A political chancer cast out into the outer dark through one too many gambles that had fallen through. An egomaniacal gloryhound. A man in love with language and the sound of his own rhetoric. Winston Spencer Churchill was the last, extraordinary, flourishing of the Victorians who, through the 1930s, looked like a man born out of his time, a man born too late to seize the glory that he most earnestly desire. And then history came to his rescue, and he came to the rescue of history. Carlyle’s Great Man theory of history is very much out of fashion – modern historians prefer the minutiae of economic theory and feminist grievance mining – but the 20th century stands in bloody rebuke to this. If ever a century – and in particular the paroxysm of the Second World War – was a story of history-bending individuals it was the 20th century. Imagine a century in which young Adolf Hitler had succeeded as an artist and the young Josef Stalin had stayed in the seminary. Would the 20th century have become the bloodbath it became without them? I think not.
But then imagine a century in which the young Winston had blocked one of the bullets that flew past his head during the Boer War. That is what this book forces one to imagine: and in the fractious comfort of our 21st century it really brings to life the dark abyss that we – the whole world – stared down into and that we so narrowly escaped. Indeed, for those parts of the world that fell under Soviet sway, the escape postdated the end of the war by half a century.
Winston Churchill almost single-handedly held the line against what seemed inevitable defeat. He had the belief, the drive and, in a national context, most importantly the words to define and solidify the national response to onrushing disaster: unremitting defiance.
As such, this book is excellent. It reminds the reader just how close we came and what a debt we owe to Churchill and those others who stood firm beside him. Unfortunately, the writing itself never rises to the heights that Churchill himself regularly scaled, both on the page and in speeches. It’s workmanlike: honest stuff but nothing more.