Churchill by Roy Jenkins

IMG_1192 (4)  The Second World War is primarily what Sir Winston Spencer Churchill is remembered for: so it says something about the scale of his life and achievements beforehand that we don’t get to September 3, 1939 until page 551 in Roy Jenkins’ brilliant, scrupulous biography. Before Churchill’s Finest Hour, therefore, comes birth in Blenheim Palace, an academically uninspiring time at Harrow, a cavalry charge in Sudan, some months in the trenches of WWI, Cabinet posts in his early 30s and a drawn-out spell in the political wilderness. His misjudgements are well-known. Perhaps chief among these was championing the Dardanelles campaign of 1915, which cost thousands of lives to little effect, and for which – while he was by no means solely responsible – he always took less than his share of the blame. And he, of all people, also really shouldn’t have linked the Labour Party and the Gestapo during a breathtakingly poor post-war speech. But over a lengthy career Churchill was right on so much else – and in particular, the one thing on which he needed to be: in short, that Adolf Hitler couldn’t be appeased and Britain had to fight alone until Pearl Harbor shook America awake to its responsibilities. Jenkins is even-handed and writes beautifully, sprinkling the text with uncommon words to illuminate his case, such as resile (‘to back out’) and roseate (‘unduly favourable or sanguine’). The unexpected effect of reading his smooth prose has been to make me miss Jenkins and his intelligent presence in public life. Or perhaps I’m just being roseate. Either way, I can’t believe it would be a bad thing to have more miners’ sons like him in Parliament today. And speaking of modern politics, it is often said that there would be no place in it for a Churchill figure today. This doesn’t matter: the only important thing is that there was a place for him then. Lord Alanbrooke, a general who was no sycophant, confided to his diary after the war was over: ‘I thank God that I was given an opportunity of working alongside such a man, and of having my eyes opened to the fact that occasionally such supermen exist on this earth.’ Amen, as they say, to that.

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