but a little cynical about ancient pedigrees . . . What is more important, however, than the particular constitution of the audience addressed by Mr. Churchill, is that characteristic of his kind of writing, which consists in constantly pitching the tone a little too high. At the end of a period we seem to observe the author pause for the invariable burst of hand-clapping.

Graham Greene was amusing about Churchill’s fondness for the magniloquent when he said, apropos Operations Torch, the Allied landing in Vichy-controlled Algiers and Morocco in 1942: “I imagine Churchill’s reference to the services of West Africa in the war was ironic.” (Churchill had said that the landing was “a majestic enterprise.”) For Greene, “As far as I can see their contribution has been confined to cowardice, complacency, inefficiency, illiteracy and thirst . . . People say the African is not yet ready for self-government. God knows whether he is or not: the Englishman here certainly isn’t.” Like many others, Malcolm Muggeridge thought that Churchill’s books might have more historical than artistic value—Churchill, after all, was so often the protagonist of the history he interpreted—but he was sure that The Second World War, even “more than The World Crisis will remain an imperishable monument to one who, in an age of littleness, has shown himself to be a great Englishman, a great European, and a great man.”

What sets Roberts apart from other Churchill biographers is not only his revisiting of Churchill’s greatness at a time when so many previously unreleased sources have been made available—especially the diaries of King George VI and the Soviet ambassador in London, Ivan Maisky—but the artistry with which he captures that greatness. One can see this in the verve with which he weaves together the strands of Churchill’s life, without compromising the drama inherent in its chronology. Here, we see Churchill’s abiding preoccupation with empire, his adoption of his father’s Tory Democracy, his love of what he called “the noble English sentence,” his dedication to the art of oratory, his bravery, his ebullience, his wit, his magnanimity, his fascination with history, and his prophetic understanding of the evil of Nazi tyranny, which so many around him wished to see as negotiable.

Roberts is brilliant as well on Churchill and Stalin. Realpolitik is not for the faint of heart, but that Churchill (of all men) should have had to keep mum about the Soviets’ cold-blooded murder of 14,000 Polish officers in 1940 in the Katyn forest outside Smolensk in order to keep Stalin and the Russian army trained on defeating Hitler makes for grimly fascinating reading. Speaking of his relationship with Stalin, Churchill once said, “If my shirt were taken off now, it would be seen that my belly is sore from crawling to that man. I do it for the good of the country, and for no other reason.” As Roberts remarks: “He felt the humiliation, and was widely criticized for it, especially when he shortly had to bully Britain’s brave Polish allies over their post-war frontiers with Russia, but Britain needed the Soviet Union to continue to win huge victories before Operation Overlord was launched in June.” Eliot, incidentally, acted from something of the same motivation when, as a director of Faber & Faber, he turned down George Orwell’s savage satire on the Stalinist state, Animal Farm (1945).

If the historian Robert Rhodes James looked at Churchill’s career before the Second World War and saw only failure, Roberts considers the career in full and shows it to have been one in which failure and greatness went hand in hand. Roberts portrays Churchill in all his complexity and contradiction, and his critical sympathy finds in these human qualities the stuff of greatness. In this regard, Roberts has followed the painters Walter Sickert, Sir John Lavery, and, most strikingly, William Orpen, whose portraits of Churchill bring out his essential complexity. Churchill himself thought Orpen’s portrait the most faithful ever done of him—an arresting preference, considering the meditative doubt and vulnerability that it depicts. But then, Churchill was never averse to good critics. His delight in the acerbic Field Marshal Brooke, with whom he had so many titanic battles in laying out Britain’s military strategy during the war, is a case in point. “When I thump the table and put my face towards him what does he do? Thumps the table harder and glares back at me. I know these Brookes—stiff-backed Ulstermen and there’s no one worse to deal with than that!” On nearly every page of Roberts’s biography, instead of celebratory special pleading or mean-spirited detraction, one finds interpretative depth and richness.

No Churchill detractor has ever written so rigorously critical a book: Roberts relentlessly identifies the substantive objections to his subject and disposes of the merely malicious ones. Indeed, so unsparing are Roberts’s strictures against his hero that it is hard to imagine any future Churchill critic mounting attacks that would match his exhaustive dossier. In this regard, Roberts has taken Churchill’s own distaste for whitewashing to heart. “To do justice to a great man,” Churchill once wrote, “discriminating criticism is necessary. Gush, however quenching, is always insipid.”

