BY GUNNAR KNAPP
IT WAS with some trepidation that I accepted Jim Muller’s invitation to speak to you tonight. What, I wondered, could I say about Winston Churchill that most of you would not already know, and know better than I? But then I realized that my task was easy. I needed only to open any book by Churchill at random and start reading, and my listeners were likely to hear something said well and well worth saying.
So I thought I would take advantage of the opportunity to share some selections from a work of Churchill’s which I read and enjoyed recently, at Jim’s recommendation. The book is Thoughts and Adventures (whose American title is Amid These Storms), which was published in 1932 when Churchill was 58 years old.
Thoughts and Adventures consists of twenty-three essays, most of which had been previously published, on a wide range of topics. Here are some of the titles:
Cartoons and Cartoonists
The Irish Treaty
Mass Effects in Modern Life
Parliamentary Government and the Economic Problem
Painting as a Pastime
There is no unifying theme in these essays. They are of varied importance to an understanding of Churchill and his times. I found some more interesting than others.
So why read this book? I want to suggest four reasons.
First, Thoughts and Adventures is full of marvelous writing. Churchill not only had a lot to say: he also knew how to say it well. Churchill didn’t just give great speeches, or write great histories: he told good stories, too.
Second, Thoughts and Adventures introduces you to Churchill’s writing on a variety of topics. It is, if you wish, a Churchill sampler. You meet Churchill the historian, Churchill the politician, Churchill the storyteller. You begin to get a sense of the breadth of Churchill’s interests and thinking.
Let me offer a few examples. Here is Churchill writing on the Germans’ fatal decision to launch an all-out attack on the western front in March 1917—unchecked by civilian authorities, who with a broader vision might instead have sought peace:
It was the fatal weakness of the German Empire…that its military leaders, who knew every detail of their profession and nothing outside it, considered themselves, and became, arbiters of the whole policy of the State…. We may imagine a great ship of war steaming forward into battle. On the bridge there are only lay figures in splendid uniforms making gestures by clockwork and uttering gramophone speeches. The Engineer has taken charge of the vessel, and, through the vessel, of the Fleet. He does not see a tithe of what is going on….How can he, locked in his engine-room far beneath the water line and the armoured deck? He has stoked up all his boilers, he has screwed down all the safety valves; he has jammed the rudder amidships He utters nothing but the wild command, Full speed ahead.
Here is a prophecy from the essay “Fifty Years Hence”—written in 1924:
High authorities tell us that new sources of power, vastly more important than any we yet know, will surely be discovered. Nuclear energy is incomparably greater than the molecular energy which we use to-day….There is no question among scientists that this gigantic source of energy exists. What is lacking is the match to set the bonfire alight, or it may be the detonator to cause the dynamite to explode. The Scientists are looking for this.
Here is Churchill writing on whether he should have quit smoking…
I suppose if I had to relive my life I ought to eschew the habit of smoking. Look at all the money I have wasted on tobacco. Think of it all invested and mounting up at compound interest year after year….But consider! How can I tell that the soothing influence of tobacco upon my nervous system may not have enabled me to comport myself with calm and with courtesy in some awkward personal encounter or negotiation, or carried me serenely through some critical hours of anxious waiting? How can I tell that my temper would have been as sweet or my companionship as agreeable if I had abjured from my youth the goddess Nicotine?
…And, on what young people should read:
It is a mistake to read too many good books when quite young. A man once told me that he had read all the books that mattered. Cross-questioned, he appeared to have read a great many, but they seemed to have made only a slight impression. How many had he understood? How many had entered into his mental composition? How many had been hammered on the anvils of his mind and afterwards ranged in an armoury of bright weapons ready to hand? It is a great pity to read a book too soon in life. The first impression is the one that counts….Young people should be careful in their reading, as old people in eating their food. They should not eat too much. They should chew it well.
A third reason for reading Thoughts and Adventures is that it offers some very exciting reading. Churchill looms so large in history that I’m always surprised to learn how many close calls he had as a young man—although I’m sure that his qualities as a leader reflected the breadth and intensity of his experience. Here are a few paragraphs from his essay “In the Air”:
…in 1911 the Royal Navy possessed half a dozen aeroplanes and perhaps as many pilots. The art of flying was in its childhood, and flying for war purposes was a sphere about which only the vaguest ideas existed. The skill of the pilots, the quality of engines and machines, were alike rudimentary.
