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Books, Arts & Curiosities – Writing about Churchill

Finest Hour 113, Winter 2001-02

Page 39

By Lord Jenkins or Hillhead

Churchill: A Biography, by Roy Jenkins. New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1002 pages, illus. in b&w and color, regular price $40, member price $27


Editors Note

We would not have thought it possible to launch yet another life of Churchill that had anything new to say, and when Lord fenkins wrote in his preface, “I do not claim to have unearthed many new facts,” we were certain that what followed would be just another superfluous effort. Not so! Roy Jenkins’s long and distinguished Parliamentary career saw him in many of the offices Churchill once held; his vast experience in the House of Commons enables him to interpret Churchill’s life from a well of allied experience. His eloquent writing style makes the book read like a conversation with a trusted and patient friend, explaining all that we didn’t know or failed to grasp. All the more remarkable, this accomplished biographer of Gladstone came to change his mind about who was the greatest of prime ministers. Finest Hour’s own review will be published in our next issue, but we would not be undercutting any praise or criticism it may offer by suggesting that this is a book you should not be without. —RML

I propose to divide my talk into three sections: the shape of the book and how I came to write it; Churchill and Chartwell, which I think is an appropriate subject for today; and my summing up of WSC and why, at the end of the day, I put him above Gladstone.

Churchill is I fear a long book, a third longer than anything I have ever written before. I don’t like long books for their own sake. Indeed in my previous reviewing career I have often complained about over-long biographies, mainly American ones, written as though their value were to be judged by dead weight on the hoof. But Churchill’s was a long life and covered 90 years and two months of which a span of 64 years was in the House of Commons and nearly 50 years as a minister of one rank or another.

And although it is a big book, I would claim that it is not a monstrous book: first because there are not too many words on a page (430, which is about right; anything over 500 greatly adds to the burden of reading), and because it is printed on such good but thin paper it is of an almost lissome shape; second because I do not think it contains much padding. John Grigg, in his Times review, claimed that it ought to have been longer, preferably in two volumes. But I think the day of multi-volume biographies has largely gone, and publishers are certainly not enthusiastic about them. If the first one is good, the second is often an anti-climax. If the first one is bad, the author finds himself with waning enthusiasm, committed to a treadmill.

What I have done is not just to concentrate on Churchill’s period of greatest fame and splendour, which is die best known part of die story, but also to deal with bodi die earlier and die later parts of his life, which as well as having much interest in diem are essential to seeing him and his life in the round.

Nor would I call this an essentially political biography. I have devoted a lot of attention to his life as a writer, with an outpouring of close to 50 volumes as well as, particularly in the 1930s, a flood of newspaper and magazine articles, some purely potboiling but very profitable, and some more serious and penetrating. I deal in some details with the complicated but essential and beneficial bargaining which accompanied this side of his life.

There was also his painting—of high amateur quality—taken to quite suddenly, at a moment of heavy setback when he was 40 years old, having never, according to his wife, even been in a picture gallery before. His art was a great source of sustenance to him for more than four decades. Some of the results are reproduced in colour in one of the picture sections of the book.

I was equally concerned to explore the pattern of Churchill’s life, what he liked doing and what bored him, his reaction to different sorts of people, and some of his extraordinary eccentricities of behaviour. Although the book is, broadly, extremely favourable, it could not remotely be described as hagiographic. I became convinced that all really great men have a richly comic side to them, are even to some extent figures of fun. This was certainly true of Churchill, as it was of Gladstone, and, to take an off-stage example, of General de Gaulle. This is because they had the self-confidence not to fear ridicule, which is an important part of the reason for their being great. But it also makes them sometimes behave in a quite ludicrous way.

Why did I decide to write Churchill. When it was first suggested to me I was deeply skeptical. “No, no,” I said, “not my subject and already over-written about.” But gradually the idea began to grow on me. After Gladstone I rather wanted another “big subject.” A medium grade one would have been like trying to get excited about an amble up Snowdon after returning from an Himalayan expedition. Only Churchill, clearly the greatest Prime Minister of the 20th century, could hold a candle in this respect to Gladstone, the greatest of the 19th century. And once embarked I never regretted my choice, or got remotely bored with Churchill, just as I never had done with Gladstone.

I now come to the somewhat chequered history of Churchill and Chartwell. Chartwell was purchased in the summer of 1922. Clementine was at first in favour, then later turned against on the ground that it would involve too extravagant a pattern of life. Winston bought it cheaply for £5000, say £120,000 at today’s values, and £1000 less than he had paid for Lullenden, which he had bought in 1917 and kept for only a few years. But 18 months’ work by Phillip Tilden—a fashionably light architect of the period, a sort of Hugh Casson of the 1920s—brought the initial cost of Chartwell up to £20,000, nearly a million today.

Bricklaying for walls and cottages and the creation of elaborate waterworks in the grounds provided almost Churchill’s sole physical exertions after he played his last game of polo in 1927. After his heavy stock market losses in the “great crash,” the big house was closed for the winter of 1929-30. But the study was kept open for WSC’s odd writing and proof correcting habits, mostly done while standing at a high, sloping desk. By dint of furious journalism and bookwriting his fortunes were (a little precariously) restored.

