Lead book review

Churchill was as mad as a badger. We should all be thankful

A review of The Literary Churchill: Author, Reader, Actor, by Jonathan Rose. The stopped-clock version of how Churchill got the fascists right is horribly convincing. But he still ends up the hero

19 April 2014

9:00 AM

19 April 2014

9:00 AM

The Literary Churchill: Author, Reader, Actor Jonathan Rose

Yale, pp.516, £25, ISBN: 9780300204070

Land sakes! Another book about Winston Churchill? Really? Give us a break, the average reader may think. Actually though, as title and subtitle suggest, this isn’t just another biographical study. It’s at once odder and more conventional than that. More conventional because, in some ways, it is just another biographical study. Odder because — instead of being a straightforward discussion of Churchill’s literary work — it sees literature as the key to his biography. More than that, its author seems to think he has hit on a ‘new methodology’ in which ‘we can write political history as literary history’.

Well, perhaps. At one end of that notion is the banality that politics is ‘showbusiness for ugly people’; at the other are airy overclaims such as that Churchill was ‘an artist who used politics as his creative medium, as other writers used paper’.

Rose is too imprecise, and too infatuated with his conceit, to quite get an anchor into the solid stuff. Of course, political performance involves literary — i.e. rhetorical — use of language; it involves narrative shape; it will be influenced by the politician’s exposure to all sorts of literary texts and performances, and all of this may be explored with profit. But it’s not quite enough to treat political history, or the decisions of politicians, as if they were interchangeable with aesthetic or literary behaviour.

On the other hand, if ever there were a politician susceptible of this sort of treatment, it is Churchill. His Nobel prize was, after all, for literature — the peace prize perhaps by that stage looking like a non-runner. He was a journalist, historian, novelist and biographer — as well as, in the event, saviour of the free world. He was a fantastic ham. He was a shameless hack and self-promoter. And as contemporary after contemporary attested, he was capable of talking himself into almost anything when he got excited. Words led: thought followed.

More than that, there’s strong evidence that Churchill really did have one eye on how he was going to write things up afterwards, and that that influenced what he did. Chamberlain wondered mildly, for instance, why ‘he continually writes me letters many pages long’ given that they saw each-other every day in war cabinet: ‘Of course I realise these letters are for the purpose of quotation in the book that he will write hereafter.’

Rose paints Churchill as a man in love with the bold stroke — the coup de théâtre — and mired in a view of the world as Victorian melodrama. While the fractured categories and stalled certainties of modernism were making the literary weather, Churchill looked backwards. His was a world of clear identities, dramatic reversals and good triumphing pluckily over evil. His ideas of everything from Irish Home Rule to the government of native populations in India are credited with having been formed by the view from the cheap seats. He spoke claptrap — which, as Rose tells us more than once, is a term from melodrama: the inspiring speech the hero makes with his back to the wall, trapping the audience into applause.

This is the stopped-clock version of how Churchill got the fascists right: Hitler was one type of melodramatic villain (dark, shouty, moustachioed); Mussolini (treacherous, semi-comic) another. It just happened that silly old Winston, who sonorously predicted the final crisis of western civilisation once a week or so, happened to coincide with the real thing. Rose’s dimmish view of Churchill seeps up like ground-water. He presents him as an egotistical lunatic obsessed with being remembered as one of the great men of history, heedless of who died to make that dream come true, and with a script for achieving it based, more or less, on a bunch of babyish Victorian pantos.

This, I dare say, is to underread Churchill. But a fair mind would concede there’s a lot of evidence in support of the case. His hare-brained notion in the first world war of roaring up the Dardanelles (heavily mined and defended) and capturing Constantinople (with no ground troops), for instance, speaks of an ego out of control — as does his reported conversation with Margot Asquith at the time:

This, this is living history. Everything we are saying and doing is thrilling — it will be read by a thousand generations — think of that!! Why I would not be out of this glorious delicious war for anything the world could give me.

In the second world war, Churchill’s bodyguard reported, he listened to translations of Hitler’s speeches on the gramophone: ‘The Prime Minister liked to play back the parts where Hitler mentioned him by name.’

In terms of aesthetic or intellectual movements, where are we to place Churchill? By the time I stopped counting (about 150 pages in) he’d been claimed for deconstruction, the aesthetic movement, imperial melodrama, ethical Darwinism, counterfactual science fiction, impressionism and metahistory. What’s clear is that he was protean. Rose thinks Churchill’s ‘supple’ mind was all about collapsing binaries — but if you look at it from a political rather than a literary point of view you might think he simply had his eye on the main chance.

Rose brings out some interesting things. They may not be new to Churchill anoraks but they were new to me. Contrary to what you might think, Churchill didn’t even like radio as a medium and didn’t broadcast if he could help it. And not only wasn’t he a classicist; he loathed the classics. His reading — voracious and self-directed — was almost all contemporary. The influence on him in ideology and prose style of Gibbon and Macaulay is well attested: but Rose shows how fervently he digested H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw.

