Churchill: Walking With Destiny by Andrew Roberts – review
About half a century after his death, Winston Churchill has become what he always intended to be, an evergreen figure of myth. In one BBC survey of “greatest Britons”, Churchill pipped Shakespeare, Elizabeth I and Princess Diana to the post. In another poll, of schoolchildren, some 20% decided he was a fictional character.
Who better to write such a biography than a historian with an appetite for the thrill of the old days? Andrew Roberts made his name with lives of Tory grandees such as Lords Salisbury and Halifax, before graduating to Napoleon. It’s surprising he hasn’t written this book already.
Churchill is possibly the historian’s dream, a true life hero who adored his island’s story, which he lived and wrote about during a roller-coaster career. Roberts not only revels in the ironies and paradoxes of the past, as Churchill did, he is more than a little in thrall to the old bruiser’s intoxicating aura.
This is certainly one way to illuminate a myth, without descending into hagiography. Better a biographer with sneaking admiration than one who embarks on a psychological guerrilla war with his subject. Besides, if you don’t fancy Roberts’s version, there are more than 1,000 Churchill biographies. Both Roy Jenkins and Boris Johnson found new angles of approach to this protean subject. Now, in the age of Brexit, Churchill becomes the mirror in which bewildered Britons can find consoling fantasies of national greatness.
Roberts takes us back to the highly entertaining bundle of contradictions sponsored by a life that plucked success from the jaws of failure. His Churchill is both English and American, a grandee and a democrat, a gambler, soldier, dreamer, artist, windbag, butterfly-fancier, journalist, scriptwriter, novelist, wit, and “cry baby” (the Duke of Windsor’s nickname for his lachrymose apologist).
Churchill could be monstrous and lovable almost in the same breath, but he seems to have known himself well enough, confiding to a friend that he was “arrogant but not conceited”. An inveterate drinker, rarely the worse for wear, he was never less than outrageously quotable. “I have taken more out of alcohol,” he once admitted, “than alcohol has taken out of me.” Against the evidence, Roberts claims, oddly, that Churchill was only drunk in wartime on 6 July 1944.
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This is a book that aims to please. You will look in vain here for the Churchill of revisionist demonology: the war criminal, domestic dictator, or holocaust denier. At more than 1,100 pages, this is a big beast that’s virile and mobile. Roberts trucks efficiently through a familiar sequence of narrow squeaks – escape from the Boers, some near-death experiences, the Dardanelles and Gold Standard disasters. One difficulty about writing a Churchill biography is that your subject has done it already (My Early Life, The World Crisis, The Second World War) with inimitable verve. Still, Roberts manages to reheat some old chestnuts with brio and never makes the mistake of trying to out-Churchill Churchill, though he does hint at a shared fondness for hefty book advances.
This is an old-fashioned biography, plus excellent maps and illustrations, with an unambitious thesis that divides the life into a game of two halves: from his birth in 1874, Churchill’s preparation for the trials of 1940, followed by his magnificent response to the threat of Nazi invasion. Lurking behind this appealingly simple dichotomy is an unspoken Brexit message that “great Britons” can go it alone, contra mundi, and successfully assert their historical supremacy through the noble exercise of national willpower.
In some ways, it’s simpler than that. Never mind “preparation” and “trial”, the blitz and the battles of Britain, and the Atlantic, required the kind of rhetorical defiance and mad optimism that came instinctively to Churchill. He was a man who, at the age of 17, confided to a friend: “I shall save London and England from disaster.” He always believed he was “walking with destiny”. For the Churchill who had projected every word and deed on to the big screen of world affairs, 1940 was a heaven-sent opportunity which he seized with his whole being. Great generals recognise their luck.
On this reading, Churchill is a Regency first-empire patriot more than the last of the Victorians, whose native English arrogance became energised by his American chutzpah. In conclusion, one surprising and unexpected insight from this exhilarating life is that all the qualities we loathe in Trump – his intolerance, lying, vulgarity, chauvinism, narcissism and prejudice – are fleetingly evident within Churchill, but tempered and civilised by intelligence, wit, gravitas and generosity of spirit. He was a brave and brilliant man who took a high road to greatness. Another takeaway: the tragedy of our present crisis is that we have found no one, either in government or opposition, who is either brave or brilliant enough to meet history’s challenge.
• Churchill: Walking With Destiny by Andrew Roberts is published by Allen Lane (£35). To order a copy for £30.10, go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.