The air is an extremely dangerous, jealous and exacting mistress. Once under the spell most lovers are faithful to the end, which is not always old age. Even those masters and princes of aerial fighting, the survivors of fifty mortal duels in the high air who have come scatheless through the War and all its perils, have returned again and again to their love and perished too often in some ordinary flight undertaken for pure amusement.
It was not, and still is not, common for men over forty to become good and trustworthy pilots….I persevered, however, in my endeavours and continued, as I thought, to make steady progress. I was thus fated to have a melancholy adventure before I decided to relinquish, at any rate, for the time being, the fascinating study of the art of flight. This event occurred in the summer of 1919.
I took the machine off the ground myself. The engine was pulling well, and we rose to 70 or 80 feet smoothly and swiftly….I now turned her to the left, as I had so often done before, and having put her on her bank, I began to centre the guiding-stick slowly and gently in order to resume an even keel….To my surprise the stick came home at least a foot without producing the slightest effect. The aeroplane remained inclined at about 45 degrees and began gradually to increase its list. “She is out of control,” I said through the microphone to my pilot. Instantly I felt the override of his hand and feet on stick and rudders, as by a violent effort he sought to plunge the machine head-downwards in the hope of regaining our lost flying speed. But it was too late. We were scarcely 90 feet above the ground, just the normal height for the usual side-slip fatal accident, the commonest of all. The machine rushed earthwards helplessly….I saw the sunlit aerodrome close beneath me….Then in another flash a definite thought formed in my brain, ‘This is very likely Death.’ And swift upon that I felt again in imagination the exact sensations of my smash on the Buc Aerodrome a month before. Something like that was going to happen NOW! I record these impressions exactly as they occurred, and they probably occupied in reality about the same time as they take to read.
The aeroplane…struck the ground at perhaps 50 mph with terrific force. Its left wing crumpled, and its propeller and nose plunged into the earth. Again I felt myself driven forward as if in some new dimension by a frightful and overwhelming force, through a space I could not measure. There was a sense of unendurable oppression across my chest as the belt took the strain. Streams of petrol vapour rushed past in the opposite direction. I felt the whole absorption of the shock. Suddenly the pressure ceased, the belt parted, and I fell forward quite gently on to the dial board in front of me. Safe! was the instantaneous realization.
I had two hours later to preside and speak at a House of Commons dinner to General Pershing. I managed to do this; but next day I found myself black and blue all over….From that day to this I have rarely been in the air….Yet they tell me it is quite safe now.
A fourth reason for reading Thoughts and Adventures is the marvelous final essay “Painting as a Pastime.” If you don’t read the whole work, try at least to read this essay. Here are just a few selections from it:
Just to paint is great fun. The colours are lovely to look at and delicious to squeeze out. Matching them, however crudely, with what you see is fascinating and absolutely absorbing. Try it if you have not done so—before you die….Try it while there is time to overcome the preliminary difficulties. Learn enough of the language in your prime to open this new literature to your age. Plant a garden in which you can sit when digging days are done. It may be only a small garden, but you will see it grow. Year by year it will bloom and ripen. Year by year it will be better cultivated.
Painting is complete as a distraction….Time stands respectfully aside, and it is only after many hesitations that luncheon knocks gruffly at the door.
To me, this essay shows Churchill at his most sincere. This is no bravado of youth, no political rhetoric, no historical self-justification. This is a man who, beyond all his other remarkable achievements, has discovered a great secret—a door to beauty, and relaxation, and simple enjoyment of life—and wishes to share it.
One of these days I will get those paint brushes, and give it a try—and I hope you will too. And perhaps we will owe a new debt to Winston Churchill.
Mr. Knapp ([email protected]) is Professor of Economics at the Institute of Social and Economic Research, University of Alaska Anchorage. His remarks are from the celebration of Sir “Winston’s 125 th birthday by Alaska Churchillians on 30 November.
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