Finest Years: Churchill as Warlord 1940-1945, By Max Hastings
Sunday 10 October 2010
Finest Years opens with the extravagant claim that "Winston Churchill was the greatest Englishman and one of the greatest human beings of the 20th century, indeed of all time," and then spends 598 pages attempting to prove it.
But this is no hagiography. Max Hastings is candid about Churchill's failings: he could be bad-tempered and rude; he had unworthy favourites such as Lord Beaverbrook and General Alexander; his grasp of military strategy was shaky. It would be anachronistic to call him a racist, but it's certainly true that he was far less concerned about the fate of Indians than Greeks or Poles.
Despite all this, Churchill does come to life as one of those great men that history is not supposed to be about. Indomitable, combative, witty, superhumanly energetic, by sheer force of personality he disguised the poor performance of the army (Hastings describes it as "adequate rather than impressive" and in the early years of the war, not even that), and made a good fist of holding his own as an equal with the far more powerful Roosevelt and Stalin. (Incidentally, Churchill came up with the use of the word "summit" in the sense of a political get-together.)
He was a man of excesses: on being offered a cup of tea at the Cairo Embassy, he called instead for a tumbler of white wine which he drained at a draught. It was 7.30am, and he had already had two whisky-and-sodas. He also worked to excess, sometimes putting in 22-hour days.
His speeches, even in cold print, are still inspiring today. That we think of the Second World War as being Britain's finest hour, rather than the series of military fiascos it actually was, is entirely due to Churchill. He created our national myth, and thanks to him the myth has a core of truth. I don't think Hastings quite proves his claim, but he gets close, and it's stupendous fun to watch him try.
To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthdaybooks
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