A collective of bibliophiles writing about books.
First off, I have to say that I approached this review with some trepidation as I am as far removed from being an historical expert as the east is from the west. However, I grew up in a house filled with the writings of Churchill and books about Churchill, so you could say my father was something of a fan. I’m not sure I ever read any of them myself, but I learnt at a very early age that Churchill was the best Englishman ever born and we owed everything to him. Seeing as my father was almost always right (obviously …), I accepted this truth without question, and have therefore always assumed everyone felt the same way.
So it came as something of a shock when a colleague of mine was quite sniffy about The Great Man (Churchill, not my father) recently, and I instantaneously found myself going on the defensive. Didn’t he enable us to win the war, and don’t we owe him everything for that? My feeble objections, alas, went unnoticed, and so it gives me much pleasure to review this book here and to find out I was, on the whole, right.
Though of course Churchill wasn’t perfect. Who is? Geoffrey Best gives us a comprehensive and ultimately fascinating account of Churchill, from his birth in 1874 in Blenheim Palace, no less, to his death, surrounded by his family, in January 1965. I admit it’s taken me a while to read, partly because of the incredibly small font (why do you insist on doing this, publishers, why??) and partly because the war sections got a little too technical for me (I am a war ignoramus). But I never wanted to stop reading and I was at turns fascinated and also deeply moved by what I discovered.
My favourite parts were the sections concentrating on the relationship between Winston and Clementine Churchill, but I’m a romantic at heart. Honest. I’ve always thought theirs was a complex and deeply connected marriage that worked in spite of everything and that’s always something to celebrate. I would have liked more on this, but it’s not Best’s main focus, more’s the pity.
That said, I did enjoy finding out some essential Churchillian facts; before this I hadn’t realised that our Winnie took part in the last ever British Army cavalry charge in 1898 at Omdurman during the Sudan campaign. Stirring stuff. I also was very pleased to discover how much loyalty and affection he inspired in those who worked for him throughout his life, and how much of his peculiar and virtually all-night work habits they were prepared to endure without complaint – always a mark of a great leader, to my mind.
I also enjoyed the quotes from Churchill at the head of each chapter, which help to highlight the man’s wit and insight, and also act as a marker for the way that the writing doesn’t take itself too seriously even with the considerable depth of thought in this book. It’s a very attractive combination. After all, how can you fail to warm to this statement, made on the occasion of Churchill’s 75th birthday:
‘I am prepared to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter.’
Best doesn’t idolise his man or attempt to modernise him in any way however; for instance he is extremely honest about Churchill’s difficult relationship with Indian independence due to his deep and abiding love of the Empire. He was in this respect very much a man of his time and a product of his upbringing, but really who can say otherwise? It’s certainly not something I can blame him for.
Things I was less sure about in terms of the book itself were the way I sometimes wasn’t absolutely convinced I knew where we were in terms of dates – perhaps a note of the dates should have been added to the chapter headings, or a timeline at the start might have been helpful. And I can’t quote you but I think on some occasions the timescales – though accurate – did jump around a little more than I would have liked. I also, as I’ve mentioned above, did get rather lost in the amount of wartime details, but of course the war was Churchill’s finest hour, so Best would be doing us all a disservice if he skimped on that particular detail.
What I hadn’t realised and what was an eye-opener for me was the fact that the beginning of the war went quite so badly for Churchill and that on several occasions all was so nearly lost. It’s a mark of the quality of the man, and indeed of the British people, that he, and they, simply kept on going. As he, rather charmingly, remarks in his own writings on the period:
‘I displayed the smiling confidence and confident air which are thought suitable when things are very bad.’
The phrase Britain muddles through comes to mind. Alongside this are key phrases from some of Churchill’s best known war speeches and, even reading them now, I found myself stirred and inspired by what was undoubtedly great oratory and inner conviction.
Really there is much, much more I could say about the depth and sheer genius of this fascinating man and his grippingly complex life, but frankly Best says it better. If you want to know Winston Churchill at all levels and from virtually every angle, and his lasting effect on his times, then this is definitely the book to get. And, on a personal level, it’s ultimately very reassuring to me how right my father was.
Churchill, A Study in Greatness by Geoffrey Best, Penguin Books, 2002, ISBN: 978-0-14-101122-6
[Anne has a soft spot for the biographies of great men, and to her mind there’s none greater than Churchill. You can find out more about Anne’s other and naturally lesser heroes here.]