Friday, 23 January 2015

Winston Churchill: Soldier, Journalist, Aviator, Politician, Leader…Writer

On the eve of the 50th anniversary of Churchill's death, Laura Burden explores his literary significance.

(source: Daily Telegraph)
The man who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953 never wrote poetry. He never wrote a play. He did write one novel, but the reviews of Savrola in 1899 were decidedly mixed and modest, and it is seldom read today.

We know him as the face of the new £5 note, the winner of the BBC’s poll to find the “Greatest Ever Briton,” as the saviour of the nation during the Second World War and as the nodding bulldog advertising car insurance. Few of us think of Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill as an author.

Yet, as Boris Johnson wrote in his recent biography, The Churchill Factor, Churchill was a worthy recipient of the prize: “he mobilised the English language,” and any attempt to suggest that he does not merit the award is “not just a little bit snooty, but surely untrue.” Yes, before he was a politician he was a soldier-journalist, but his journalism was literary in character. By the time he went to report on the Boer War, he was the highest paid journalist in Britain, commanding £250 a month (which today equates to approximately £10,000). He was not paid such a staggering amount because he was an aristocrat, nor because he was a politician’s son, but because he could write. 

Churchill mastered the art of narrative and rendered every action he wrote about of the South African veldt in pacey, gripping prose worthy of a novel by John Buchan. He knew when to reproduce what he heard in dialogue, and exactly when a short, clipped sentence was called for.
Churchill was not simply a journalist and novelist: he was a historian. His two volume Malborough: his Life and Times is in many ways a homage to his ancestor John Churchill and is fascinating as an insight into Churchill’s own military heritage, but is also a brilliantly rendered portrait of a man who, “Amid all the chances and baffling accidents of war…produced victory with almost mechanical certainty.” His accounts of the First and Second World Wars are, of course, not free from bias but are deeply fascinating because, rather than in spite, of his own role in both conflicts. Here is one passage from The World Crisis 1911-1918, with Churchill describing his time in Cromer, Norfolk, as the storm clouds gathered over Europe on 26th July 1914:

At 9 o’clock the next morning I called up the First Sea Lord by telephone. He told me that there was a rumour that Austria was not satisfied with the Serbian acceptance of the ultimatum, but otherwise there were no new developments. I asked him to call me up again at twelve. I went down to the beach and played with the children. We dammed the little rivulets which trickled down to the sea as the tide went out. It was a very beautiful day. The North Sea shone and sparkled to a far horizon. What was there beyond that line where sea and sky melted into one another? All along the East Coast, from Cromarty to Dover, in their various sally-ports, lay our patrol flotillas of destroyers and submarines. In the Channel behind the torpedo-proof moles of Portland Harbour waited all the great ships of the British Navy. Away to the north-east, across the sea that stretched before me, the German High Sea Fleet, squadron by squadron, was cruising off the Norwegian coast.

In what is predominantly a work that deals with the largest of canvases, the international arena of a global conflict, Churchill recalls a personal, private moment. Through his brief description of playing with his children Randolph and Diana, the valuable nature of family life in Britain, at that moment endangered, is evoked. In places the language is disarmingly simple: “it was a very beautiful day” – but that great man, with the cares of state can, as his children cannot, pierce the horizon with his mind’s eye to see the two great naval powers readying themselves for armed combat. The damming of the little rivulets of water that will, inevitably, run down into the sea, acts as a narrative echo of the frantic efforts to preserve peace against the odds of war. Churchill’s historical works are non-fiction, but always literary in tone. He understood that, with a work of history, what happens is already known: the success of the work depends on how the narrative is relayed.

Churchill was, with a mixture of arrogance and genuine conviction, well aware of his place at the heart of British society and government. He wrote several volumes about his own life and his memoirs are vividly rendered. His opening description of the childhood state in My Early Life is comparable to the start of Cider with Rosie. It is in this work, incidentally, that he describes his lifelong affection for the English language, acquired through an extended period in the bottom form of Harrow School:

…By being so long in the lowest form I gained an immense advantage over the cleverest boys. They all went on to learn Latin and Greek and splendid things like that. But I was taught English. We were considered such dunces that we could learn only English. Mr Somervell – a most delightful man, to whom my debt is great – was charged with teaching the stupidest boys the most disregarded thing – namely, to write mere English. He knew how to do it. He taught it as no one else has ever taught it. …Thus I got into my bones the essential structure of the ordinary British sentence – which is a noble thing.

Certainly the noble British sentence served Churchill well through history, biography, memoir, instruction on the art of painting, intimate letters to his wife and through his written work as a politician. However, the Nobel committee bestowed the 1953 prize upon Churchill not only for “mastery of historical and biographical description” but for “brilliant oratory in defending human exalted values”.

Considering that he had a speech impediment, Churchill’s rhetorical ability was unparalleled. It was not always directed at “defending human exalted values” and, across his life and career, more often blasted and insulted those sitting across the floor than Hitler. Yet it was his speeches that rallied Britain at the time unity and determination in the face of adversity mattered most:

Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God's good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.

The resonant, anaphoric deliverance from 4th June 1940 is notable not merely for its clarion call to arms but for its political expediency. Churchill, who was himself half-American, has already concluded that the might of the United States was needed to win the war in Europe and now uses the magic word, “liberation” to flatter Roosevelt’s country that its “power and might” should be channelled to a cause in line with its founding principles.

To this day, Churchill’s speeches define the Second World War, speaking for the generation of the “few” in their “finest hour” as they moved towards what they hoped was a role “inexorable, irresistible, benignant, to broader lands and better days.” Outside of the theatre of this conflict, his speeches were extraordinarily prescient, defining events both nationally and globally. It was Churchill who foretold the outcome of the rise of Hitler and the efforts of appeasement at Munich; earlier than this he warned against the militarisation of Japan and it is his tongue that coined the phrase “iron curtain” to characterise diplomatic relations in the post-war era. On the grounds of oratorical fireworks alone, his Nobel Prize was justified.

Tomorow marks the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Winston Churchill. In addition to his achievements in all fields he was a prolific author, working in an era when it was expected rather than criticised that politicians would enhance their income through their pen and before the advent of the professional speechwriter.

It is easy to forget how extraordinary his life was –born in the Victorian period as a member of an aristocratic family in Blenheim, a palace built as a legacy of Britain’s success in the battlefields of Europe, and dying in the reign of Elizabeth II as a servant of the people. In the Churchill War Rooms in London, you can find an interactive touchscreen display that allows you to read what Churchill was doing on any given day of his long life. His days were frenetic, busy, committed and versatile…and perhaps more remarkable as, amid the challenges of his life and times, he documented his many deeds in prose.

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