The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2015

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FEB 2015 Issue

Recovering Churchill

“Character is destiny, said the Greeks,
 and I agree.”

—Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson, conservative politician and Mayor of London, has penned his ninth book, The Churchill Factor, about that great figure of British resilience, defender of democracy in Europe, Sir Winston Churchill. Recent utterers of conventional wisdom, from Vanity Fair magazine to talk show host Charlie Rose, have asserted that Johnson must certainly wish to benefit politically from the associative property here—and who could blame him? While the book will undoubtedly serve to advance Johnson’s political rise, The Churchill Factor also operates as a concise, cogent overview of Churchill’s leadership arc and political rise, told in a witty style, which manages (if just barely) to refrain from hagiography. This work is done, says Johnson, to recover Churchill, the man of flesh and blood, from the enshrined and symbolic Churchill, man of myth, whose very cigar-stubbed visage has become legend, whose sayings have been appropriated by left, right, and center—often erroneously—and whose namesake serves for all and sundry, from streets and bridges, to insurance companies, to baby names, barbers, barrooms, and, yes, as Johnson tells us, even escort services.

Boris Johnson
The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History
(Riverhead Books, 2014)

Mr. Johnson is a writer’s politician, to be sure. His previous efforts include a volume of poetry and a comic novel, Seventy-Two Virgins (2005), though most of his work is non-fiction. This literary attitude is a first step towards Churchill, who himself was a Nobel Prize winner in literature (1953), and who, as Johnson notes, “had written five books, become a Member of Parliament, and reported from multiple war zones, and written innumerable articles, and given many well-paid lectures, by the time he was twenty-five.” For Johnson, who clearly adores his subject, it is magnificent company, indeed.

The Churchill Factor, timed nicely for the 50th anniversary of its subject’s death in January 1965, is a ranging examination of the personal and professional elements of a career, which reached its zenith in the prosecution and victory of World War II. Importantly, the book goes out of its way tallying Churchill’s many failures as well as his triumphs, ranking them, evaluating them for consistency-of-position, and drawing a through-line regarding his evolving thought. Churchill appears to have had a well-researched stance on virtually every issue under the sun: political, aesthetic, military, moral, or otherwise. Ultimately, Johnson describes the vast reach of Churchill’s political and social legacy, from the European Commission to the carving of the fault lines of the modern “Middle East,” a term—like many others, including “iron curtain” and “summit” (in a geo-political context)—Churchill is credited with coining.

As with many prominent figures, Churchill suffered an agon with his parents, in particular with his late father Randolph, himself a writer and politician. Churchill’s mother, an American aristocrat, achieved notoriety for extravagant spending and a long list of extramarital affairs. She was also known for her charm—a charm she passed on to her son in spades. The book vividly details the psychological and material elements in Churchill’s life which not only brought his civic waters to a boil, but which enabled him to turn history to his advantage through invention, charisma, and a ready command of the issues.

The young Churchill, whose family was from the elite aristocracy, embarked on a dual career in journalism and politics, in the end far surpassing his father (who himself had been the Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1886) in both endeavors. Churchill began to level the playing field, building on the “Tory Democracy” brand of politics that his father had championed. He worked to guarantee rights for working-class British. Though it is an oft-forgotten fact, Johnson reminds us that Churchill lays claim, with his mentor David Lloyd George, to the creation of the British welfare state. This grew out of the “grinding poverty” he witnessed in his youth, before such protection had been ratified. Much more than an imperialist war marshal cast in bronze, Johnson aims to recover the workaday Churchill, the superlative human being. As he writes:

Of all the politicians of his generation, Churchill was not just the best speaker, the best writer, the best joke-maker, the bravest, the boldest and most original. It was crucial to the Churchill Factor that he was also the biggest policy wonk you ever saw.

England badly needed a John Bull, the dogged personification of British resistance, to rile the body populace and wrest the national conversation from the appeasers of Hitler, Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax among them. Rife in late-1930s England was the unsettling belief that Nazi Germany and Great Britain might very well coexist side by side—that a lasting peace could be achieved between the two powers through negotiations with Hitler. Johnson demonstrates how Churchill, through personal charisma, fortitude, and clarity-of-vision, changed prevailing sentiments, and bent the British will towards war with Hitler.

The author’s many ribald, eccentric, action-packed anecdotes bring Churchill to life so vividly, as such an august character, that the reader is enticed to acknowledge, but finally to cast away negative judgments of him. For example, it is true that Churchill pioneered the use of mustard gas and area bombing in World War I, despicable practices. While Johnson clearly acknowledges these war crimes as abhorrent, it is as if Churchill’s improbable success in World War II as Prime Minister (and simultaneously as Minister of Defense) exonerates his character permanently. Johnson certainly does his part to catalogue Churchill’s faults—he devotes an entire chapter to Churchill’s major blunders, and stuffs the whole book with Churchill’s avowedly politically incorrect utterances, yet these faults are finally excused in the grand scheme of his career. Churchill, as Johnson portrays him, always bounced back. The reason for this—the core of his likeability and untarnished character, when put against virtually all other politicians—as Johnson states it, is thus:

Never was there the faintest whiff of scandal. None of his disasters came close to touching his integrity […] He took his positions because (a) they seemed to him to be right and (b) because he conceived that they would serve to advance his career; and there was no disgrace in making both calculations at once, after all: he thought they would be politically useful because they were right.

The more cad-like aspects of Churchill’s nature are also blended into the hero’s narrative. This was a man who had a personal bathtub sent to the front during World War I. (That being said, there is evidence he shared it, non-concurrently, with others.) Yet the eccentric trappings almost reach apotheosis, in Johnson’s estimation, in Churchill’s figure:

With his ludicrous hats and rompers and cigars and excess alcohol, he contrived physically to represent the central idea of his own political philosophy: the inalienable right of British people to live their lives in freedom, to do their own thing.

More than a description of Churchill—who turned himself from flesh to myth—this is the beginning of Johnson’s political credo.

Johnson’s writing is florid and funny, and he truly loves his subject. This makes for a great read. His work here is to recover an image of doggedness, intelligence, and resilience for his country’s uncertain future. Churchill is the central star in his political constellation. “History will be kind to me,” Sir Winston famously said, “for I will write it.” In The Churchill Factor, Boris Johnson, who like Churchill was born to an American mother, has gone to great lengths in helping pay that notion forward into the 21st century.


Allen Guy Wilcox

ALLEN GUY WILCOX was born in Cooperstown, NY, and grew up on his parents’ farm in the Mohawk Valley. He has lived in Brooklyn since 2005.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2015

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