Well three months later and I actually finished it – though some chapters were given more attention that others. A kind present from a friend following a bereavement this heavyweight acted as a kind of self improving distraction for which in the end I am grateful. I have dipped in and out of modern political biography and autobiography for three decades. It is a variable diet – much of the autobiographical stuff fails to distinguish between the objective and subjective wandering as they (perhaps understandably ?) into the realm of self justification. Getting the right distance between self, time and event is notoriously difficult!
The most memorable biography of Churchill on my shelves is by Roy Jenkins. I have some of Gilberts work but they remain unread waiting for retirement perhaps. I was astonished to learn there have been over 1,000 previous studies of Churchill’s life. what more is there to be said ? Roberts rises to the occasion with rigour and a determination that makes one wonder whether he has eaten or slept for some years.
It is readable and Roberts has a fluency and admirable grasp of detail. I do not possess the detailed knowledge of history to make any absolute judgment about the accuracy of this text. The sources are meticulously documented alongside excellent maps and illustrations. It is a life in two parts: with an unambitious thesis that divides the life into a game of two halves: from Churchills birth in 1874 almost as preparation for the trials of 1940, followed by the extraordinary response to the threat of Nazi invasion.
Several things intrigue. Its hard to know how attractive or admirable Churchill was. Ambitious certainly and (almost absurdly) self-confident seem characteristic of the early years. When does self confidence become arrogance or even dangerous? Upon what is it based? For Churchill his own self absorption drove him into a single minded commitment to his own political power and self advancement. The man in this narrative is (like us all ) a bundle of contradictions. He is (amongst other things ) a soldier, journalist, artist and a wit.
My own sympathies were kindled by Roberts and his deeply pastoral understanding of Churchills childhood. Unsettled, lonely, lacking might characterise these years. An only child that experienced loneliness and boredom largely ignored by his Father and with a mother, Jennie,‘who was largely absent. The most important figure that featured prominently in his life was his nanny. I am familiar with the pattern of this separation and its consequences in private and public. It is intriguing to ask how far these fragilities played out in the second half of Churchills life. In this painting Roberts is generous and forgiving and this makes these pages ‘lighter’ and more endurable.Despite of all of this Roberts shows us a picture of a character that believed we can rise above anything and do something magnificent with our lives.
There is also some interesting ‘correcting’ of Churchills drinking habits. Roberts argues that this inveterate drinker was rarely the worse for wear. He claims, oddly, that Churchill was only drunk in wartime on 6 July 1944.
Churchill’s power was immense and in the second world war he used it with zest and concentrated vigour. The description of the events of 1940 need reading and re reading as a sober reminder of the fragility and unpredictability of War. Roberts is convinced that without this towering force of nature we would have lost. Here is a man of gravitas, judgement, courage and a generosity of heart.
As I pen these reflections at the beginning of a New Year I can’t help but feel that Brexit politics needs a Churchill to rescue us from impending doom. Pessimistic ? Perhaps – let us see what 2019 will bring. If you want to take your mind off matters European then these 1100 pages will certainly do that.