But by February 1937 he had to contemplate sale. “If I cd. see £25,000 I shd close with it. If we do not get a good price we can quite well carry on for a year or two more. But no good offer should be refused,” he wrote to his wife. Then 15 months later further heavy losses on the New York Stock Exchange—the equivalent of a modern £375,000 (he was a singularly unfortunate speculator)—forced him to put Chartwell more definitely on the market, and for only £20,000: “five reception rooms, 19 bed and dressing rooms and eight bathrooms occupying a magnificent position in a valley on the southern slope of the Kentish hills.”

Then a white knight in the form of Sir Henry Strakosch* stepped in. He was an Anglo-South African financier, but a respectable figure, knighted in 1921, a former chairman of The Economist. He did not know WSC very well, and had no motives beyond a firm anti-Nazism and personal admiration. He took over all Churchill’s U.S. investments at cost—over three times their current value—and even paid him interest upon them. It was a deal which would raise eyebrows in these days of the Parliamentary Commissioner, but it saved Chartwell for another eight and one-half years. Curiously enough this seemed to make no difference to Strakosch’s relations with Churchill. He was a very occasional guest at Downing Street and Chequers until 1943 when on his death he left Churchill £20,000.

Chartwell was closed during the war, with Churchill only visiting it occasionally for the inside of a day, to gaze rather gloomily at his black swans. “I wandered about the valley disconsolately for several hours,” he wrote in June 1941 at one of the lowest points of the war.

The house was re-opened in the early autumn of 1945, but the financial burden was still oppressive. The war did not immediately cure the precariousness of the Churchill finances. Then in August 1945 Lord Camrose raised from himself and 16 other donors a trust to buy and endow Chartwell for the National Trust, with the provision that WSC should live in it for the rest of his life and that subsequently it should be a shrine to his memory. The sums involved today sound surprisingly modest: £43,000 for the purchase and £35,000 for the endowment.

Ironically, very soon after then, Churchill became far more financially secure than he had ever been, as his war memoirs began to produce large sums. He bought several adjacent farms which were however disposed of in 1957. Chartwell was crucial to his almost miraculously complete recovery from his very severe stroke of 1953 and to the early years of his post-195 5 retirement. But gradually, with his building and hydraulic works long since complete, with his last book finished and his agricultural activities abandoned, there was little left to do except gaze at the Weald of Kent. He therefore used it somewhat less in the final years of his life, although he was far from abandoning it completely. He last went there in October 1964, three months before his death.

As I got deeper into Churchill I found that, presumptuously, I came to identify with him more than with Gladstone. The outstanding feature of them both was phenomenal energy, in Gladstone’s case physical as well as mental, in Churchill’s mostly the latter category. I found Churchill’s highly ironical sense of humour (Gladstone’s was more one of boisterous fun) more attuned to my own. I was also increasingly struck by Churchill’s extraordinary combination of an almost puritan work ethic with a great capacity for pleasure, even for self-indulgence. I found that combination very attractive. I illustrate it with two examples. On the evening of 1 November 1940, at the height of the Blitz, he told Jock Colville as they approached Chequers: “I should now like to have dinner—at Monte Carlo—and then go and gamble.”

But four years later when he, and even more his family, were looking forward to a Chequers Christmas with victory on the horizon—such a different prospect from four years before, he arrived late on the evening of December 23 rd and immediately announced that he proposed to fly to Athens, no easy journey in those days, at midnight on Christmas Eve, and eat his Christmas dinner not in the Buckinghamshire countryside but in the air between Naples and Athens. By so doing he probably saved Greece from falling into the Communist orbit. It was partly his high sense of duty, sometimes jostling with his liking for pleasure, but then nearly always winning. But it was also partly his desire always to be at the centre of events, his preference for danger over boredom, for risk over inertia. The whole expedition, and its moderate success, required his unique combination of world prestige and boy scout enthusiasm. It is simply impossible to imagine Roosevelt or Stalin flying off on such a mission after midnight on Christmas Eve.

In the last paragraph of my book, I wrote: “I now put Churchill, with all his idiosyncrasies, his indulgences, his occasional childishness, but also his genius, his tenacity and his persistent ability, right or wrong, successful or unsuccessful, to be larger than life, as the greatest human being ever to occupy 10, Downing Street.”

This does not mean that I have jettisoned Gladstone, the Great Old Man of the Victorian Age. It is a narrow contest, with Churchill, I now think, half a head in front of the other. But it is like asking: “was Mozart or Verdi the greatest of opera composers?; was Rembrandt or Velasquez the greatest painter?” We are lucky to have all four of them, just as we are lucky to have the two political titans, Churchill and Gladstone. Taken as examples of exuberant, many-sided humanity they are in a class of themselves amongst the 50 British Prime Ministers.


Lord Jenkins is an Honorary Member of The Churchill Center and Societies. His remarks were made at Chartwell on 23 September.

*For more on Strakosch, and Brendan Brackens role in bringing him in as the savior of Churchill’s fortunes, see Charles Lysaght’s piece on Bracken in this issue, page 17.

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