Simon Heffer


  • Craig Cabell, 
  • David J Bercuson and Holger H Herwig, 
  • Ian Hunter (ed), 
  • Sir Martin Gilbert, 
  • Geoffrey Best

The Churchill literary industry seems to grind on unabated. Those of you who thought that every last action of the great man’s life had been recorded, documented, analysed and interpreted need to think again. Apparently, the publishers of the English-speaking world feel that there is still an insatiable demand from readers to spend armchair time with one of their favourite historical characters: each book is like a chance to ask an old, familiar friend round again for the evening. Of course, such people need to remember that too much of a good thing can make it seem stale and tired: which is the case with some of the new clutch of Churchilliana. However, there is still scope – thank heaven – for the odd bit of gold to turn up in the dross.

Of these five books, only four are really about Churchill: the fifth, Dennis Wheatley: Churchill’s Storyteller, Craig Cabell’s interesting account of the war experiences of Dennis Wheatley, is a classic case of bandwagon-jumping. Wheatley, best remembered these days as a writer of novels about the occult, spent the war in intelligence and executed various schemes and ruses suggested or promoted by Churchill. Perhaps his best-known stunt was that later immortalised in the film I Was Monty’s Double: he hired a bit-part actor with a striking resemblance to Field Marshal Montgomery to put the enemy off the scent of what Monty was really up to. This is a work about the novelist and not the statesman, and will be of interest mainly to aficionados of the former, or those fascinated by the deeds of spies and spymasters. Having said that, Cabell’s book is a better and more stimulating read than three of the other four on offer.

Some authors at least subscribe to the school of thought which holds that if you are going to write a book about Churchill you had better find, or claim to have found, something original to say. This is certainly the selling-point for David J Bercuson and Holger H Herwig’s One Christmas in Washington: Churchill and Roosevelt Forge the Grand Alliance, an account of how Churchill visited Roosevelt immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor and made the formal alliance between Britain and America. The authors say that because neither of the two diarists closest to Churchill, Sir Alan Brooke and Jock Colville, attended these meetings there is no particularly full account of what happened at them. Churchill’s official biographer, Sir Martin Gilbert, might dispute that, though he accords only a chapter, rather than a whole book, to the proceedings in the sixth volume of his life. Mind you, reading Gilbert tells you what you need to know about this event from Churchill’s perspective. What Bercuson and Herwig give us is a lot of background, plus a pile of minutiae about goings-on in Roosevelt’s White House, so their work is valuable if you want to understand the American perspective on these events. They also tell us a great deal about the weather, for some reason. Indeed, the opening words of the prologue – ‘Christmas Eve 1941 broke cloudy and rainy in Washington DC’ – are almost an incentive to proceed no further, and the literary style (if you can call it that) of this book is horrendous. By the time you get to ‘outside a light drizzle fell on Washington’‚ on page 165, you will be screaming for parole. No doubt someone will take from this a brilliant idea for a new angle on Churchill, republishing the weather reports for key days in his life: after all, they appear to have done almost everything else.

The correspondence between Churchill and Sir Archibald Sinclair is another lacuna that has been filled, in Winston and Archie: The Letters of Winston Churchill and Archibald Sinclair 1915–1960. As the editor of their letters, Ian Hunter, points out with a mixture of amazement and joy, there has never been an edition of these before. Having read them, it is easy to understand why: they are fabulously boring. Even Churchill, who was no slouch with the English language, appears to have been inspired to hitherto unknown depths of turgidity by any contact with Sinclair, whom he knew socially before the Great War, served with in the trenches, and then later included – as leader of the Liberal party – in his War Cabinet after 1940. Hunter has done a fine job in editing the letters, but they are for anoraks only. They appear to have been collected as an act of homage to Sinclair, who despite the eminence of his position as party leader is now almost entirely forgotten. The book will, therefore, make some people happy, but those people might like to consider whether or not they should get out more.

As mentioned above, Sir Martin Gilbert is the acknowledged expert when it comes to Churchill studies. His eight-volume life (and its attendant, document-packed companion volumes) will never, for scope, depth or range of scholarship, be surpassed. However, those of us who have ploughed through it will, while never disputing Gilbert’s greatness, know that he has a particular, insomnia-curing style of writing. His tactic in his biography was to pile in almost every available fact, relentlessly, with little space for interpretation or analysis; though, to be fair to him, had he been more discursive it might have taken up twice as many volumes, and become impossible and unmanageable. In his work on Churchill’s relations with America and Americans, though, he might have thought it feasible to adopt more the style of an essayist, and to strive to analyse this unquestionably important aspect of the great man’s life. It was not just, after all, that the alliance Churchill managed to forge with Roosevelt in 1941 ultimately helped to win the Second World War for the forces of light: Churchill was also the son of an American mother, so the special relationship was literally in his blood.

Sadly, Gilbert chooses not to take the opportunity for such reflection. In traditional style, Churchill and America (Free Press 501pp £25) is little more than a relentless chronological list of every trip Churchill made to the USA, and of every important American he knew and what contact he had with them. Much of it is simply recycled from the life: none of it is at all illuminating. Gilbert’s failure of being unable to resist including even the most banal details – such as yet more fawning birthday greetings from FDR, or Ike, or any other of the top Washington cast list – just serves to emphasise the unambitious, tedious, compendious nature of this book. If all you seek is the facts, they are here in abundance. If you seek any interpretation of those facts by an expert, or any great attempt at thoughtfulness or originality, you will have come to the wrong place. The polite would describe this book as a missed opportunity: the impolite would brand it an absolute stinker.

In that respect it could not be more unlike the fifth and final work in the Churchill pile, Geoffrey Best’s quite brilliant account of the relationship between Churchill and war. Best has already made an impressive contribution to Churchill studies with his book Churchill: A Study in Greatness. This sequel, Churchill and War (Hambledon 353pp £19.99), places him in the front rank of scholars on the subject, and for my money is the most impressive and intelligent book on Churchill since Robert Rhodes James’s masterpiece A Study in Failure, published in 1970. In his approach to Churchill, Best complements a fundamental reverence for the man with a full understanding of his weaknesses and flaws. Coupled with profound scholarship, this enables him to draw a picture of rounded humanity missing from so much else written on the subject. Also, he is a superb stylist, and is never less than a pleasure to read.

While broadly chronological, Best’s book is really a series of essays. As well as descriptions of the First and Second World Wars, and what they revealed about Churchill’s character through the way he coped with them as a politician, Best describes the effect on his subject’s personality of his early experiences as a soldier. He also draws out the theme of Churchill’s regard for the rules of war, and how he defined those rules. Because warfare was so important a part of his personality – though Best successfully refutes the notion that he was a warmonger – we are given numerous insights into Churchill’s psyche. Best is especially good on the bombing of Dresden, which he feels was justifiable, and on the agonies that Churchill went through after it. A distinct picture of a hero emerges, and also of the nature of heroism: the massive ego, the single-mindedness, the buccaneering humour, the patriotism, the utter determination and physical courage. Best is strong, too, on Churchill at peace, notably in his prescience in fathoming the threat from Hitler in the wilderness years of the 1930s but also in his reaction to the invention of the atomic bomb and its place in the stand-off of the first years of the Cold War. Together with a superb analysis of Churchill as a strategist, and insights into his subject’s own often partial account in his memoirs of the conduct of the war, Best presents us with a most thought-provoking and original consideration of the role of one of the greatest of the world’s great men. More to the point, his book is an object lesson to others in the matter of how Churchill studies should be conducted at this point in historiography, and it is to be hoped – probably in vain – that others will not embark down this well-worn track without following his example.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter