Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Book Review: 'Churchill: Walking with Destiny' by Andrew Roberts — the best biography of Winston ever written

By Dominic Sandbrook
30 September 2018
Image result for andrew roberts churchill
On May 28, 1940, with France crumbling beneath the Nazi onslaught, Britain’s new prime minister, Winston Churchill, called an informal meeting of his cabinet. Among his ministers was Hugh Dalton, the minister for economic warfare, firmly on the Labour left and a long-standing opponent of almost everything Churchill stood for. Now Dalton listened as Churchill announced that, despite the terrible military situation, he would never negotiate with Hitler.
“I am convinced,” Churchill said gruffly, “that every man of you would rise up and tear me down from my place if I were for one moment to contemplate parley or surrender. If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.”
Grandiloquent, nationalistic and bloodthirsty, it was classic Churchill. He meant every word: in private, he told his aides that if invasion came, he would end his broadcast: “The hour has come; kill the Hun.”
It was the kind of talk that, in peacetime, Dalton would have abhorred. But when Churchill finished, he rose with his colleagues to applaud, shaking their chief’s hand and slapping him on the back. “He was quite magnificent,” Dalton wrote afterwards. ‘The man, and the only man we have, for this hour.”
Voted the greatest Briton of all time by the public in 2002, Churchill is such a towering figure in our national imagination that it is tempting to find some way of cutting him down to size. Even the historian Andrew Roberts, whose new biography casts him as a hero of almost legendary stature, lists a long series of flaws and blunders, from the Dardanelles operation in 1915 to his opposition to Indian self-government two decades later. But I defy anybody to finish this terrific book, which bursts with character, humour and incident on almost every page, without sharing Dalton’s view. Magnificent is indeed the word.
There are, of course, countless biographies of Churchill already. Roberts builds his around the theme of destiny, a reference to Churchill’s famous claim that upon becoming prime minister, he believed he was “walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial”.
From anybody else this would sound deranged, but Churchill undoubtedly believed it. Talking to a friend at Harrow in 1891, when he was 17, he claimed that he could see into the future, when “London will be in danger and … it will fall to me to save the capital and save the Empire.”
His sense of predestination never left him. Even decades later, after narrowly escaping a German shell in the trenches, he felt “the strong sensation that a hand had been stretched out to move me in the nick of time from a fatal spot”.
Where did all this come from? Roberts sees it as a kind of compensation, the bravado of a lonely boy who was starved of love and effectively abandoned by his parents. Like much in this book, this is a familiar story, but he tells it superbly. Almost as soon as little Winston was born to the Tory politician Lord Randolph Churchill and his American wife Jennie, they treated him as an annoyance. Between 1885 and 1892 the unhappy Winston, who was often beaten at boarding school until his bottom bled, sent his parents 76 letters. They wrote back only six times. “My darling Mummy!” he would write. “Oh my Mummy! … I am more unhappy than I can possibly say.” Sometimes she did not even bother to read them.
Yet instead of being crushed by what we would now consider neglect verging on cruelty, Churchill used it as a spur to greatness. It was as though, even as prime minister, he rose every day determined to prove his parents wrong and win their love. That took guts, of course, but even as a boy he had showed immense spirit. When Harrow’s headmaster said, “Churchill, I have very grave reason to be displeased with you”, it required real courage, as well as humour, to reply, “And I, sir, have very grave reason to be displeased with you!”
Churchill was a tremendous autodidact: as a bored subaltern in India, he read Gibbon, Plato, Malthus and Darwin. When a friend teased him for having never read Keats, he learnt all the odes by heart. And although he was pampered all his life (he never learnt to boil an egg, and didn’t dial a telephone number for himself until he was in his seventies), he was a man of instinctive generosity, even donating the skin from his arm as an impromptu graft to staunch a fellow officer’s wound during the war in the Sudan in 1898. When, during the Second World War, Churchill heard that his former rival Stanley Baldwin was being abused by people blaming him for appeasement, he publicly invited him to lunch in Downing Street. That was a measure of the man.
Roberts tells this story with enormous confidence, drawing on a vast range of sources to present what is undoubtedly the best single-volume life of Churchill ever written. He makes no secret of his admiration for his subject, but he recognises Churchill’s frailties and misjudgments, such as his contempt for Mohandas Gandhi or his belligerence during the general strike of 1926. His verdict is suitably sweeping. By standing firm against Hitler in 1940, he believes, Churchill fulfilled his destiny, saved his country and preserved liberty from extinction.
Yet Roberts never loses sight of that sad little figure at boarding school. In late November 1947, Churchill’s daughter Sarah pointed at an empty chair and asked: “If you could sit anyone there, whom would it be?” She expected him to say Marlborough or Napoleon. “Oh, my father, of course,” Churchill said.
A few weeks later, inspired by their conversation, he wrote a strange short story, The Dream, intended only for his family. In it, the 73-year-old Churchill meets his father’s ghost and tells him about everything that has happened since his death (votes for women, the Labour Party, world wars, the Holocaust), but without mentioning his own part in events. His father is as scornful as ever: “I was not going to talk politics with a boy like you ever. Bottom of the class! Never passed any examinations, except into the Cavalry!”
Then he lights a cigarette, the match flares and the vision is gone. Churchill was 73, the most famous man in the world, the hero who had saved his country. But beneath all the talk of destiny and the bluster about the empire, he was still that lonely little boy, desperate to the end for his father’s love.
Allen Lane £35 pp1,105
● Andrew Roberts is at The Times and The Sunday Times Cheltenham Literature Festival on October 5 at 3pm, cheltenhamfestivals.com

No comments: