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

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - BOOKS -

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

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