"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, March 22, 2013

A Little Bit of Churchillania

In a different life, I probably would have been a military historian. As it is, my bedtime reading for nearly a decade now has basically run from 1853 to 1945, that is, from the start of the Crimean War to the end of World War II, with special attention on World War I. Each of those conflicts, of course, would have major implications for Eastern Christians in Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere; but I don't read about these events for that so much as for their own sake--and also to understand what my maternal grandparents lived through in the Battle of Britain while working and living alongside the River Clyde in Scotland, then the scene of the largest ship-building works in the whole of the British Empire and therefore a target of frequent Luftwaffe bombing.

Like many Britons of her generation, my grandmother regaled me as a child with stories of several narrow escapes from bombing raids, and also the stirring oratory of Churchill on the wireless. As an adult, I decided that I needed to read more by and about Churchill to understand better who this man was who, my grandmother said, "united the whole country." I began of course by reading his six-volume The Second World War, which won him the Nobel Prize for literature. From there I backtracked to read his history of the First World War, The World Crisis, 1911-1918, a book about which one of his detractors rather archly said othat "Winston has written an enormous book about himself and called it The World Crisis." Arthur Balfour, prime minister of Britain from 1902 to 1905 and a sometime nemesis of Churchill, said that he was reading Churchill's "autobiography disguised as a history of the universe." Both histories are rather sui generis: part history, part autobiography, part memoir, part political tract written with present politics firmly in mind--a point made by David Reynolds' really splendid and enormously enjoyable In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War.

Reynolds' careful archival research has revealed in fascinating detail how Churchill worked as an author, and how he tendentiously put together especially the sixth volume with an eye to contemporary relations with Eisenhower, newly changed from supreme Allied commander to US president.

After reading Churchill himself, I began tackling Sir Martin Gilbert's biography of Churchill, starting with his helpful one-volume Churchill: A Life and then reading Gilbert's multi-volume authorized biography, which, with its official documents, runs to many thousands of pages in multiple volumes. Along the way, I enjoyed Gilbert's own self-reflective book--similar to Reynolds in some respects, though not so narrowly focused--In Search of Churchill: A Historian's Journey. Last Christmas, while driving across the country, I listened to the audio version of Gilbert's Churchill and America.

All this is just prelude to mention that I have just finished another very recent book about him that was immensely enjoyable: Barbara Leaming, Churchill Defiant: Fighting On: 1945-1955.

Haunted by the staggering electoral loss of July 1945, Churchill resisted, right up until the very last days, numerous and repeated efforts by everyone--friend, family, and foe--to get him to retire from 1945 onward. He felt he wanted to win an election on his own merits (he came to the premiership in 1940 when Neville Chamberlain resigned and advised King George VI to send for Churchill rather than Lord Halifax) and even more he felt that if he had power again he could mitigate the Cold War by arranging a three-power conference involving himself, Stalin, and Eisenhower, the latter of whom wanted nothing to do with such a tete-à-tete. Churchill, in his late seventies now, finally clawed his way back to government in the narrowly won 1951 election, and hung on until April 1955, surviving several strokes and continually going back on his word to his chosen successor, Anthony Eden, as to when he would retire.

Leaming's book is more blunt in some respects and does not shy away from some of the more ruthless aspects of Churchill's character. It is a helpful counterpoint to read alongside another book covering the same time-frame, a book that is written with a more moving and intimate portrait from Churchill's last private secretary and strong loyalist, Anthony Montague Brown: Long Sunset.

Montague is also interviewed by Churchill's grandaughter, Celia Sandys, in her Chasing Churchill: The Travels of Winston Churchill, a book that was later turned into an enormously enjoyable and deeply affecting documentary by PBS: Chasing Churchill.

Finally, I should mention that I'm looking forward to reading a new book Cita Stelzer has just published: Dinner with Churchill: Policy-Making at the Dinner Table. I heard the author interviewed a few weeks ago by Lynn Rossetto Kasper on her delightful radio program The Splendid Table.

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