Boris Johnson claims Churchill was driven by 'short man syndrome' in new biography

The London Mayor's biography of his hero Sir Winston Churchill is a scintillating, if hyperbolic, portrait of another non-comformist politician

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The Independent Culture

In my grandmother’s hallway there was a framed photograph of Winston Churchill. When she died, among her most treasured possessions kept in a safe, was the Daily Telegraph souvenir supplement marking Churchill’s death in 1965.

His funeral was among my earliest memories. My relatives gathered at our house to watch it on a grainy black and white TV. The curtains remained drawn throughout the day, and when his coffin was lowered on to the Havengore to begin its journey along the Thames from Tower Pier to Waterloo, and then by train to Oxfordshire, there was not a sound.

The next occasion they did that was the wedding of Charles and Diana, and they talked all the way through it.

As a result, and because of much more, because of constant references down the years, of familiar footage and photographs of the round-faced man with the hat and the “V for Victory” sign, the famous cigar, stirring quotations we know off by heart, and some dreadful impersonations, he has been a source of fascination. Taken for granted possibly, frequently not regarded seriously enough - not by my generation and those since - Churchill is nevertheless always who we mean when we speak of true courage and the Bulldog Spirit.

All our leaders have been measured against him. And all, bar one, and that depends on your political persuasion as to whether Mrs Thatcher was his rightful heir or a divisive pretender, have fallen short.

There is of course, a possible new contender on the horizon, which is why Boris Johnson’s The Churchill Factor is so riveting. It would be a fascinating read without the Johnson Factor – Boris is a superb, accessible writer, with an easy, good-humoured touch.

Throw in the fact, though, that here is someone who, to an extent, has modelled himself on Churchill, to whom the epithet Churchillian is often ascribed in relation to his own appearance, mannerisms and outspoken rhetoric, and the result is entertaining, informative and teasing.

When Hodder and Stoughton were inspired enough to ask him to write the book to mark the 50 anniversary of Churchill’s death, and he agreed, they had an instant best-seller on their hands.

It’s not a detailed historical account. Indeed, Johnson makes that plain, citing biographies that have gone before, paying tribute to Martin Gilbert, Andrew Roberts, Max Hastings and others, saying how some of them were consulted (Roberts over two long and alcohol-fuelled lunches) and how he is no way a professional historian. He claims as well, as a politician not to be worthy of lacing Churchill’s shoes. On that, we shall see. There is still time.

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Past masters: famous history-writing parliamentarians include Winston Churchill

Johnson’s declared motivation is that Churchill is in danger of fading from the memory, worse, of slipping into caricature, and we will forget his towering greatness. We owe everything to him, to his refusal to be cowed in the face of overwhelming odds to the Nazi threat. And Johnson means everything: the Queen, trade unions , health service, free speech, civil rights, social security, immigration, the global force of the English-speaking peoples, to use Churchill’s own phrase.

It’s quite a list. Thanks to Churchill the great unifier, who appealed to ordinary people as much as he did to the upper classes, to the right and begrudgingly but appealing nonetheless, the left, Britain is a far better place. For Churchill read Johnson, someone who also crosses the class and party divide.

 

When Johnson talks about Churchill disproving the Tolstoy notion that the story of humanity is not one of individual heroism but of impersonal economic forces, calculated technological advances and massive mundanity, it’s hard not to think of another person for whom rules, structure and process are also there to be broken.

At times, Johnson’s enthusiasm for his subject runs away in hyperbolic Boris style. Churchill’s home at Chartwell, apparently, is not just an English country house on the Kent Weald but “one of the world’s first word processors. The whole house is a gigantic engine for the generation of text.”

This machine, not mere bricks and mortar, came from the same mind, says Johnson, that helped invent the tank and the seaplane, and foresaw the atom bomb. It was there that Churchill worked with his researchers, “his Nibelung, his elves, the tinkling dwarves in the smithy of Hephaestus.” They were his “personal search engine – his Google.”

Where the book is at its strongest is when Johnson explores Churchill’s character, his traits and afflictions. It is, as he says, about what makes a great leader. Churchill was a fragile child, short (5 foot 7) with a 31-inch chest. He had a tough time at Harrow (the boys threw cricket balls at him) and had an even tougher time from his terrible father. Johnson speculates that he was driven by “short man syndrome”, which puts him on a par with Hitler, Mussolini, Bonaparte and Stalin.

He had a stammer (the account of a strangulated performance in the House of Commons is especially moving). He loved to write late at night after downing champagne, wine and brandy. He was not regarded as a ladies’ man, although Johnson disavows this, making clear though his adoration of Clementine.

Above all, Johnson pays tribute to his astonishing energy - five books, becoming an MP, reporting from war zones and penning innumerable articles and giving many lectures, and that was just by the age of 25. Johnson of course is no slouch himself in this regard.

The sub-title is “How one made history.” My grandmother would have loved it. She would have encouraged her grandchildren to read it, as they, and their children, should.

 

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