Buggering on

Paul Addison

  • Winston Churchill: Companion Vol. V, Part III, The Coming of War 1936-1939 by Martin Gilbert
    Heinemann, 1684 pp, £75.00, October 1982, ISBN 0 434 29188 9
  • Finest Hour: Winston Churchill, 1939-1941 by Martin Gilbert
    Heinemann, 1308 pp, £15.95, June 1983, ISBN 0 434 29187 0
  • Churchill 1874-1915 by Ted Morgan
    Cape, 571 pp, £12.50, April 1983, ISBN 0 224 02044 7
  • The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Visions of Glory, 1874-1932 by William Manchester
    Michael Joseph, 973 pp, £14.95, June 1983, ISBN 0 7181 2275 5

The great Churchill boom now in progress is a very instructive sign of the times. When Churchill died in 1965, we thought we were burying the past. Richard Crossman, a reluctant mourner at the funeral, wrote afterwards: ‘It felt like the end of an epoch, possibly even the end of a nation.’ But what era feels more remote today than that of Wilson and Heath, the great modernisers for whom modernity failed to arrive? In spirit at least, Churchill has outlived them, taking his place again in British politics as one of the household gods of Mrs Thatcher. Once more his legend influences the future.

There is more to his renewed fame than mere politics. Churchill always had one foot in the realm of popular culture. From youth onwards he was a best-selling writer in the categories of war, travel and adventure. The Second World War turned him into a movie star, prompting him to remark in 1942 that he had already sold the film rights of his war memoirs. Later, Jack le Vien’s television series The Valiant Years seemed, as I recall, to run for ever. But as the swinging Sixties gathered pace, such productions struck the wrong note. The patriotic epic, except in the debased and self-destructive form of the Bond films, was an offence to the spirit of the age. The old military-imperial spectaculars were acceptable only when infused with anti-war feeling and social satire, as in Tony Richardson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade. In recent years there has been a conservative revival, apparent in the reappearance of John Buchan on the shelves, or the clean-cut manly values of Chariots of Fire. Churchill is modish again, and all the more so after the Falklands.

Those who followed Southern Television’s series about the Churchill of the 1930s will recognise the extent to which it was devised with a transatlantic market in mind. Here is an intriguing aspect of our popular culture, anticipated no doubt by Hollywood in its heyday, and subtly underwriting the Reagan-Thatcher alliance. The themes of British life most attractive to the media on financial grounds are the ones most likely to attract audiences in the United States. So the documentaries and dramatisations of British life shown over here are often preconditioned by the tastes of a North American public. Glamorous treatments of the old governing class, with some American characters and a message of Anglo-American cordiality, would seem to be indicated. These cultural factors affect even the austere and disinterested realms of scholarship. It is difficult to imagine that the gigantic official biography of Churchill would have been conceived on such a scale but for Churchill’s enduring appeal in the United States as the Yankee Marlborough and a patron of Zionism.

For all these reasons the Churchill industry thrives in a variety of forms, both academic and popular. And on the academic side the pre-eminent authority, Martin Gilbert, has taken advantage of the ambitious scope of the official life to construct a triumphal arch of scholarship. Since 1968, 12 large volumes of the official biography have appeared under his name: four of narrative, and eight ‘companion’ volumes of the documents he has assembled and edited. The most recent of the companions prints the sources for January 1936 to September 1939. The editing is immaculate, with every individual mentioned in the text identified in a brief biography, and every unexplained allusion sorted out. True to his brief to record the whole man, Gilbert finds room beside Churchill’s solemn reflections on the European crisis for a ripe little episode like his attempt to smuggle a case of liquor through the customs with a bold declaration of ‘nothing to declare’. The companion volumes are an ornament to publishing, and incidentally a rather generous act whereby Gilbert parts with the labours of his research. If I wish to knock out an article, say, on Churchill’s method of writing history, I have only to look up the appropriate entries in the index and half my work is done for me.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in