The Churchill Factor by Boris Johnson read by Simon Shepherd

the churchill factorBlood, toil, tears and sweat…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Winston Churchill needs no introduction and, in the UK, nor does Boris Johnson, but perhaps he does elsewhere. Boris is one of those few people who are known to all by their first names – if you mention Boris over here, everyone will assume that it’s this Boris you mean unless you specify otherwise. A leading light in the Conservative Party, he has been the Mayor of London for the last six years and is strongly tipped in many quarters to be a future leader of the Party and possibly a future Prime Minister. This is pretty spectacular for a man who is best known for being exceptionally funny on panel games, having a silly hairstyle and being an upper-class buffoon who would fit in well in the Drones Club. But that public persona doesn’t quite hide the other facts about Boris, that he is a highly intelligent, extremely knowledgeable and articulate man, whose political ambitions reach to the very top. Prior to going into active politics he was a political journalist and editor so he knows how to write entertainingly and engagingly. You may already have guessed that I have a huge soft spot for Boris – it’s just unfortunate he’s as right-wing as Mrs Thatcher. But it’s that ability to camouflage his views under his larger-than-life personality that enables him to attract voters who wouldn’t normally vote for his party.

As for his amazing achievement in winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, it is conventional to treat this as a joke, an embarrassing attempt by the Swedes to make up for their neutrality in the war. Even relatively sympathetic historians such as Peter Clarke have dismissed the possibility that there was any merit involved. “Rarely can an author’s writings have received less attention than the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953,” he says. This is not just a little bit snooty, but surely untrue. Look at the list of Nobel winners in the last century – avant-garde Japanese playwrights, Marxist-Feminist Latin Americans, Polish exponents of the Concrete Poem. All of them are no doubt meritorious in their way but many of them are much less read than Churchill.

In this book, Boris sets out to try to discover what made Churchill into the man who is considered to have been crucial in the British war effort. He does this with his usual panache, making the book hugely enjoyable and filled with humour, which doesn’t disguise the massive amount of research and knowledge that has clearly gone into it. He makes it crystal clear that he admires Churchill intensely and, because he’s so open about it, his bias in the great man’s favour comes over as wholly endearing. In fact, this reader couldn’t help feeling that Boris sees Churchill as something of a role model, and that his desire to understand how Churchill achieved all that he did is partly so that Boris can emulate him – hopefully not by becoming a great leader in another World War though! (Though I suspect Boris might be a little sorry he missed the last one…)

Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill

In each chapter, Boris looks at one aspect of Churchill’s life – his childhood, his writing, his early army career in the Boer War etc – and analyses it to see what we can draw from it in terms of what made Churchill tick. Over the years, Churchill has had as many detractors as admirers, and Boris takes their criticisms of him head on, dismissing them with his usual mix of bluster and brilliance. That’s not to say he brushes over the big mistakes in Churchill’s career, but he puts them into context and finds that he consistently acted in accordance with his own convictions. (If only we could say that about many of today’s politicians.) This didn’t always make him popular but, had popularity been his main aim, he probably wouldn’t have stood out so strongly against coming to some accommodation with Nazi Germany at the point where Britain stood isolated and close to defeat. Boris makes it clear that he believes that it was Churchill, and Churchill alone, who carried the argument in the Government for Britain to fight on, and who was crucial in persuading the US to finally become involved.

…if he was exhausting to work for, his colleagues nonetheless gave him loyalty and unstinting devotion. When he came back from New York in 1932 after nearly dying under the wheels of an on-coming car, he was presented with a Daimler. The Daimler had been organised by Brendan Bracken and financed by a whip-round of 140 friends and admirers. Can you think of any modern British politician with enough friends and admirers to get them a new Nissan Micra, let alone a Daimler?

