Winston Churchill died fifty years ago on January 24, 1965. I was 17 at the time, and have vivid memories of watching his funeral on television.
To mark this anniversary of his passing, I’m reading The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History by rising British political star Boris Johnson. Like Churchill himself, Mr. Johnson—currently mayor of London—is a journalist turned politician, which gives him added insight into his subject, as does his own reputation for flamboyance.
Anyone who has plowed though one or more of the massive, multivolume biographies of Churchill will find few surprises in Mr. Johnson’s breezy, more modestly-scaled appreciation of the great man. What makes his book so engrossing is the freewheeling, almost playful way that he arranges the facts to make us look on Churchill with fresh eyes.
I knew, for example, that Churchill was personally brave. But I was still taken aback at the way Mr. Johnson lumps Churchill’s acts of conspicuous gallantry together in a single chapter. It’s one thing to read about his dashing cavalry exploits at Omdurman or his daring Boer War escape as isolated incidents in the long narrative of his life. It’s quite another when they are juxtaposed with his coming under fire as a war correspondent in Cuba when he was only 20, his battling with savage tribesmen on India’s northern frontier, his enlisting for the trenches in the First World War after the Gallipoli disaster (going out into no man’s land 36 times and getting close enough to the German lines to hear them talking) and his learning how to fly at the age of 39, when flying was still extremely hazardous, and nearly getting himself killed when his plane crashed. No doubt about it, this man was a lion.
Similarly, I knew that Churchill was a phenomenally productive writer who had written multi-volume histories of the First and Second World Wars, a life of Marlborough, a history of the English-speaking peoples and much else besides. Not to mention that he also wrote all of his own speeches—which alone fill eight volumes and total five million words. But it is still arresting to be told by Mr. Johnson that Churchill not only wrote more words than Dickens and more words than Shakespeare, but more words than Shakespeare and Dickens combined.
I knew as well that Churchill could be moody, petulant, stubborn, ill-tempered, overbearing and a positive torment even to even his nearest and dearest. But I didn’t know that his devoted wife Clementine had once thrown a plate of spinach at his head.
Another intriguing aspect of Mr. Johnson’s book is the space he devotes to refuting those who would debunk Churchill’s reputation. Older readers, like myself, might assume that Churchill’s greatness remains unassailable, but this is unfortunately not the case. Mr. Johnson is concerned that as the generation that fought World War II passes from the scene, there is a real possibility that Churchill could be minimized or even forgotten. He points out, for example, that in 1995, when Britain’s Department of Education sent out a commemorative VE Day video to all schools, they managed to give Churchill only 14 seconds in a 35-minute history of the Second World War.
To some extent this neglect is understandable. Churchill may be viewed today as a dinosaur for any number of good reasons. He was an ardent imperialist, he was a male chauvinist and he reflected many of the race and class prejudices common to his time and especially to upper-crust Britons like himself. But Mr. Johnson makes clear that Churchill cannot be written off as a Colonel Blimp.
It is often forgotten that Churchill changed parties twice—from Conservative to Liberal in 1904, and back again in 1924. During his Liberal period he pioneered much of the modern welfare state. He helped give British workers labor exchanges to help the jobless find work, and he supported the tea break and unemployment insurance. He also favored land taxes on the aristocracy and denounced the presence of hereditary peers in the House of Lords.
Similarly, while he was an imperialist, it was because he saw the British Empire as a force for good in the world. He hated the mistreatment of any person of any race. Thus, when an American lady asked him at a White House luncheon, “What are you going to do about those wretched Indians?” He replied: “Before we proceed further, let us get one thing clear. Are we talking about the brown Indians in India, who have multiplied alarmingly under the benevolent British rule? Or are we speaking of the red Indians in America who, I understand, are almost extinct?”
Mr. Johnson also reminds us that Churchill played a key role in the creation of the modern state of Israel.
Above all, says Mr. Johnson, had it not been for Churchill, Hitler would almost certainly have won World War II. “Churchill matters today,” he insists, “because he saved our civilization. And the important point is that only he could have done it.”
A few years after I watched Churchill’s funeral on TV, I was a junior in college, spending part of my junior year in England. During that time, I visited the little churchyard in Bladon where Churchill lies buried. As I gazed on the simple stone slab that marks his resting place, I was seized by a sudden impulse. I bought a postcard from a nearby stand and wrote some verses on it to leave behind as a memento. The verses were from an epitaph that Alexander Pope had written for one of Marlborough’s generals but in my own mind, then and now, they seemed entirely appropriate for Churchill:
Amidst corruption, luxury, and rage
Still leave some ancient virtues to our age:
Nor let us say (those English glories gone)
The last true Briton lies beneath this stone.
Hal Gordon, who wrote speeches for the Reagan White House and Gen. Colin Powell, is currently a freelance speechwriter in Houston. Web site: www.ringingwords.com.