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Churchill, A Study in Greatness by Geoffrey Best: celebrating the importance of history

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.]

About annebrooke

Anne Brooke lives in Surrey, UK, and writes in a variety of genres, including gay erotic romance, fantasy, comedy, thrillers, biblical fiction and the occasional chicklit novel. When not writing, she spends time in the garden attempting to differentiate between flowers and weeds, and in the allotment attempting to grow vegetables. Occasionally, she can also be found in the kitchen making cakes. Every now and again, they are edible. Her websites can be found at: www.annebrooke.com, www.gayreads.co.uk, www.biblicalfiction.co.uk and www.gathandria.com (for fantasy fiction).

14 comments on “Churchill, A Study in Greatness by Geoffrey Best: celebrating the importance of history

  1. Lisa
    July 22, 2010

    Really enjoyed this review, Anne. This book would make the perfect present for one of my relatives, so thanks for flagging it up.

  2. annebrooke
    July 22, 2010

    Thanks, Lisa! Hope the relative enjoys the read :) Axxx

  3. Hilary
    July 22, 2010

    I was brought up in the certainty that Churchill was the greatest leader we’d ever known, as I was born not long after the end of the war. That was the certainty of my parents, and I’ve gained some understanding from reading some of the letters my mother wrote home when she was a 20 year-old in the ATS – which were being written as the legend around his leadership was being freshly minted, with no hindsight. It was a mythology based on a gift for oratory, the miraculous choice of the right word at the right time (that makes it sound hollow and inauthentic, but I don’t think it was in any way) that carried people along.

    I’ve always been fascinated by Churchill as a late developer, whose life was strewn with mistakes and failures (mainly to be understood, I feel), until he met the circumstances that required his peculiar gifts.

    This book sounds like an excellently rounded account of his life – thanks for the review!

  4. annebrooke
    July 23, 2010

    Your parents and my father would probably have got along very well, Hilary! It’s definitely a fascinating read :)

    Axxx

  5. Moira
    July 23, 2010

    You can add me to the list of people who grew up with a parent who admired Churchill hugely – whilst acknowledging that he could be – and often was – a bit of a bastard. And you won’t, in general, find me disagreeing with her – especially not with my well-know prediliction for ‘difficult’ men. He truly was the right man in the right place at the right time.

    Winnie-knocking is fashionable, isn’t it? But it’s entirely done by people who have virtually no idea of what a psychological lifeline he was for people in the grimmest imaginable situation. Invasion seemed imminent, and there was Winston, who seemed to be holding them back by sheer power of personality.

    I think Mum would enjoy this book … she may be getting it for her birthday!

    Thanks for this lovely review and even-handed, Anne.

  6. annebrooke
    July 23, 2010

    Thanks, Moira, and maybe all our parents did? It was that generation of course. :)

    And difficult men – they certainly do have their charms! Hope your mother enjoys the read.

    Axxx

  7. Phil
    July 24, 2010

    You might find of interest this not necessarily adulatory piece on Churchill .

  8. annebrooke
    July 24, 2010

    Fascinating stuff indeed, Phil, and interestingly all issues that Best deals with in his book – you should enjoy it!

    Anne

  9. Jackie
    July 26, 2010

    I’ve always thought Churchill was one of those truly pivotal people in history where the outcome would’ve been very different without him. Though his leadership in war time was known to me, it hasn’t been until the last 5 yrs or so that I’ve learned more about the personal troubles he had to deal with at the same time. He was a truly remarkable person.
    That’s why this book sounds very appealing, though I’m a little worried about the small font. I should give it a try, anyways. Thanks for your very fair review, Anne & it was nice how you also gave a salute to your dad too. That was sweet.

  10. annebrooke
    July 26, 2010

    Thanks, Jackie – and I do agree with you about Churchill! Can definitely recommend the book though, what with my eyesight, that font did prove tricky.

    I think Dad would have enjoyed the review too.
    :)

    Axxx

  11. Lisa
    July 28, 2010

    You know, Anne, if you had a spare five grand you could always buy these beauties:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-10792070

    How’s that for a bit of Winston Churchill memorabilia?! Dearie me…

  12. annebrooke
    July 28, 2010

    Marvellous! Just what I need for those toffees :) Axxx

  13. Daniel Pauni
    April 2, 2012

    Thanks , Anne, for your review.
    I was trying to make up my mind about this book (is offered in Buenos Aires at an affordable price. Your words convinced me to read it.
    By the way, even in a remote corner of the world (Quilmes, Buenos Aires) , Churchill was a great man and the six volumes of the History of the war presided my old man library

  14. annebrooke
    April 4, 2012

    Lovely to know, Daniel – thanks for your comments! :)

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This entry was posted on July 22, 2010 by in Entries by Anne, Non-fiction, Non-fiction: history and tagged , , , , , .

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