Although there is a considerable amount in the book about WW2, as you would expect, there is just as much about Churchill’s achievements and failures both before and after. In a political career that stretched for over 60 years, he was involved to one degree or another in all of the major events in the UK, and indeed the world, from the 1900s to the 1960s – the Boer War, WW1, the establishment of Israel, the abdication of Edward VIII, the decline of the British Empire, the rise of the Soviet Union, the formation of the Common Market (now European Union). Boris shows how he was often at first a lone voice, perceptive through his deep understanding of history and politics, with other people dismissing him until he was proved right (or occasionally wrong). He also shows how Churchill was capable of changing his mind over time and admitting to it – for example, over women, where their contribution to the war effort persuaded him they should be entitled to rights he had previously argued against. A conviction politician certainly, but not hog-tied by it.

Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson

There’s so much in the book that I’ve missed out far more than I’ve included – Churchill’s writing, art, speech-making, personal bravery, etc., etc. It is however a surprisingly compact read considering the ground it covers. It’s not a full biography – it doesn’t set out to be. Boris has selected those events and episodes that he feels cast most light on the character of the man and what formed it – the Churchill Factor, as he calls it. It’s brilliantly written, as entertaining as it is informative and insightful, and I feel it casts nearly as much light on the character of the author as the subject. For anyone who still thinks Boris is the buffoon he plays so well, this might come as a real eye-opener. And for those of us who already know that, like the iceberg, the important bit of Boris is the bit you rarely see, this reminds us that we better decide soon if we really want to buy tickets for the Titanic.

There are Churchill nightclubs and bars and pubs – about twenty pubs in Britain bear his name and puglike visage, far more than bear the name of any other contemporary figure. Sometimes it is easy to understand the semiotic function of the name – you can see why a pub-owner might want to go for Churchill. He is the world’s greatest advertisement for the benefits of alcohol. But why is there a Churchill Escort Agency? And what do they offer, apart from blood, toil, tears and sweat?

Simon Shepherd
Simon Shepherd

As if two huge personalities aren’t enough for one book, I listened to the Audible audiobook version, which is beautifully narrated by another of the great loves of my life (yes, I know there’s a lot of them…), Simon Shepherd, who has one of the loveliest voices known to man (or woman) and the perfect rather plummy accent for this kind of book. It’s a great narration that does full justice to the book – held my attention throughout, which doesn’t always happen with audiobooks. In fact, I found myself frequently doing that ‘just one more chapter’ thing which normally only happens with the written word. Going to bed each night with Winston, Boris and Simon has been a lot more fun than you might imagine…

NB This audiobook was provided for review by Audible UK.

Amazon UK Link
Audible UK Link
Amazon US Link
Audible US Link

42 thoughts on “The Churchill Factor by Boris Johnson read by Simon Shepherd

  1. FictionFan – I’ve always found Churchill to be an absolutely fascinating person. And of course, one of the the influential people of the 20th Century. And it sounds as though Boris is in an excellent position to write knowledgeably and well about Churchill. I’m glad the result lived up to the promise.

    • Both fascinating in their different ways. And Boris really writes well – personally I’d prefer if he gave up politics and just kept writing. I always enjoy his books and learn from them while laughing – the best way to learn!

  2. ‘Going to bed with Winston Boris and Simon’ clearly, you need to buy a much larger bed so you can also accommodate Colin, Rafa and George!

    Great post, and you never cease to amaze, amuse and delight me. Who would have thought you have a soft spot for that blond buffoon. But, as you rightly say, there is a sharper mind than is revealed under the thatch. And probably part of that sharpness, sadly, is the knowledge that there is a bit of a suspicion of intellectuals. Pretending to be an idiot might be marvellously savvy

    • Goodness! I think I shall have to start taking vitamin supplements…

      Haha! Thank you! Yes, it’s not something I boast about often. Being a Boris fan doesn’t always go down too well on Red Clydeside! But politics aside, he really is hugely intelligent, and so entertaining… I almost – almost – would quite like to see him become PM just for the sheer fun of it all… 😉

  3. My, my, my! What book reviewers will do in their efforts to review books! Just how many pillows do you have in your bed?!

