The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History (Boris Johnson)
Perhaps the biggest problem that can befall any tome with a ‘celebrity’ author is that it’s difficult for the reader ever to get beyond the context of the writer’s identity in all that is written, when the subject matter is (or should be) the main reason for the book’s existence. Initially then, the premise for yet another book on Churchill begins to look decidedly shaky, as we entrust ourselves to the musings of a man who has a long, ignoble history of inserting himself into an otherwise engaging story.
A polariser of opinion with few equals, Johnson has habitually foisted his crumpled, circus baboon act onto the collective conscience, almost always with mixed results, bringing a curious mix of a classicist’s high culture and a self-publicist’s low farce to almost any occasion. The dedication page says “To Leo F. Johnson” but it might as well say “Enter with caution”.
And yet, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is a writer, a politician, the son of a politician, an Anglo-American and was, after a rather notorious episode of political disloyalty, elevated to a state office overseeing the Colonies/the Commonwealth – all facts that are equally true of his subject, Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill. While these similarities are not made explicit (to be fair, the last one happened after the book was written), you are strongly given the impression that the writer would quite like you arrive at the conclusion – and try not to laugh here – that the two are cut from rather similar cloth.
It’s clear from the outset that Boris is unashamedly a worshipper of Churchill, which I suppose is unsurprising enough, given the latter’s iconic status and their mutual affiliation with the Conservative party but which does rather call into question his objectivity – if that is what you were to expect. There are frequent references to the Johnson siblings intently studying their hero in their youth, which seems at once impressively learned of them and worryingly strange. If you are looking for a more balanced account of Churchill’s life, you’ve probably come to the wrong place. Like a star-struck groupie, Johnson even goes as far as to state his gratitude that he and ‘WSC’ even shared existence on the planet for a time (six months) as their lives briefly overlapped in the mid-1960s.
To be fair to Boris, he never uses the word ‘biography’ and frequently defers to those who have used it, like Roy Jenkins. Such an avenue would, one suspects, have required him to be rather more disciplined in his appreciation while doing little to improve mainstream sales. What we have then is a ‘Greatest Hits’ of a compilation, with Johnson providing the commentary, rather than the full unexpurgated discography, presented in encyclopaedic form.
That’s not to say that you’ve heard it all before. There are interesting insights and the book is nothing if not well-researched. In fact, one of the most illuminative passages is where Johnson sadly has to confirm that some of our favourite supposed Churchill one-liners are in fact untrue or at the very least unsupported by any documentary evidence. “If I were your husband, I would drink it”, “This is the kind of English up with which I will not put” and “I will come to the second night, if there is one” are all debunked. In their place, the book does however suggest a wealth of other Churchill-isms, which are equally charming, like this one:
“Take the yarn about the time he was on a lecture tour in America, and was served a buffet lunch of cold fried chicken. ‘May I have some more breast?’ he is supposed to have asked his hostess. ‘Mr Churchill,’ the hostess replied, ‘in this country we ask for white meat or dark meat.’ The following day the lady received a magnificent orchid from her guest of honour. The accompanying card read, ‘I would be obliged if you would pin this on your white meat’.
His source? Only the great man’s grand-daughter Celia Sandys who authenticates it via the ‘Horse’s mouth’.
Another worthwhile diversion comes in the form of the linguistic analysis that Boris applies to Winnie’s turn of phrase. You don’t need to be a Churchill acolyte or even a politician to delight in his consistently playful use of language (although in an age where oratory seems to be a forgotten art, I wish more politicians would). Johnson rightly highlights Winston’s use of chiasmus (the art of reversing the first part of a sentence within the second part of a sentence) as key tool to achieving memorable, witty quotes. It sounds impossibly technical but it’s surprisingly effective and many famous Churchill quotes follow just such a formula: “I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me” being just one.
The writing is crisp and engaging and for the most part, not so idiosyncratic that you even remember who’s writing it – which I feel is the greatest compliment I can give. Occasional lapses into obscure quotations from ancient Greek literature serve to break this illusion and for a short while after each occurrence, the commentary is once again ‘heard’ in the familiar, infuriating, foppish, bumbling voice. Thankfully, this is an effect that doesn’t seem to last.
On the whole, I found the book to be time and money well spent. As a biography, it would have been flawed by its fondness to praise and gloss but as a personal tribute, I found it surprisingly even-handed and willing to question. In a BBC poll in 2002, Winston Churchill was voted as ‘The Greatest Briton’, with almost half a million votes from the 1.6 million in total. As such, he is an intriguing subject and one worthy of close inspection. The fact that his claim to having co-invented the tank during the First World War is relegated to nothing more than a footnote to his long list of achievements, I think says much about his unique appeal to those who study him.
Johnson’s book may not be the most revealing – unsurprisingly, Churchill’s most prolific and most credible literary witness is Churchill himself – but this is an accessible, worthwhile waypoint for anyone looking for a useful insight into one of the most astonishing figures the human race has yet produced.
We can only hope Churchill continues to inspire the author to more worthy feats as he continues to further his own political career.