Accordingly, Roberts shows that the misjudgments and miscalculations and simple weaknesses of the man were inseparable from his greatness. Failure, after all, is the crucible of greatness. Churchill, Roberts shows, learned from his mistakes and was never averse to admitting them once they became patent. “In the course of my life I have often had to eat my words, and I must confess that I have always found it a wholesome diet,” he famously said. But few biographers have shown as compellingly as Roberts the good use to which Churchill put his resipiscensce. As Roberts argues, “The Dardanelles catastrophe taught him not to overrule the Chiefs of Staff; the General Strike and Tonypandy taught him to leave industrial relations during the Second World War to Labour’s Ernest Bevin; the Gold Standard disaster taught him to reflate and keep as much liquidity in the financial system as the exigencies of wartime would allow.”

Secretary of State for War and Air Winston Churchill (1874 - 1965) standing on the roof of a van to address workers on a visit to the north of England. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

He also learned from others’ failures. Whereas Herbert Henry Asquith as prime minister during World War I delegated defense to, first, Admiral John Fisher, and then, Lord Kitchener; and Lloyd George delegated the Somme and Passchendaele to General Douglas Haig, with disastrous results, Churchill was shrewd enough to take control of both the premiership and defense. Winning the war, in other words, would not be delegated—a hard-and-fast principle with which Clement Atlee, Churchill’s coalition partner, entirely agreed. “My own experience of the First World War, and my readings in history,” Atlee wrote after the war, as Roberts points out, “had convinced me that the Prime Minister should be a man who knew what war meant, in terms of the personal suffering of the man in the line, in terms of high strategy, and in terms of that crucial issue—how the generals got on with their civilian bosses.”

That Churchill had spent time in the French trenches with the Royal Scots Fusiliers to expiate his role in the failure of the Gallipoli campaign made him aware of the sufferings of the man in the line. Moreover, he had worked closely enough with generals and admirals in the First World War to win their respect, if not their inveterate agreement. As for his strategic smarts, he recognized how crucial enlisting Franklin Roosevelt and America in the war would be to winning it. What he dubbed the “special relationship,” before and after Russia entered the war, would always be the linchpin of victory. Indeed, no one would have relished this passage from Vera Brittain’s classic account of her stint as a nurse during the Great War, Testament of Youth (1933), more than Churchill:

I was leaving quarters to go back to my ward, when I had to wait to let a large contingent of troops march past me along the main road that ran through our camp. They were swinging rapidly towards Camiers, and though the sight of soldiers marching was now too familiar to arouse curiosity, an unusual quality of bold vigour in their swift stride caused me to stare at them with puzzled interest. They looked larger than ordinary men; their tall, straight figures were in vivid contrast to the under-sized armies of pale recruits to which we had grown accustomed. At first I thought their spruce, clean uniforms were those of officers, yet obviously they could not be officers, for there were too many of them; they seemed, as it were, Tommies in heaven. Had yet another regiment been conjured out of our depleted Dominions? I wondered, watching them move with such rhythm, such dignity, such serene consciousness of self-respect. But I knew the colonial troops so well, and these were different; they were assured where the Australians were aggressive, self-possessed where the New Zealanders were turbulent. Then I heard an excited exclamation from a group of Sisters behind me. “Look! Look! Here are the Americans!” I pressed forward with the others to watch the United States physically entering the War, so god-like, so magnificent, so splendidly unimpaired in comparison with the tired, nerve-racked men of the British Army. So these were our deliverers at last, marching up the road to Camiers in the spring sunshine!

Churchill, as Robert shows, also learned from his successes: “The Great War cryptographic breakthroughs of the Admiralty’s Room 40 taught him to back Alan Turing and the Ultra cryptanalysts; the anti-U-boat campaign of 1917 taught him the advantages of the convoy system; his advocacy of the tank encouraged him to promote the invention of new weaponry, pioneered by General Hobart and the MI(R) Directorate.” As Roberts dryly observes, Churchill “had long understood the superiority of the Mauser over the spear.”

