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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…)
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.
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?
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.