Over Several Tops

Bernard Porter

  • Churchill: A Study in Greatness by Geoffrey Best
    Hambledon, 370 pp, £19.95, May 2001, ISBN 1 85285 253 4
  • Churchill by Roy Jenkins
    Macmillan, 1002 pp, £30.00, October 2001, ISBN 0 333 78290 9

Why two more Churchill biographies? Geoffrey Best reckons there are fifty or a hundred out there already. Two good reasons to want to add to them would be the unearthing of new evidence or a radically different interpretation. Roy Jenkins says he is not ‘a great partisan of the “revelatory” biography’, and claims that for Churchill nearly all the ‘facts’ are known in any case. One of Best’s motives for writing his book is to scotch some of the wilder recent interpretations he believes have obscured an older and safer wisdom. Neither author professes originality. So why did they bother adding to the list?

One can see the attraction. Churchill is an alluring subject, and it must be nearly impossible to write an uninteresting book about him. His own dicta, if liberally quoted, would keep the dullest narrative dancing along. Take this, from a speech in the House of Commons in 1922; the debate is on Ulster, and Churchill has just finished describing the upheaval and transformation created everywhere in the world by the recent war:

But as the deluge subsides and the waters fall we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again. The integrity of their quarrel is one of the few institutions that have been unaltered in the cataclysm which has swept the world. That says a lot for the persistence with which Irishmen on the one side or the other are able to pursue their controversies. It says a good deal for the power which Ireland has, both Nationalist and Orange, to lay her hands upon the vital strings of British life and politics and to hold, dominate and convulse, year after year, generation after generation, the politics of this powerful country.

A very English view, of course, but expressed vividly and sonorously. It is this sort of thing that makes his Nobel Prize for Literature, incongruous as it seemed at the time, not entirely unmerited. (If the bare mention that this success receives in both biographies is anything to go by, he himself did not rate it very highly: he thought he should have got the Peace one. He could not attend the ceremony and I’m told wrote a gracious letter to the Nobel Prize committee saying how much he admired Sweden, especially her ‘warriors’. Was that meant as a barb, in view of Sweden’s neutrality in the Second World War?)

There are other attractions. Churchill is incontrovertibly a ‘big’ subject; the only one worthy of Jenkins’s pen, he says, after scaling the heights of Gladstone. All that previous work on him, including the huge Companion Volumes to Martin Gilbert’s exhaustive official biography (‘largely unread’, Best’s publisher claims), means that it is possible to do him justice without – theoretically – leaving one’s study. That is what Jenkins seems to have done. His sources are astonishingly narrow – only biographies, memoirs and the Companion Volumes; no history books, for example – yet he manages to get over nine hundred pages out of them. (For his mere 336 pages Best casts much wider.) John Morley and William Harcourt, whom Jenkins toyed with doing before deciding on the big ‘un, would have required far more research. There is also clearly a market for Churchilliana, not only in Britain but in the US (for which Jenkins’s glossary of British Parliamentary peculiarities is presumably intended), especially if it comes from the pen of another political celebrity (in Britain, at least). This after all is how Churchill managed to sell so many of his own books, largely – Jenkins speculates – to ‘the great unread market’. There Best, of course, is at a disadvantage. It was rotten luck to have his old-fashioned little trawler launched almost simultaneously with Jenkins’s great factory ship. With luck he will pick up some of the fish thrown back into the water in the latter’s wake. It would be a shame if his more discursive and analytical volume, which is also more compact, and just as well written, were lost in the shadow of Jenkins’s greater fame.

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