🙂 🙂 🙂
Before he became a politician, Churchill was both a serving soldier and a war correspondent, forging a relationship with the right-wing Telegraph newspaper that lasted on and off for the whole of his life. This book is an amalgamation of articles which appeared in the paper, either written by or about Churchill over his long career. Having thoroughly enjoyed another Telegraph publication last year, The Telegraph Book of the First World War, I had high expectations of this one, which sadly it didn’t wholly meet.
Some of the articles written by Churchill are outstanding. His description of the naval war in WW1 is lucid and revealing about the arguments over tactics between the politicians and Admiralty bigwigs. It’s a potted history of the whole thing, from the positioning of the Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow through to the U-boat war and the measures taken to combat it – the Dover barrage and the adoption of the system of convoys. As always in his writing, Churchill’s personality comes through – his criticisms of the Admiralty feel personal on occasion – but he is very good at making complicated issues clear for the less well informed reader.
He also speaks intelligently and perceptively about the ‘dole’ – how National Insurance should be used, in his opinion, to support those people who are left without work for a period of time. Many of the arguments he was putting forward back in the middle of the last century are still being debated today and he was unusually perceptive at recognising that the future would probably lead to an ageing population with all the pressures that would place on the newly-formed Welfare State. It’s rather depressing to think that present-day politicians seem to have been taken by surprise by issues Churchill foresaw 60 or 70 years ago.
There is also a rather excellent section in the book on Churchill’s post-WW2 plea for the formation of a United States of Europe, where he envisions much of what has subsequently come to pass, and pretty much in the way he suggested. He felt that it was crucial for France, still reeling from the war, to reach out a hand of forgiveness to defeated Germany, and to forge unbreakable bonds between first the major and then the minor nations of Europe to prevent the never-ending wars that had brought the entire continent to its knees. He believed both the United Nations and a treaty between Europe and the US (subsequently NATO) would be crucial in ensuring peace and in providing a bulwark against the encroachment of communism in the form of the USSR. All familiar stuff to us now, but prescient and influential when he was writing.
So there’s plenty of good stuff in here. Unfortunately, a lot of the rest is either filler or not set well enough in context to make it informative without pre-existing background knowledge. Each section has a little introduction, but these don’t give enough information to explain the background to the following articles. Therefore, the bits I’ve picked out as excellent are the things that I already had some knowledge of. But when Churchill is talking about his time in India way back before WW1, for example, I was completely at a loss – I didn’t know who we were fighting or why, or who won, and I was none the wiser afterwards. Like the First World War book, this one has no notes, but while I felt in worked in that book by pushing the reader into the same position as the original readers of the newspaper, in this one it felt like a real weakness – the original readers would have been aware of the context in a way that most modern readers won’t be. I also found the articles about Churchill arriving at train stations, complete with descriptions of what he and his wife were wearing, or the articles about his pets(!), lacked much relevance or interest to all but the most dedicated Churchill enthusiast.
My other main complaint is that the book is by no means complete. We are told that Churchill wrote a series of fortnightly articles for the paper during the run-up to WW2. But we only get to read a couple of them. Had the bits about his budgerigar been left out, perhaps the space could have been filled with something more enlightening. Also, the way the book has been divided up into sections by subject means that the timeline jumps all over the place – one minute we’re in the 1940s and then suddenly we’re back in the 1910s. And oddly, WW2 seems to be almost entirely missing! I grant that Churchill probably didn’t have much time for article writing at that period; however, presumably the paper was reporting on the war and on Churchill’s role, but the mentions of it in this book are few and far between.
So, despite a few excellent articles, overall I found the book pretty disappointing. A missed opportunity – with more focused editing, a linear structure and fuller contextual information I feel this could have been done so much better. As it is, I can’t give it more than a lukewarm recommendation at best.