Churchill (2009), by Paul Johnson


Charged to bring over Churchill for today’s younger readers who might not read a lengthy biography, Paul Johnson, the British historian and author of several large histories, himself now 81, tries cleverly to do so in 181 pages, including the Index; and, I imagine, fails to stir and inspire his targeted audience. Churchill doesn’t breathe in these pages; maybe in today’s world he can’t except in his own fading and glorious voluminous histories.

The chief career facts are there in Johnson. The most inspiring calls for resoluteness and courage sound. If you experienced the darkness of World War Two, the book will, I am sure, stir you when you read again such as these:

“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” “Victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.” “We shall not flag or fail. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender.” “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” “Do not let us speak of darker days. Let us rather speak of sterner days. These are not dark days: these are great days–the greatest days our country has ever lived. And we must all thank God that we have been allowed, each of us according to our stations, to play a part in making these days memorable in the history of our race.” “Which way shall we turn to save our lives and the future of the world? It does not matter so much to old people; they are going to die soon anyway; but I find it poignant to look at youth in all its activity and ardour and, most of all, to watch little children playing their merry games, and wonder what would lie before them if God wearied of mankind.” “The day may dawn when fair play, love for one’s fellow men, respect for justice and freedom, will enable tormented generations to march forth serene and triumphant from the hideous epoch in which we have to dwell. Meanwhile, never flinch, never weary, never despair.” And at the end: “I am bored with it all. The journey has been enjoyable and well worth making–once!”

I don’t think the center and power of Churchill–his dramatic historical imagination–comes across in Johnson’s estimable attempt. Churchill was above all, I think, imaginative, and his imagination brooded on the long dark tragedy of History and discovered real Xanadus–rare precious refuges of liberty and the good life–and imagined them much moreso than do most of us with our distracted imaginations. I’d speculate that almost daily did he live imaginatively against an immense conjured backdrop of humanity and civilization, the immediate scenes in the Boer war and at Dardanelles and during the Coal Miner’s Strike and in his other younger adventures evoking, if not always acutely consciously, the long, long General panorama. Johnson calls him a fine historian, and I think Churchill early got his profoundly actionable idea of history by going to wars and learning to write about it, being driven greatly to bring those truths home to others, especially his powerful colleagues in politics. Churchill as the statesman who could run as liberal or conservative, and did as expedient, grew out of that experience, the ideological and pragmatic oscillations making him a Machiavellian chameleon in the cause of proselytizing and preserving the besieged England despite the distracted fools he clashed with in British and other politics. Simply, the Nazis and the Soviets were monstrous threats to his imperfect but dear refuge, and it was a struggle for survival. Churchill remained powerfully sane and steadfastly impervious to his between-the-wars defeats by defeatist opponents in denial because Churchill had a joyful zest for life one of whose themes was great humor: e.g., allegedly Pro-Hitler and Fabian leader George Bernard Shaw’s telegram to him before the opening night of Shaw’s stage play, Major Barbara: “Have reserved two tickets for the first night. Come and bring a friend, if you have one”; followed by Churchill’s return cable: “Impossible to come first night. Will come to second night, if you have one.”

But, beyond a few of us huddled oldsters, how many have heard of Shaw?

Yes, the world has greatly changed since the time of “Winnie.” President Obama, reports say, early removed the bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office and replaced it with one of Martin Luther King, Jr. I don’t imagine Churchill would have begrudged it; I think he would have approved. And I think he would have applauded Obama’s Oslo speech, cast as a martial surprise by the chatterers but which was long ago recognizable as hardly so from Obama’s two autobiographical books. Obama said forthrightly that King and Gandhi are among his exemplars but that he cannot listen exclusively to them in a world where sometimes the imperative for military battle and victory, as it has before, remains.

Churchill would probably send Obama copies of Churchill’s voluminous historical records of his own experiences with such historical ironies. But perhaps Churchill would be understanding of the limits of received inspiration in vastly changed times from his own and content with Obama’s realistic speech to the formally attired idealists for a better world, a jarring speech echoing history and saying a sobering truth the best leaders seem to find their own lonely ways to grasping, a darkness into which they must sometimes enter. It is not so much a matter of passing the torch as a matter of adventures leading sometimes, among the rare leaders of the refuges, to their lonely discovery of a daunting realism. The world yet again reveals itself, at once bright and dark.