The Magazine

Blood, Toil, Tears, etc.

Is there anything new to be said about Winston Churchill?

Sep 26, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 02 • By ANDREW ROBERTS
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In the Footsteps of Churchill

A Study in Character

by Richard Holmes

Basic, 352 pp., $27.50

"OF THE WRITING OF biographies of Sir Winston Churchill there shall be no end" should be an established publishers' mantra. Yet writers really do now need a very good reason to join such an overcrowded field. Fortunately, the military historian Richard Holmes provides a truly fresh interpretation of the great man, something this reviewer was beginning to doubt was still possible.

Holmes acknowledges with enthusiasm the magnificent achievement of Churchill in Britain's annus mirabilis, those amazing 12 months between the evacuation from Dunkirk in June 1940 and Hitler's invasion of Russia in June 1941. Yet he also appreciates how, to have climbed to that towering position as prime minister, Churchill had spent a lifetime cutting corners and imposing what Holmes calls his "monumental egoism" across the entire political scene. There is an edgy, harsh, occasionally downright unpleasant, side to Churchill in these pages that Holmes argues was the inevitable obverse side to an otherwise great character.

Holmes's mature, and even occasionally wise, portrait is studded with facts about the period and episodes in Churchill's life that amuse, engage, and entice. The author's eye for the telling detail, as well as his deep immersion in all the relevant archives, raises this book far above the common ruck of revisionist Churchilliana. Holmes puts a strong case "for seeing Churchill as a Shakespearean character, in fact three of them if Henry V, King Lear and Falstaff are allowed." (There is nothing of the vacillating introspection of a Hamlet there.)

The sheer quality of writing also distinguishes this work from many others on the same well-worn subject. "His birthplace Blenheim Palace still sends its glare of cold command across the landscape," writes Holmes of Churchill, "his London apartment in Morpeth Mansions sits comfortably in the shadow of Westminster Cathedral; one can almost catch the whiff of his cigar in the Pinafore Room of the Savoy, and his presence at his beloved Chartwell is somehow palpable."

Churchill received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953, between François Mauriac and Ernest Hemingway--they gave it to real writers in those days--but as Holmes points out, much of Churchill's writing was devoted to proving how he had always been right throughout his career. Many politicians write solely for that reason, of course; but then, we are accustomed to viewing Churchill as somehow different. Furthermore, Holmes shows how Churchill was not a scintillating orator all his life; in fact, as he puts it, "In the Thirties Winston became a long-winded bore, and his habit of leaving the chamber after speaking made other MPs less inclined to give him a respectful hearing." (Holmes's use of Churchill's Christian name throughout the book is the only thing that slightly jars in this otherwise fascinating and original study.)

Despite Holmes's occasionally astringent criticisms of Churchill, this is by no means overall a critical book, just one that puts searing honesty before fawning veneration. Whenever Churchill fell below the level of events, Holmes says so; but when he soared far above them--as in 1940 and 1941--he says so, too, with an enviable eloquence.

One of the curious aspects of Churchill historiography is that the heaviest blows against his reputation have been dealt by historians who generally admire him, like Holmes, rather than the "revisionist" historians like David Irving and Ralph Raico who detest everything he stood for. Richard Holmes unreservedly lauds Churchill for what he achieved when Britain stood alone; but otherwise, the man who emerges from these pages is a deeply flawed individual, so grindingly ambitious that he will do almost anything to get ahead.

In particular the young paladin Churchill receives as serious a roasting as any I have read. Sounding more like Sherlock than Richard, Holmes writes: "I confess to a deep sense of sadness when my enquiry led me to a close study of the documents in the Companion to the first volume of Winston's life. I defy anyone to like the young man who emerges from these pages."

According to Holmes, Churchill bullied his widowed mother for cash unmercifully, even charging to her the cost of his wreath on the grave of his beloved nursemaid Mrs. Everest. At 19 he nearly accidentally killed his 13-year-old brother Jack while out rowing on Lake Lausanne, and afterwards made himself out to be the hero of the incident. As a young Hussar officer he took part in the vicious and hypocritical ostracism of a fellow second-lieutenant, who was forced to resign his commission because he only had an income of £500 a year (when Churchill's own was £300).