Churchill: A Biography

“Churchill: A Biography” by Roy Jenkins (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999)

Winston Churchill has an enduring fascination for Americans. His Anglo-American parentage, his escape from a Boer prison, his World War 1 exploits, his climactic role, after a period in the wilderness, as an inspirational orator and leader of the British people against Hitler, and a Nobel Prize for literature, all contribute to a reputation for remarkable courage and creativity.

Citizens of both the democratic USA and the dictatorial USSR must have been amazed that a seemingly ungrateful public would throw him out of office after the defeat of Nazism. Yet there was another side to him. An ambitious adventurer, an inconsistent policy-maker who loved the sound of his own rhetoric, and, though not an alcoholic, someone who depended on a steady flow of drink to help him through his “black dog” depressions.

What can another biography tell us? Roy Jenkins brings a unique insider role as an experienced U.K. Labour Party minister, and author of several political biographies, to place Churchill solidly in a framework of political processes and contemporaries. Lord Jenkins has an unparalleled knowledge of parliamentary protocol – as well as of every significant contemporary political figure – that enables him to capture the essence of Churchill’s relationships with an enormous number of political leaders and acquaintances. Many of them were irritated by Churchill’s egoism and obstinacy, but nearly all, it seems, came to admire him in the end, however grudgingly.

This is not a book for the faint-hearted. Jenkins has a dry wit, but as a stylist is liable to digression, and he presented for this reviewer a surfeit of parenthetical comments. Most readers will require both a dictionary and a foreign phrase-book to decipher the author’s more patrician utterances. And it requires some external knowledge, as Jenkins, in his love for political detail, often fails to describe the wood for the sake of the trees. For example, he refers to Churchill’s well-known strategic disaster in the Dardanelles in 1915, but you will not find here an analysis of exactly what went wrong. A deeper study of Churchill’s underlying beliefs, such as why he sacrificed his free trade instincts with an overlong championship of keeping India in the British Empire as a captive Market, would have been useful. This is a study of Churchill as doer and memo-writer, not as a strategic thinker.

However, taken in doses of two or three chapters at a time, this is a rewarding read, which, through its engaging anecdotes, and laconic view of context, casts fresh light on the fortunes and misfortunes of this larger-than-life man. As a sample of Jenkins’ magisterial and authoritative tone, take the following: “It began in the Turkish Baths of the Royal Automobile Club where he [Churchill] and F. E. Smith had jointly repaired, no doubt in the hope of counteracting some of their indulgences. It is a scene splendidly typical of the first third of the 20th century. It is difficult to imagine Gladstone in a Turkish bath any more than Attlee, Home, Wilson, or Major. But no doubt Smith and Churchill were perfectly at home in this essentially Edwardian ambience…”

I don’t believe any other historian could have written a vignette like that.

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