“It is as if the world has not moved” – Great Contemporaries: Seventy-five Years On
By H. Ashley Redburn
The late Henry Ashley Redburn OBE, of Rutland and Hampshire, England, compiled the first bibliograhy of works about Sir Winston Churchill. He was a constant contributor, adviser and friend to Finest Hour and its editors, Dalton Newfield and Richard Langworth, from 1970 until his death in the mid-1980s, always providing superbly written prose with precisely the word count needed. Great Contemporaries (Cohen A105) was originally published in 1937 by Thornton Butterworth, London, and Putnams, New York. The new edition was published by ISI Books in 2012: softbound, illustrated, 506 pages, $22, member price $17.60.
The first appearance of Great Contemporaries included twenty-one studies, while the 1938 “revised extended edition” offers a further four which comprise valuable entries on Fisher, Baden-Powell, Parnell and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. [The ISI edition adds five very significant sketches although one is mystified by the omission of Carson and his influence on the Irish problem. The biographies, mostly about men whom Churchill knew intimately, are of unique value. Churchill’s wit is never better illustrated than in his essay on the only man of letters included, George Bernard Shaw, whom from Churchill’s canon: H.G. Wells, Charlie Chaplin, Kitchener, Kipling and King Edward VIII. —Ed.] Each study first appeared as an article. As detailed in the he treats not as a dramatist but as a strange political creature, “the unique double-headed chameleon, the acquisitive capitalist yet sincere communist…the world’s most famous clown and Pantaloon in one.” But there runs through this, and indeed all the pieces, emendations based on new information. Unhappily, the article on Lloyd George (from the series “Great Men of Our Time”) is omitted, but this one and others excluded can be read in the four-volume Collected Essays of Sir Winston Churchill (London: Library of Imperial History, 1975).
The central theme of Churchill’s collection is the group of British statesmen who dominated politics at the turn of the 20th century: Balfour, Chamberlain, Rosebery, Morley, Asquith, Curzon. These urbane, erudite, cultured and civilised public men dominated Imperial affairs with a brilliance which contrasts with the drabness of today’s political barbarians. On the whole the book is a valuable study of the course of history in the first four decades of the 20th century, an overriding cordiality and liking for the subject, for Churchill was not a hater. Only once, over Hitler, would he be totally unforgiving. While recognizing mankind’s frailties and foolishness, he retained compassion and hope, and was never cynical. His judgments are of justice tempered with magnanimity.
In Bargaining for Supremacy (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1977), James R. Leutze accused Churchill of being “oddly unaware of other people’s reactions…not much interested in others.” This is a frequent charge, but as these essays testify, Churchill had a greater awareness of human nature and regard for human beings than most. The imaginative man does not need to experience poverty in order to understand it.
Churchill’s awareness of others is perhaps best demonstrated in his chapter on Philip Snowden, who had truly been reared in poverty, and with whom Churchill spent seven years wrangling during their suc- cessive terms as Chancellors of the Exchequer. After recounting their fierce conflicts WSC adds, “never have I had any feelings towards him which destroyed the impression that he was a generous, true-hearted man….the British Democracy should be proud of Philip Snowden.” Snowden’s widow wrote Churchill when this essay first appeared to thank him for this salute to a political opponent.
The first several pages of “Georges Clemenceau” are strangely dull, probably because they were culled from George Adams’ biography of “The Tiger.” But when Churchill turns to his personal contact the text takes on a familiar glow.
Events were not so easy to forecast then. Indeed the debate on Roosevelt continues today, and not least on Churchill’s poser: “Is it better to have equality at the price of poverty or well-being at the price of inequality?”
Churchill’s views on unemployment, productivity, financial and economic policy on the life and well-being of every country are as appropriate eighty years on as they were in the 1930s. It is as if the world has not moved. His views on trade unionism may cause younger readers, reared on the myth that he hated and wished to destroy unions, to reflect on, if not modify, their force-fed opinions.
This book is about mankind and about a few prominent men—great, evil, stupid, silly, wise. Occasionally the dark stream of melancholy Churchill can power-was quite right, the only thing to do was fully express is revealed, as when by to beat the Germans.” We see other glimpses of the future: Clemenceau “uttered to me in his room at the Ministry of War, ‘I will fight in front of Paris, I will fight in Paris, I will fight behind Paris,'” which presaged, “We shall fight on the beaches…on the landing grounds…in the streets” in 1940. And did not Clemenceau’s wish to be buried by his father’s side, in the country place whence his ancestors came, inspire Churchill to choose his simple grave beside Lord Randolph in Bladon?
Writing in “Roosevelt from Afar,” Churchill accurately says that FDR “will rank among the greatest.” But he questions whether Roosevelt’s program can restore prosperity to the United States. He warns against imposing on American industry and commerce a dominant trade unionism in the British mould.
The bedside of the dying Balfour he reflects on “the tragedy which robs the world of all the wisdom and treasure gathered in a great man’s life and experience, and hands the lamp to some impetuous and untutored stripling, or lets it fall shivered into fragments on the ground.” Of course this also applies to ordinary mortals—people unknown, who will inherit no famous grave—though Churchill does not say so.
Great Contemporaries is also about Churchill as he sees himself, with the personalities which shaped his judgments and character. He outlines the debts he owes, the knowledge gained, from observing their qualities and defects. At this distance we see him absorbing those lessons of leadership for the moment when he was to become the head of government in a nation alone, at its most solemn hour.
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