“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy; he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar?”
(Hamlet, Act 5, Scene 1)
The cult of Churchill
Some moons ago when I worked in a bookshop an elderly German customer remarked how Great Britain was obsessed with the Second World War. He had a point. That year alone WW2 book titles had made up 30 percent of Edinburgh sales in three different bookshops. The pattern was consistent, if not higher, across the UK.
The stalwart subsection of this speciality was everything related to the life and times of Sir Winston Churchill. So prolific is the literature on the man that you can find items about him on the shelves of the biography, history, military history, architecture, fiction, psychology, humour, business and even art and fashion sections (to name but a few). All of them are squeezed to house titles on every facet and insight on Churchill’s leadership and life, and the flow of new titles about him is unlikely to stop.
From a commercial viewpoint, the books are gold. New titles are released regularly by a plenitude of authors and they never stop selling all year-round before peaking at Christmas time. From a historical perspective, however, most are rehashes: few books offer new material, only fresh analysis. Most titles on Churchill tend to exhaustively explore a single issue of his private, political or soldiering life: Churchill and India; Churchill and America; Churchill’s War Cabinet; The Churchills; Churchill’s Bunker; Churchill and the Jews; The Literary Churchill; Churchill: His Life and Paintings; Churchill’s Cigar. Some, like Churchill and the Islamic World and Churchill’s Empire, make efforts to glean new insight to offer up a speculative comparison to contemporary issues. The breadth of topics continues ad infinitum, with no sign of abating.
Despite the sweeping diversification, there are only a finite number of primary sources available on Churchill, and most new books, despite their specificity, only serve as searchlights pointing towards them. First-hand accounts, documents, letters, logs, memoranda and diaries about the man have all been archived and chronicled and have been for at least 50 years. Browse the index of every new Churchill title and they are populated by the same sources that any budding author is obliged to consult for credibility’s sake.
It’s a rare and remarkable thing that Churchill has remained so evocatively alive in the public consciousness. Nevertheless, the commercial demand for new Churchill titles has overridden an interest in the original sources from which all ‘new’ books are based. Consumers demand a fresh take in one concise volume, not a plenitude of old books for readers to form their own jigsaw of opinion. Most primary accounts were last produced 30 or 40 years ago and are now out of print, available now and again on the Amazon marketplace or in university libraries, but demand is simply not there.
Aside from the loss to popular historiography, there’s a more critical downside to the decline in appetite for barely available primary sources. The streamlining of a 90-year life has allowed, as author Christopher Hitchens has argued, a ‘cult’ about Churchill to emerge which distills his life into a series of anecdotes and vignettes that take the best and discard the worst of his legacy. It’s like remembering a friend in death for all their greatness but forgetting it was their foibles that made their humanity all the more obvious and thus all the more precious.
The most guilty culprit is the peculiarly foreign, predominantly American, obsession with diluting Churchill into an endorsement for present day political opinions; defiance in the face of horrid odds; steadfastness; determination; fighting to the end and so forth. The script is familiar to anyone who’s endured the company of or listened to people who think they’re like a war leader now 50 years dead. The charges stack highest against President George W. Bush who not only had a bust of him in the White House but took up painting after reading Churchill’s essay Painting as a Pastime when he left office. Conversely, Bush’s successor, President Barrack Obama, earned the sincere ire of some Churchill and Bush acolytes by having the bust removed; insulted as if somehow this was an affront to the principles Churchill embodied (it was replaced by a bust of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. incidentally).
Most people are able to recount at least one Churchill story, even if it is more hearsay than sourced. Arguably one the most famous is recalled by the former Duchess of Marlborough, Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan, in her biography The Glitter and the Gold:
Lady Astor: “Winston if you were my husband I’d poison your coffee.”
Churchill: “Madam if you were my wife, I’d drink it!”
Countless books have compiled Churchill’s impish humour, pithy put-downs and perfectly timed comic relief, quite literally when he lead his generals in a mass urination on the Siegfried Line in 1945. Only Oscar Wilde rivals Winston Churchill for documented wit and wisdom and in their popular quoting power.
The reverse side of this coin is distillation and distortion. Churchill passing into the popular consciousness of the English-speaking world has meant he’s been watered down to a humorous repertoire fashionable for after dinner chuckles. The redacted personality of the man and his wartime disposition are conflated and remitted precisely because he was our unlikely saviour: an overweight, cigar-chomping maverick old enough to take the old age pension who looked, in his own words, like a baby.
As Andrew Roberts argues in his book, Hitler and Churchill: The Secrets of Leadership, the cult of Churchill is so prevalent because, even after 70 years, there has never been another colossal example of the liberty versus repression struggle that was the Second World War. As Churchill carried the weight of his responsibility with such a deluge of humanity, we tend to ignore that he was riddled with contradictions and had a catalogue of mistakes to his name.
The omission is compounded when we consider that Churchill’s primary adversary was lacking in any recognisable humanity. As Roberts argues, Churchill and Hitler were opposite to each other in such extremes that their enmity seems preordained or at least inevitable. Hitler, joyless and vegan, murdered his foes, dismissed his friends and demanded perfection in action and race. Churchill indulged eccentricity, enjoyed the company of rogues, had titanic appetites for food and drink, was immensely loyal to his friends and respected his foes. Hitler’s only positive legacy was to provoke Great Britain into finding a champion who could defend and rise to the challenge of industrial malice and cruelty.
All of this makes challenging Churchill unfashionable and his errors merely blips to be forgotten in the long shadow of his success. How then do we move away from the anecdotal mythologising to give readers a 360-degree perspective of a 90-year lifetime?
The key is to triangulate Churchill by examining the first-hand political and military reflections, personal reminisces and those standout volumes which have provided an exceptional and unique analysis. They are numerous, but not inexhaustible, and remain an immensely precious commodity which have formed our most basic conceptions of a man who died in 1965 and won his greatest victory 20 years before that.
Alastair will be continuing this series next week, examining the best sources to understand the military and political character of Winston Churchill.