Finest Hour 156, Autumn 2012
A Little Gem
Winston Churchill, by Kevin Theakston. Softbound, illus., 56 pp., $12.95, members $11.
By Erica L. Chenoweth
Ms. Chenoweth (“Churchill and the Theatre,” FH 152) is a fishery biologist in Alaska.
In the opening of his autobiography, Edward Gibbon, the historian admired by Churchill and his father, writes: “…the public are always curious to know the men who have left behind them any image of their minds.” WSC left behind a uniquely prolific and wide-ranging series of images for curious minds to examine.
In contrast to his first Churchill work, Winston Churchill and the British Constitution (FH 124), Kevin Theakston, Professor of British Government at Leeds University, now presents a short biography of a great man in politics, accurately covering a good deal of ground in a very short space.
Theakston guides the reader through Churchill’s life at a crisp clip and ever-quickening pace, without editorializing or repeating erroneous myths or quotations. He divides the book into five sections: the first focuses on WSC’s early life and the other four trace the arc of Churchill’s active political and private life until his death in January 1965. When Theakston does editorialize, the reader may take his insinuations in stride, beg to differ or resolve to investigate the topic in greater depth, and move on. In such a short book, the need for further discussion of many topics is inevitable, but Theakston’s brief treatise kindles a desire to learn more.
The first section catalogues well- known highlights of Churchill’s bustling youth: a clear delineation of the events from 1895 to 1901 smoothly launches the reader into the later sections, focusing on his political life. There Theakston enters into his element, and the reader feels comfortable in his capable hands. The statesman’s non-political activities are noted: “Churchill crammed much else besides politics into his life in these years” (21). But in following the ebb and flow of Churchill’s political life, the reader gets a sense of an author satisfactorily reviewing its cuts and facets as a lapidary would a gem.
In a compact discussion of WSC’s literary achievements, Theakston mentions his two books of essays, Great Contemporaries and Thoughts and Adventures, without explaining that Churchill revised each previously printed article, missing an opportunity to tell us what an “indefatigable reviser” he was. Careful crafting of words was as important to his published works as it was to his speeches.
Theakston’s inclusion of historical photographs, from such sources as the online photo archives of the Daily Mirror and the Mary Evans Picture Library, is an important supplement to his brief discourse. He offers family photos, famous self-portraits, a pleasing sketch of Harrow School, Punch cartoons, a two-page color spread of Chartwell, and newspaper images from the Daily Mirror and The Sphere, printed in such high resolution that the reader can practically read every word.
There is nothing sentimental in the seven-page dash to the finish in the final section on Churchill as an elder statesman. The middle sections of the book shine more brightly. The concluding appendices, “Further Reading” and “Places to Visit Associated with Churchill,” encourage the reader to discover more. While no book so short can chisel a very large place on one’s bookshelf, it can nick into a small yet comfortable seat, as a stimulating, if speedy, introduction to the life and times of Winston S. Churchill.
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