Good jokes of this sort abound in Roberts’s book. When Paul Reynaud, the French prime minister before the fall of France, asked what would happen when the Germans attempted to invade Britain, Churchill replied, “I haven’t thought that out very carefully, but, broadly speaking, I should propose to drown as many as possible of them on the way over, and then frapper sur la tête [knock on the head] anyone who managed to crawl ashore.” When the postwar outcry for more social welfare was at its height, the Tory Democrat in Churchill was categorical: “You must rank me and my colleagues as strong partisans of national compulsory insurance for all classes for all purposes from the cradle to the grave,” he insisted, though he added that everyone should work, “whether they come from the ancient aristocracy or the modern plutocracy, or the ordinary type of pub-crawler.”

As for Churchill the man, Roberts shows that he was more a Regency than a Victorian figure. Certainly, his drinking recalls that bibulous age. When he told a friend that “The secret of drinking was always to drink a little too much all the time,” he might have been speaking from the pages of Thomas Creevey, the Regency diarist, who chronicled the bacchanal intake of such heroic toppers as the Prince of Wales and Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Churchill and his boon companion F.E. Smith would have fit perfectly in that rackety world, though Churchill, unlike Smith, was never the worse for wear for the champagne, wine, whisky and soda, port and brandy that were often his quotidian tipples. Indeed, when Smith tried to lay off the hard stuff, Churchill was supportive, telling his wife Clementine: “He drinks cider & ginger pop & looks ten years younger. Don’t make a mock of this. He looks sad.” As John Campbell’s magnificent biography shows, Smith was one of the few men whose brilliance could match Churchill’s own, though cirrhosis of the liver sent him to an early grave at 58. Another of Churchill’s atavistic traits was his penchant for weeping, something he shared with such Regency figures as Pitt the Younger and Cardinal Newman. If he had a tough skin when it came to criticism, he was a pushover whenever his feelings were engaged.

The cortege at the state of Winston Churchill (1874 - 1965), makes its way down Whitehall, London, 30th January 1965. (Photo by Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Roberts shows the quality of Churchill’s feeling, which was rarely self-indulgent or merely sentimental. A good example is his trip to Bristol to bestow honorary degrees after air raids had killed or wounded several hundred people in the city. Jock Colville, Churchill’s private secretary, recalled how the prime minister and his party “walked and motored through devastation such as I had never thought possible.” Yet the bombed-out houses had Union Jacks flying in front, and when the people of Bristol gathered round Churchill, they waved and cheered. Throughout the ordeal, Colville recalled, Churchill “kept murmuring to himself ‘Wonderful people . . . wonderful people.’” Afterward, he addressed the Bristoleans through what one eyewitness recalled as “angry tears”:

I go about the country whenever I can escape for a few hours or for a day from my duty at headquarters, and I see the damage done by the enemy attacks; but I also see side by side with the devastation and amid the ruins, quiet, confident, bright, and smiling eyes, beaming with a consciousness of being associated with a cause far higher and wider than any human or personal issue. I see the spirit of an unconquerable people. I see a spirit bred in freedom, nursed in a tradition which has come down to us through the centuries, and which will surely at this moment, this turning-point in the history of the world, enable us to bear our part in such a way that none of our race who come after us will have any reason to cast reproach upon their sires.

When the Oxford Union recently debated the proposition whether “Britain should be ashamed of Winston Churchill,” some might have recalled these words with shame of another sort. Since critics of the imperial Churchill are often fond of comparing him unfavorably with Mahatma Gandhi, it’s useful to have Roberts quote what the least coherent critic of the Raj had to say to the British during the London Blitz: “Invite Hitler and Mussolini to take what they want of the countries you call your possessions,” Gandhi wrote. “Let them take possession of your beautiful island with its many beautiful buildings. You will give all this, but neither your minds nor your souls.”

Though the Tory Establishment, not to mention their Liberal and Labour colleagues, often chose to regard Churchill as a throwback to an irrecoverable past, he was much more forward-looking, indeed prescient, than he was given credit for being. We need only revisit the 1930s, when England, still reeling from the Great War, could not bring herself to face the growing Nazi threat. A good specimen of the country’s settled aversion to war and to preparing to prevent war can be gleaned from the conclusion of Veronica Wedgwood’s acclaimed history at the time, The Thirty Years War (1938), in which she could almost have been acting as Neville Chamberlain’s ventriloquist. “The war solved no problem,” she wrote in her conclusion.