    Fabulous review! Sold! This one’s going in my husband’s Christmas pile, and who knows? I may pick it up and give it a look.

  4. I just thought the other day that I don’t know nearly enough about Churchill. This book sounds like the perfect place to start. It’s a plus that it’s written by a “highly intelligent and articulate” politician. They are rare… on either side of parliament and on either side of the Atlantic.

    • Indeed they are! That’s why I can’t help liking Boris even though he’s on the ‘other side’ to me. This one manages to tell a lot about Churchill while being a hugely entertaining read – a good one to start with, I’d say…

      Thanks for popping in and commenting! 😀

  5. Nice review, FictionFan. I don’t know much about Boris Johnson (though I have read the occasional news item about him) and so it was nice to know about him through your post. On Churchill’s Nobel prize – normally the literature Nobel prize is given to novelists and poets and since Churchill as a writer was mostly a historian, it must have seemed strange at that time. I didn’t know that the Swedes might have given it him to apologize for their neutrality during the Second World War. However, I think that Churchill’s books on history – ‘The Second World War’, ‘A History of the English Speaking Peoples’ – and his memoir ‘My Early Life’ are all classics and must reads. He was a wonderful, inspiring writer. This quote from the book – “But why is there a Churchill Escort Agency? And what do they offer, apart from blood, toil, tears and sweat?” – made me smile 🙂

    • Thanks, Vishy! I probably know more about Boris than I do about Churchill, I’m ashamed to say. The book’s full of snippets like the one about the Nobel – I wasn’t aware of that about the Swedes either. That’s what I mean about Boris’s knowledge and research – the book doesn’t just stick to the same old bits we always hear about Churchill, and there’s lots of anecdotes to break up the serious bits. Glad to hear you enjoy Churchill’s writing – Boris quotes some of his war journalism and it reads like the great adventure stories of old…stirring stuff! 🙂

  6. Oh my listen to you going off to bed with Churchill and Boris every night! This is a fantastic review of what sounds like a completely fascinating book and that’s from someone who doesn’t read books about politicians at all although of course Churchill’s contribution does fall into the historical section a little more. My daughter had a bit of a crush on dear old Boris in her early teens (which I was more than a little puzzled by) and got very excited on seeing him on the tube on a family visit to London so he makes me smile because of that memory as much as anything else. I’m definitely tempted and I have some audible credits…..

    • And Simon! You musn’t forget Simon! Thanks, Cleo – it really is a great book. I learned loads about Churchill and the history of the first half of the century in general, but unlike lots of history this one is a real pleasure to read – loads of bits that made me laugh out loud. I sympathise with your daughter – I’ve had a crush on Boris for years, and I don’t have the excuse of being a teenager! And Simon Shepherd really does a great job of narrating, if you do decide to go for the audiobook – he gets the timing on the jokes brilliantly, and his ‘Churchill voice’ isn’t bad at all – he doesn’t exactly impersonate him, but he gets the idea across.

  7. Ah, the little sister gets a bit political. If the book is even half as well done as the review, it should have a long life shelf. I’ve always been a fan of Churchill and now I know why!

  8. Great review. Unlike you, I have read quite a lot of Churchill, but no Johnson at all. My attitude to Churchill has been somewhat affected by where I now live – he is hated here, where he managed the almost impossible feat of losing his seat to a temperance candidate after 18 years, and where in his parting speech he expressed the hope that grass would grow in the High Street. He was certainly a great war leader, but he was an absolutely horrible MP, who regarded his constituents as at best an inconvenience and at worst as serfs whose decision to cast their votes elsewhere was incomprehensible to him. Every few years the sole Tory on the council proposes a monument to him and the city seethes until the swelling goes down. So I’ll be interested to see if this book changes any opinions here.