Indeed, Rose all but insists that on several occasions Churchill was more or less slavishly acting out a Shaw script. When in 1918 Churchill tried to talk the antiwar poet Siegfried Sassoon into taking a job in the Ministry of Munitions, Rose says he was ‘re-enacting George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara (1905)’. Churchill’s disputed account of having whispered to De Gaulle ‘L’ homme du destin’, Rose surmises, was a dramatic embellishment inspired by GBS’s play about Napoleon, The Man of Destiny. The destruction of the French fleet at Oran in 1940, it’s even hinted, could have been inspired by a letter from GBS received a week before, suggesting more or less that.

As much as Rose’s book is guilty of silliness — its excited pouncing on any theatrical or literary metaphor; its assertive extravagance (‘the second world war became a duel between two artists’; ‘the core of his implacable resistance to Nazism was essentially literary’); its gauche generalisations (‘like every modern artist, Churchill arrested his audience by violating aesthetic canons’; ‘with most other important 20th-century writers, from James Joyce to Allen Ginsberg, he was convinced that…’) — it is full of detailed quotation, evidences wide background reading and makes suggestive connections.

You come away, finally, not with the impression that a literary approach to political history is the way forward so much as with the reconfirmed notion that Churchill was as mad as a badger. And that, bizarre but true, posterity should be grateful that he was. Cometh the hour, as some literary bod put it, cometh the man.

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  • Raw England

    Winston Churchill and Enoch Powell: They were the last English, honest, noble politicians we had.

    • Tom Tom

      “honest” might apply more to Powell than Churchill,

    • disqus_KdiRmsUO4U

      Powell had foresight and tried to warn about the dangers likely to be ahead if immigration continued at the rates of about 1968 or so.
      He was completely correct and vilified.

      Churchill is grossly over rated,

      Bankrupted the nation. Didn’t free Poland. Attacked chav living standards to preserve his own(gold standard and reduce miners’ wages)

      Not that I care much and in order to feed the PC liberals a low calorie high carb non fattening health and safety approve sausage he was a true racist as well.
      Look up his attitudes to Ghandi and Islam.

      Pointing out that Afro blacks culture is low level is NOT racism.
      Claiming they need to be controlled by whites is.
      See his attitude to Empire

      • Fergus Pickering

        Yeah. To hell with Churchill. We should have stuck with Chamberlain and Halifax.

  • xcept4alltheothers

    Brilliant and entertaining.

    • Fergus Pickering

      A silly book and a sillier article. It’ll be forgotten in a month.

    • not_Bridget

      This review is one of the reasons a Texas Liberal subscribes to such a publication (via my Amazon Kindle). I’m old enough to remember when William F Buckley represented Conservative thought. Alas, there is no such thing as a Loyal Opposition in the USA & the American Spectator is worthless.

      Churchill appears to have prepared all his life for his moment in the spotlight. As a Boomer, I understand the history & applaud him. Then it was time for him to go…

  • Keith D

    And Blair, Brown and Cameron betrayed everything he stood for. And by design, his legacy.
    And the legacy of every father and son who paid the ultimate price to keep us free from tyranny.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Bipolar disorder perhaps?

  • 1bar1

    WC was, even more than most perhaps, a creation of his parents.

    • Tom Tom

      He certainly sold his patrimony to his Jerome cousins and indentured the estate to The Cousins

  • Terry Field

    I heard a female MP on the BBC’s simple little breakfast time program this morning complaining that when she goes to the Commons – which she described as a ‘workplace’, during PMQs she has to take a paracetamol to deter her head from aching from the ‘noise’.
    SO there we have it – a wrecked little parish-council of a country, full of over-fed infants and namby-pamby industrially graduated prats with nothing worthwhile to do except to adhere to health and safety.
    Now recall Churchill, Atlee, Beevan, Thatcher, Bonar-Law, Gladstone, Lloyd-George and so many greats who operated in a vital vigorous parliament full of passionate truthful debate and not an ounce of political correctness.
    Ann Widdi was and is great, and should be in the lords, but most women in parliament a a bunch of pathetic week-as-water duds who let the place down.
    A pathetic country; a country whose history has value, which was the greatest and most achieving nation on earth, a land of titans. and whose present and future is lamentable.
    Glad I left.

    • Iamreplete

      Well Terry, I don’t know who or where you are, but presumably you now feel that you are in a country better than England. There are a few perhaps, with names familiar to us Anglo-Saxon/Celtic jobs, Johnny stay-at-homes, as so many of our relatives moved out there, and helped make them what they are now. From scratch. I hope you get lucky.

      • Terry Field

        Yes, the diaspora has been very positive for the world. But what a living tragedy that dear England has descended to its present condition.
        The English have great genius, but how will the energy of the country be harnessed – certainly not through self-pitying, entitlement-driven, ‘rights’ encrusted selfish socialists and socialism.