Sydney M. Williams
April 24, 2019
Burrowing into Books
“Churchill: Walking with Destiny,” by Andrew Roberts
“Words spoken with fleeting breath, the passing expressions of the unstable fancies of the mind,
endure not as echoes of the past, nor as mere archeological curiosities or venerable relics, but
with a force and life as new and strong, and sometimes far stronger, than when they were first
spoken, and leaping across the gulf of three thousand years, they light the world for us today.”
Winston Churchill (1874-1964)
February 1908, Author’s Club, London
Churchill was much more than the man who saved England (and western civilization), though that was his greatest gift. Over the course of his long life, he wrote thirty-seven books. He produced 400 paintings. By the time he was 25, as Mr. Roberts tells us, Churchill had written five books and fought in four wars on three continents. He was brilliant and well-read. He could quote Roman generals, Scottish poets and Anthony Trollope. He was the conscience of England during his years in the wilderness, as Fascism, Nazism and Communism emerged as a consequence of the Great War. He was a Victorian aristocrat who reflected the virtues of his age. He believed in the Empire and bore a sense of noblesse oblige. But he was not a snob.
In 1891, at age sixteen, Winston Churchill wrote “…it will fall to me to save the capital and save the Empire.” Almost fifty years later, on becoming Prime Minister, he wrote in his diary: “At last I had the authority to give direction over the whole scene. I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and this trial.” Andrew Roberts clearly likes and respects his subject, but his love is not blind. He recognizes his flaws. The reader is exposed to the naked man, not the one clothed by adoring fans, nor the one dressed by those who found him vain, mercurial, brilliant but without judgment. That Churchill’s could be strikingly wrong can be seen in Robert’s description of Gallipoli, India’s bid for independence, Mussolini, Spanish Nationalists and the abdication of Edward VIII. But, as regards the greatest risk to face the free world in the first half of the Twentieth Century, it was Churchill’s clairvoyance and determination that saved European democracy and, in fact, the world.
Churchill loved the English language and became its master. At the Author’s Club in 1908, Churchill spoke: “Someone – I forget who – has said: ‘Words are the only thing which last forever.’ That is, to my mind, always a wonderful thought.” During the Battle of Britain, in October 1940, to the dismay of his wife Clementine and to those paid to keep him safe, Churchill would ascend to the Annexe roof, wearing a great coat, steel helmet and smoking a cigar: “When my time is due, it will come. I take refuge beneath the impenetrable arch of probability.” Early on, Churchill recognized the importance of wooing President Roosevelt for Britain’s salvation and for the cause of freedom: “No lover ever studied every whim of his mistress as I did those of President Roosevelt.” After FDR’s death, a teary-eyed Churchill said simply, “I loved that man.” In 1942, when Germany appeared invincible and England was at its most vulnerable, Parliament voted on a motion of no confidence, Churchill, viewing the scene, quipped that everyone “was as excited as a virgin being led to her seducer’s bed.” As we all know, he survived the vote.
In 1914, the day before Antwerp surrendered, Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, asked Prime Minister Herbert Asquith for a military command. Asquith granted his wish and described the 39-year-old Churchill to the British socialite Venetia Stanley: “…He is a wonderful creature, with a curious dash of schoolboy simplicity…and what someone said of genius – ‘a zigzag streak of lightning in the brain.’” He foresaw Prussian militarism in 1914, Nazism in the 1930s and Soviet Communism in the aftermath of World War II. Churchill led Britain while it fought Hitler alone in 1940-1. He rejoiced when Hitler turned on the Soviet Union and when Germany declared war on the U.S. He rallied his people during the dark days of 1941-42. By the end of his life, Churchill had published 6.1 million words – more words “than Shakespeare and Dickens combined,” Roberts writes. He wrote another five million words that he used in speeches, letters and memos. If that weren’t enough, Churchill read deeply in history and literature, became an accomplished artist, constructed brick walls at Chartwell Manor, and collected butterflies.
We are witness to his complicated relations with his father, a man he always tried to please, but always felt he fell short. Lord Randolph appeared in a dream in 1947, as his son was painting in his studio. He tells his father that he makes his living as a writer but doesn’t tell him of his wartime premiership. His father is unimpressed. Yet Winston Churchill achieved a greatness surpassing not only his father, but also that of his two great heroes, Napoleon and John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough, the recipient of Blenheim and his illustrious ancestor.
Andrew Roberts has given us a fascinating, comprehensive and readable biography of Winston Churchill, perhaps the greatest man of the Twentieth Century. We are taken from his cello-playing youth when Victoria reigned over the Empire, through his speeches and travels during the Second World War to honorary citizen of the United States in April 1963, less than two years before his death. Don’t let the book’s size intimidate you. It is worth its weight in reading pleasure.