Finest Hour 170, Fall 2015
Review by Jill Syrcadia
Daniel Smith, How to Think Like Churchill, Michael O’Mara Books, 2014, 203 pages, £12.99.
The poet Rupert Brooke, well known to Churchill and to his secretary Edward (Eddie) Marsh, famously said, “A book may be compared to your neighbour: if it be good, it cannot last too long; if bad, you cannot get rid of it too early.” Of the books seeking to advise readers on how to live their lives, Daniel Smith’s How to Think Like Churchill is one of the least painful. A freelance author of more than twenty books, Smith writes in an amiable tone, brimming with fondness and respect for his subject. This book (one in a series by Smith) includes a refreshingly complete timeline of Churchill’s life, but, unsurprisingly, falls short of teaching us how to think like Churchill.
The fine, heavy paper and the aircraft bomber silhouettes in the table of contents add a certain charm, but the pleasant, breezy tone begins to wear rapidly as Smith trivializes that which he seeks to praise by heavily relying on catch-phrases and clichés. The author generally has his facts straight but still serves up slight inaccuracies, misquoting a passage written by Churchill here or excluding important details there. In his best moments, Smith’s writing flirts with history and biography, but altogether the sentences worth reading would fit only a pamphlet.
Smith appreciates Churchill’s language as “visual, and masterfully evocative” and reminds us that he “sought to keep the standard of language high even in official documentation” (34), refusing to bend to the obscure and vague tendencies of bureaucratic communication. Ironically, the book starts to wear out its welcome as it fails to meet these very standards.
We learn from Smith that Churchill knew how to keep his “eye on the prize” (18) and was educated in “the school of hard knocks,” which prepared him for “his face-off with Hitler” (63). Churchill was there for Britain “when the chips were down” (65), did not throw in any towels, and was always “rolling with the punches” on his path to “superstar status” (66). He is a man whom “you can hardly blame…for a touch of the ‘I told you sos’” (86). His appearance “was all about promoting his personal brand”: he “learned how to style himself for maximum visual impact” (165). He was “like a fire-walker” (138) and wrote “a series of epoch-defining addresses” (122) which helped him “make the grade” (37) in the eyes of the Nobel Prize Committee. And Clementine was “his lifelong partner-in-crime” (41).
In a few cases, when Smith is discussing Churchill in his mature years, he inexplicably calls him “Winston” rather than “Churchill.” As the book goes on, typographical errors irritate the long-suffering reader, who becomes more vexed with their multiplication. The book has no index, but it does have a selected bibliography, which lists well-known sources (but not always the best editions), and two excellent websites, identified only by their URLs.
People would do well to think for themselves before they try to think like anyone else. For that, a reader would have to know more than what is in Smith’s book. The heart of the book is biography, not advice—which makes it tolerable, since it avoids, for the most part, the pitfalls of misinformation, stretched truths, or bogus quotations. But readers seeking a short biography of Churchill would do better to read Paul Addison’s more thorough and accurate work Winston Churchill (Oxford University Press, 2007).
Jill Syrcadia is a frequent reviewer of books on Churchill’s life and times.