Churchill: the unexpected hero, by Paul Addison

A short book about world history
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

"Winston has written a big book about himself and called it The World Crisis," said Arthur Balfour. Paul Addison has written a short book about world history and called it Churchill. Winston Churchill was a leading member of two political parties and played a crucial role in two world wars. He was one of the important opponents of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 and coined the phrase "Iron Curtain". He was in New York on the day of the Wall Street Crash and in South Africa during the Boer War.

"Winston has written a big book about himself and called it The World Crisis," said Arthur Balfour. Paul Addison has written a short book about world history and called it Churchill. Winston Churchill was a leading member of two political parties and played a crucial role in two world wars. He was one of the important opponents of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 and coined the phrase "Iron Curtain". He was in New York on the day of the Wall Street Crash and in South Africa during the Boer War.

It is a considerable achievement to have described this life in under 300 pages (Churchill's official biography runs to eight volumes) and Addison's book could be read with profit and enjoyment by anyone interested in modern history. Only occasionally does one get the sense that this book might have been sent to press rather too quickly for its own good; two different dates, both wrong, are given for the death of Churchill's father.

Addison captures both the great events of Churchill's life and the peculiar character of the man. He could be vain and petty. As a young officer he travelled to India "for the sole purpose of taking part in the Inter-Regimental Polo Tournament". He was inconsistent in almost everything and, though he was born and died an arch-Tory, there were times when he expressed affection for Stalin or toyed with abolition of the House of Lords. His contemporaries often found him exasperating.

There is one disappointing aspect of this otherwise admirable book. We learn remarkably little about the private Churchill. What was the man like when he was not playing to the gallery? Addison touches briefly on Churchill's tormented relationship with his father, who warned his 18-year-old son that he risked becoming "one of the hundreds of public school failures". Addison's brief discussion of Churchill's marriage to Clementine assures us that he was a "faithful husband who loved her" - if this is the case, and fidelity and love do not always go together, then the mere fact that someone of Churchill's generation, class and self-indulgence did not keep mistresses might itself be worthy of more sustained comment.

There are two lines on the death of his infant daughter and about the same on the fact that another daughter committed suicide and a third sank into alcoholism. There is more discussion of his son Randolph, who inherited all his father's vices and none of his virtues, but again we get little sense of the agony for those involved. More than anything else, I finished this book feeling that I wanted to know more about the private unhappiness that lay beneath Churchill's Falstaffian exterior.

The reviewer's 'A History in Fragments: Europe in the 20th century' is published by Abacus

Buy any book reviewed on this site at www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk
- postage and packing are free in the UK

Comments