    • Interesting to hear your thoughts on Churchill, BigSister. I didn’t know that Churchill was a horrible MP. Sometimes political leaders think that their constituents owe them and should keep electing them everytime inspite of the leader ignoring the constituents. I don’t kinow where this kind of thought comes from, but it does. In a democracy, this doesn’t augur well for that political leader’s career. I remember the conversation with his wife after his party lost the election held after the Second World War. When his wife said ‘It may well be a blessing in disguise’ he replied ‘At the moment it seems quite effectively disguised.’ I can imagine him thinking in his heart at that time that he hoped that grass would grow in the High Street.

      • I think it’s certainly true that lots of MPs in the past didn’t pay much attention to their constituencies – just saw them as a convenient way to get into Parliament. Of course, some still think that…! Johnson did suggest though, that Churchill accepted his losses with fairly good grace, going on the basis that if you fight for democracy then you have to accept the outcome (the problem with audiobooks is it’s not easy to find the exact quote – sorry!). But he also showed Churchill’s many flaws – although he clearly admires Churchill hugely, I didn’t feel he whitewashed him at all – just put his actions into the context of the times, if that makes sense.

    • You should have a bash at one of his books – they’re always fun, despite his unfortunate political stance. I’ll have to try something of Churchill’s sometime. Boris quoted him fairly extensively in this and his war correspondence really read like something out of H Rider Haggard! I’d have thought everybody who might have voted for him up there would be deid by now – generational grudges? But I don’t think most MPs, certainly ambitious ones, paid much attention to their constituencies back then. However Boris certainly showed his warts as well as his good points.

      • Very much an inherited grudge nowadays, but people 20 years younger than me tell stories about his reaction to the rent strike (he suggested the Army be sent in to shoot the women!) and my old friend Ina (who died recently at the age of 103, remembers being taken to a rally for Eddy Scrimgeour (the Temperance candidate who eventually unseated him) at which the theme song consisted of insults to Churchill’s I am sure entirely imaginary personal habits – not repeatable in a family blog!

  9. I definitely need to crib up on Churchill – I’ve never read a book purely about him, but obviously he appears in pretty much ANY history book about the early part of this century, so I do know a decent bit – but any biography on him tends to be a bit heavy. So this book will appeal in that respect. I too have to admit to a soft spot for Boris – no other politician could have coped with “the wire zip incident” with such amiability (could you imagine Cameron or Osbourne?!) I also think he’d be the most fun politician to go for a drink with (Eric Joyce would be bottom of that poll, he’d inevitably get in a rammy!)…but as you say, he’s definitely from “the other (bad) side”! I quite fancy this one for Christmas…and the Roy Jenkins one too, I’ve had my eye on it since it came out…I greatly admire him, plus I think he MAY once have been my MP, although I was of an age where that didn’t interest me at all…!

    • I was sure I’d read a biography of him years ago, but I must admit Boris mentioned all kinds of things I didn’t know so I came to the conclusion that I can’t have. Yes, I suspect I’d enjoy a night-out with Boris – so long as he didn’t turn up with his bicycle helmet on! The Roy Jenkins one is really great too, but a much more serious, conventional biography – I wasn’t much of a fan of Jenkins when I was young, but the book made me think more highly of him…

      • Yes abandoning the Labour party in their time of utmost need. One thing that puzzles me is Boris’s irresistibility to women – but maybe we’d find out his secret on our imaginary night out with him. I remember seeing a photo of him as a child and he looks EXACTLY THE SAME! It was utterly uncanny. And remember the child he had as the product of an affair with one of his gorgeous posh brunettes with a degree in Art History? No need for DNA tests there…!

  10. *laughs* That last sentence was really a sinker! Great review, though. I’ve heard of this Boris fellow, I think, some time in the past. Is that his real hair color? And you must admit, Churchill does look rather cool with that thing sticking out of his mouth. (What’s plummy mean?)

