Arts & Books Books

Do we need another Churchill biography?

Churchill: His appetite for work would have embarrassed Stakhanov (Getty)

Churchill: Walking with Destiny
By Andrew Roberts
Allen Lane, 1,152pp, £35/$40

If some kind soul gave you a handful of notes to spend, no strings attached, how would you dispose of it? While you’re mulling that one over, allow me to make a suggestion: go immediately to your nearest book shop, hand over the cash and ask for Andrew Roberts’s Churchill: Walking with Destiny. Not only is it the best biography I have read this year; it might well be the best I’ve read ever. In terms of Roberts’s oeuvre, this book will surely stand as his masterpiece, surpassing his life of that other great Tory Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury.

Why on earth does the world need another biography of Churchill? This is, by Roberts’ own admission, the 1,010th book on the man. The answer is given in the introduction to this door-stopping, draught-excluding volume. Roberts has had access to sources previous biographers could not have dreamt of using, King George VI’s diaries and Pamela Harriman’s letters among them. They shed new and highly personal light on Churchill throughout his life but particularly during his first, wartime premiership. One feels while reading this section almost as though perched on Churchill’s shoulder as he fights for his political, then our national, survival.

It would be foolish to deny that Roberts admires Churchill above all other Englishman. It is the very thesis of the book: Churchill is the greatest Englishman in history. What Roberts is not, however, is a hagiographer. He is fiercely critical of Churchill’s failures – and inability to see them as such – evidenced by such disasters as the Dardanelles and the return to the Gold Standard, and his misplaced opposition to women’s suffrage (which Roberts portrays, quite rightly, as a being conceived in a fit of pique and carried to absurd lengths).

There are illuminating chapters on Churchill’s lifelong struggle with his father’s legacy, his precarious financial position throughout his life (this despite earning the equivalent of £26,000 an article in the 1930s), his relationship with his wife, Clementine, and the intellectual challenge her ingrained Liberalism posed to his natural Tory democratic inclinations.

Roberts is thoroughly detailed without displaying the stultifying boredom of Sir Martin Gilbert’s official life. He gives personal judgments without ever approaching the arrogance of Roy Jenkins’s vastly overpraised exercise in political revisionism. Roberts demonstrates that, whatever Churchill was, an ideological Liberal he was not.

Unlike other biographers of Churchill, Roberts has been scrupulous in making sure the witticisms he ascribes to the great man were actually coined by him. Most enjoyable are the many unfamiliar quotations with which Roberts demonstrates Churchill’s psychological state, particularly his ability to retain humour in the face of horror. Thus, after the occupation of Prague: “This damnable outrage opened the eyes of the blind, made the deaf hear, and even in some cases the dumb spoke.”

Also new to me was the rather damning anecdote that, “Chamberlain was seen writing copious notes on House of Commons paper during the debate [on conscription in April 1939]. It turned out that he was jotting down observations about salmon fishing for the Tory MP Anthony Crossley, who was writing a book on the subject.”

Even-handed as Roberts is, strict impartiality becomes impossible when faced with the manifestly obvious fact that Chamberlain was not only utterly misguided but came close to dereliction of duty. A few pages after the anecdote above we find that, “[w]hile Chamberlain went fishing in Scotland during the long parliamentary recess he had insisted upon, Churchill and Louis Spears visited the Maginot Line defensive fortifications, where they talked far into the night with General Gamelin, the Commander-in-Chief of the French Army, about the use of artificial fog and the possibilities of disrupting Rhine traffic with fluvial mines”.

That preceding story is one of many Roberts uses to show Churchill’s almost fevered energy. The man’s appetite for work would have embarrassed Stakhanov himself. Nary a page passes without Churchill riding, sailing, motoring or flying (rarely walking, though. He seems to have considered it a waste of vital physical reserves).

While reading the book, I found myself hoping desperately that current parliamentarians would do the same. They would learn that not only are hobbies permissible for an MP – they are vital for ensuring Members have hinterland and breadth. The dramatis personae of Churchill’s life are so much more colourful, accomplished and, frankly, interesting than the current occupant of Downing Street’s that drawing the comparison verges on cruelty.

This is biography as art, and a finer example one could scarcely hope to read. Why on earth does the world need another biography of Churchill? Before reading this, it would have been hard to say. Afterwards, very easy indeed – because it needed Andrew Roberts to write it.