Its effects, both immediate and indirect, were either negative or disastrous. Morally subversive, economically destructive, socially degrading, confused in its causes, devious in its course, futile in its result, it is the outstanding example in European conflict of meaningless conflict. The overwhelming majority in Europe, the overwhelming majority in Germany, wanted no war. . . . They wanted peace and they fought for thirty years to be sure of it. They did not learn then, and have not since, that war breeds only war.

Here was the Munich mentality in all its delusive moral vanity. Opposing it made Churchill enormously unpopular, especially with the country’s political class. Yet unlike so many in public life, Churchill never flinched from unpopularity when principle was at stake. Roberts quotes from one of the speeches Churchill gave around the time of Munich that should be required reading not only for England’s parliamentarians, but ours as well.

What is the use of Parliament if it is not the place where true statements can be brought before the people? What is the use of sending Members to the House of Commons who say just the popular things of the moment, and merely endeavour to give satisfaction to the Government Whips by cheering loudly every Ministerial platitude, and by walking through the Lobbies oblivious of the criticisms they hear? People talk about our Parliamentary institutions and Parliamentary democracy; but if these are to survive, it will not be because the Constituencies return tame, docile, subservient Members, and try to stamp out every form of independent judgment.

When Hitler reneged on the Munich agreement, and war became unavoidable, the pro-appeasement Tory establishment only acknowledged Churchill’s prescience with reluctance. After war was declared, the bastions of that establishment—the House of Lords and the Carleton Club—still resounded with criticism of Churchill, and this for a reason that Roberts pinpoints: “That the majority of Conservatives had been so spectacularly wrong about Hitler was not going to lessen their antagonism to [Churchill]; indeed, it might have made it worse.” Roberts quotes the appeaser Rab Butler to show just how virulent the contempt for Churchill was among his Tory colleagues. At a drinks party after Churchill’s accession, speaking of himself in the third person, Butler remarked:

The good clean tradition of English politics, that of [William] Pitt [the Younger] as opposed to [Charles James] Fox, had been sold to the greatest adventurer of modern political history. He had tried earnestly and long to persuade Halifax to accept the Premiership, but he had failed. He believed this sudden coup of Winston and his rabble was a serious disaster and an unnecessary one: the pass had been sold—by Chamberlain, Halifax and Oliver Stanley. They had weakly surrendered to a half-breed American.

While such opposition from his own party might have discouraged lesser men, it buoyed Churchill. After all, he had been making converts of naysayers all his life (with the notable exception of his father, the mercurial, unstable, brilliant Lord Randolph, who went to his grave never really seeing the point of his gifted son). Once Churchill became prime minister on May 10, 1940, he set about winning the war that his Tory colleagues had refused to allow him to prevent with a certain bellicose gaiety. “You do your worst,” he taunted the Nazis, “and we will do our best.” As Roberts relates, he came to his post with unusual advantages.

Hitler’s attack turned Churchill’s perceived weaknesses into priceless assets almost overnight. His obvious interest in warfare was no longer warmongering, it was invaluable. His oratorical style, which many had derided as ham-acting, was sublime now that the situation matched his rhetoric. His obsession with the Empire would help to bind its peoples together as it came under unimaginable stress, and his chauvinism left him certain that, if they could get through the present crisis, the British would prevail over the Germans. Even his inability to fit comfortably into any political party was invaluable in the leader of a government of national unity.

When the historian in Churchill recalled his assumption of the premiership on that Friday in May, the artist in him commemorated the event in words that even the fastidious literary critic in Eliot must have admired. They remain some of the most moving words in the English language. “I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial. . . . I could not be reproached either for making the war or with want of preparation for it. I thought I knew a good deal about it all, and I was sure I should not fail.”

In “The Literature of Politics” (1955), Eliot reminded his readers that the “question of questions” that a writer concerned with politics must ultimately answer is this: “What is Man? What are his limitations? What is his misery and what his greatness? And what, finally, his destiny?” Roberts shows that it was precisely Churchill’s readiness to walk with destiny—to cooperate with it, to embody it—that made him understand profoundly, when the liberty of all Europe hung in the balance, what made for the limitations and the misery and the greatness of man.

Andrew Roberts’s Churchill: Walking with Destiny is the best single-volume biography written on the great British leader and exhibits not only an historian but also an artist working at the top of his form. It is a work that cannot be praised too highly.

Top Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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