    • Didn’t I shock you? Yes, I think PorterGirl and I mentioned him on your blog once – though why that subject came up now defeats me! He is indeed naturally blonde but his hair is usually untidier than in that picture. Churchill used to give away his half-smoked cigars to his gradener apparently – generous, eh? (Posh – upper-class. A bit like the Queen…)

      • You sure did! *laughing more* That was a good one, I must admit, but it was wicked!!! Yes! I do remember. I think you both liked the chap, too. He looks like Donald Trump to me. Eww! Did he? How cruel. He should have given one to Stalin. Hey! Maybe that’s how FDR died. He had one of those cigars. (Like the professor.)

        • I’ll shock you even more now – this week I’m going to bed with Stephen King! That’s enough to give anyone nightmares…

          Yes, I think we did – he’s awfully cuddly and has a wicked twinkle in his eye. He does NOT look like Donald Trump!!! That’s a cruel, horrid thing to say about anyone!!! (The Professor died??? How ghastly! Or does he smoke cigars? I rather like the smell of cigars I must confess…)

          • *laughing* I am scared for you! And I did see that over on your sidebar. Bet you won’t be scared much at all!

            He does too! (What if Donald comes on your blog? See what you’ve just done?) Well, some say the professor died when he lost his heart. No, I don’t smoke cigars. Though, I agree with you: the smell is rather nice. Bet Donald Trump smokes cigars!

            • It’s possibly the least scary book in the world – Anne of Green Gables was scarier! How did he get his reputation? It’s good for insomnia though…

              Does not!!! (I wouldn’t even care! If that man doesn’t already know his hairdo’s silly, it’s time someone told him! And I bet his cigars smell… smelly!) I don’t think the Professor lost his heart – just mislaid it. It’s probably in a safe place, waiting to be found…

            • I bet Anne is scarier! Didn’t she have green hair or something? I’m not sure. Maybe Cujo is scary.

              Just pulled Donald up, and he does, does, does!!!!!!!! It’s probably at the bottom of the ocean.

            • *laughing* The things you know! The green hair was a temporary aberration… Who’s Cujo?

              Does not!!! *stamps foot furiously and glowers* Boris is cuddly and Donald is creepy! They’re as different as a kitten and a snail!!! Oh that’s OK then – Bubbles can fecth it.

            • I actually–don’t make any fun!–went to see a stage play of Anne years ago. I would have worn the green hair proudly. Um-rah! That’s the rabid dog King wrote about, right?

              They’re twins, I bet you! But I don’t want my heart back…

            • Would I make fun of you? *snickers quietly* I model myself on Anne, you know, you know, you know. I bet she’d have been a great warrior if only she’d had a katana. Was it? I think I’ve probably read enough King now…

              If you ever come to London, Boris will throw you in the Tower… Ah, I fear it sounds as if the Professor must once have had his heart broken. So romantic!

            • Now, I’m wondering what Anne is like. (I don’t remember the play too much.) Girls can’t be warriors!

              I’ll have the tower bombed with my B-17s. No, I just lost it in a vicious fight on the plains of Troy. Alongside Hector.

            • She’s fierce and brutal – attacks boys in the classroom and stuff! And a black belt at karate, if I remember correctly. Why can’t we? We wear skirts after all…

              The Tower is protected by magical ravens – while they survive the Tower cannot be destroyed…

  11. I really enjoy it when the writer of a biography knows that he is not going to be unbiased, and instead of pretending to be unbiased, just embraces and accepts it. I’ve read far too many “unbiased” biographies that were full of snide comments and backhanded compliments – so annoying. But when an author is open about his personal feelings on the topic, it’s so much easier to embrace the writing, even if you don’t agree with the bias itself, because it feels like the author is being honest with you.

    Anyway, all that to say that this one has gone on the nonfiction TBR… I could use some more British history!

    • Yes, I probably enjoy biased biographies more than ones that pretend to be unbiased. Especially when, as in this case, the biographer has such enthusiasm for his subject. I don’t see how it would be possible to research someone for a couple of years without forming a bias one way or the author…

      If you get around to this one, I do hope you enjoy it – I’m pretty sure you will! 🙂

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