February 27, 2015

Finest Hour 161, Winter 2013-14

Page 49

By Robert Courts

The Essential Churchill: Collected Words, Speeches and Sayings of Sir Winston Churchill, edited by J.A. Sutcliffe, with an introduction by Robert Blake. Duckworth Overlook Press, 112 pp., $12.95. A Little Bit of Churchill Wit , edited by Edward Green. Summersdale Publishers, 160 pp., $5.95.

Can any new Churchill quotation book justify shelf space? After over half a century of the genre, from the large (Czarnomski) to the tiny (Jarrold’s), from the reliable to the myth-perpetuators, the market is full.

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The elegant Sutcliffe volume is not a new book, last seen in Duckworth’s “Sayings” series in 1992. A step up from that rather workaday booklet, this is an attractive hardback with dustcover and clean design, but retains the original’s topical chapter headings.

It offers the familiar selection of quotes about people from speeches and published works, largely well-sourced and accurate. There is the odd mistake in attribution: “Young men have often been ruined through owning horses.” is from My Early Life not Great Contemporaries, whilst the archetypal red herring, “jaw-jaw is better than to war-war,”—Macmillan’s line on a similar theme from Churchill, makes its unabashed appearance. To the book’s credit, some of these dubious entries are marked “Attrib.”—such as, “a sheep in sheep’s clothing” which Churchill denied saying about Attlee.

But although the quotations are mainly correct, the book adopts the strange practice of attributing easily sourced entries to secondary sources. Churchill’s famous phrase “So we had won after all…” when recounting his reaction to Pearl Harbor, is easily found in The Second World War rather than in Piers Brendon’s short biography. This is unhelpful in a book of quotations, suggesting a lazy and slapdash approach on the part of the author that sits ill with the otherwise fairly accurate attribution.

Another of these is also misquoted: Churchill’s radio broadcast on the death of King George VI and accession of Queen Elizabeth II, which is sourced from Lewis Broad’s Winston Churchill. Perhaps Broad had it wrong, but we won’t repeat the mistake. What WSC actually said was: “I, whose youth was passed in the august, unchallenged and tranquil glories of the Victorian Era, may well feel a thrill in invoking, once more, the prayer and the Anthem, ‘God Save the Queen!’”

Sutcliffe doesn’t fall for many misquotes from what I call “the Badlands of the Internet,” but he misses opportunities. The chapter on Lord Randolph Churchill has as its first entry: “A swiftly-fading shadow”— and no more—attributed to Violet Bonham-Carter. The attribution should be My Early Life, but more substantively, the quote on its own tells us nothing about either Winston or his father. It is neither a “saying” nor is it “essential.” Quoting the previous words would have told something of Winston’s filial angst; on its own it is meaningless, leaving the reader wondering whether this is a comment on Randolph’s character or career, or his son’s view of him.

It may be unfair to criticise this book for a flaw common to any quotation book, the limiting of excerpts; but the Churchill world does not lack for small quotation books, whilst there would be a market for a small book that tells you something a little different, with a little more insight, leaving the reader a little wiser.

Faults aside, this is an acceptable starter reference work, but it is difficult to raise much enthusiasm for a slim volume of quotations when, for only two or three pounds or dollars more, one can buy bigger, better, more reliable and more finely organized quotation books.

At the novelty end of the scale is Edward Green’s A Little Bit of Churchill Wit, again from a series of the same name. The size of a playing card, it is aimed squarely at the casual reader, cutting out, as Green puts it, “the boring bits.” (Or the bits deemed boring by Mr. Green.)

The danger with novelty humour books is that they tend to the sensational without the “boring bits” of attribution or accuracy, relying a lot on the Internet Badlands. It is quite a collection of false trails: “the best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter”…. “a fanatic is one who won’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.” Then there are quotes repeated by Churchill but not his words: “the young sow wild oats, the old grow sage.” Just plain wrong is “I’d put poison in your coffee….I’d drink it,” the exchange between Nancy Astor and F.E. Smith.

It is pleasing for a small book to have obscure quotes attributed, such as: “The reason for having diplomatic relations is not to confer a compliment, but to secure a convenience,” (on recognising the People’s Republic of China, 17 November 1949). And the book does well to include, “golf is like chasing a quinine pill around a cow pasture,” eschewing the false one in which golf clubs are “singularly ill-designed for the purpose.”

It is easy for those well acquainted with “The Saga” to forget the value of an easily accessible book that requires little investment in terms of time. Why not introduce those who would not pick up larger books to such phrases as: “the inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries”? Or: “A nation trying to tax itself into prosperity is like a man standing in a bucket and trying to lift himself up by the handles”? Such are the clear, cool waters of Churchillian prose, explaining eternal concepts quickly and with panache.

This is not a book for the well initiated, but if you are looking for a bite-sized stocking filler for someone in the Playstation generation, it costs less than the price of a pint of beer.

Mr. Courts is a longtime contributor to Finest Hour and, as a member of the Bladon Parochial Church Council, assists in the maintenance of the Churchill gravesite (see page 57).

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