A Technicolor man in a monochrome age
Andrew Roberts captures the statesman’s complexities in the best single-volume Life to date, says Simon Heffer
it would seem technically impossible to get into a single volume.
The problem with Churchill, for two reasons, is his legend. First, because of that legend, everyone who met him, from long before he directed our affairs in the darkest hour, felt it important to record every aspect and impression of him, which is why there are not just those thousand biographies, but books on what he ate, drank, wore, and so on. He was a Technicolor personality in an increasingly monochrome age, and there was plenty to record – his jokes (though Roberts doubts he lacked the gallantry to tell Bessie Braddock, who accused him of being drunk, that while he would be sober in the morning, she would still be hideously ugly); his florid orations in antique English; his apophthegms; and, of course, his awesome misjudgments. For Roberts to have ensured that virtually all Winston’s greatest hits are in this book is not the least of his achievements.
Second, the legend invites historians, and people who write about the past, to challenge it, which few dare to do. Roberts is to be commended for his courage in pointing out when Churchill was wrong (the Gold Standard, India, the Abdication), when he was reckless (showing off at Sidney Street, the Dardanelles, Narvik), when he misrepresented or exaggerated fact in order to make political points (frequently) or when he was tasteless (such as in his almost infantile joy at the outbreak of the Great War, in which he at least had the courage, for a few months before he craved a return to Westminister, to fight).
Indeed it is Churchill’s courage, and his loyalty to his friends and family, that redeems him. Roberts recounts numerous occasions when he cheated death, not least when German shells passed through his dugout on the Western Front, and when he stuck by people whom everyone else detested. Nor does he stint on the difficult relationship with his son Randolph, of whom Evelyn Waugh famously said, when Randolph had had a harmless tumour removed, how ironic it was that the medical profession had cut out the only part of him that was benign.
Churchill’s legend has not just been immortalised in print. It has spawned films, drama series, plays and documentaries in such numbers that there could be a Churchill channel – and doubtless, somewhere in America, there is. This presents another problem for a biographer, for many of Roberts’s readers will already have their conceptions of Churchill as a person, and some of what they have seen on film is, unlike in this reliable biography, sheer garbage, such as the preposterous scene in Darkest Hour where Churchill holds court in a Tube train.
Roberts sticks to the sources. For that reason, new readers should definitely start here.
That does not spare him the task of dealing with much that is familiar, even to those who have never read a book on Churchill. There is the neglect by his parents, not least his self-obsessed father who may (or, Robert thinks, may not) have died of syphilis; and their consignment of this unruly boy to a perverted, flagellomaniac prep school master called SneydKynnersley. Harrow was little better, though Churchill was not entirely the dunce that he liked to pretend to be. He under-achieved