Commentary Magazine


Winston S. Churchill: Volume I, Youth 1874-1900, by Randolph S. Churchill

Looking Backward

Winston S. Churchill: Volume I. Youth 1874-1900.
by Randolph S. Churchill.
Houghton Mifflin. 656 pp. $10.00.

“The time for debunking Winston Churchill is not yet, and when it comes it will not succeed as easily as with other great personages.” So said his old enemy Kingsley Martin late in 1964 from his accustomed pulpit, The New Statesman. A few months later, England buried this magnificent remnant of its past in a ceremony he himself had designed down to the last detail. One of my most vivid memories of that funereal January week is standing against the ice-cold stones of Westminster Hall, where Churchill had decreed he was to lie in state. Thousands of feet shuffled across the long carpets in mute music. Their owners passed silently by the coffin where four soldiers, adorned like the young Churchill in the parti-colored uniforms of a now-vanished empire, stood with heads bowed like tired birds of paradise.

One of the ladies waiting outside to pay final homage declared in a plummy accent: “He was all we had then.” From the viewpoint of England’s middle classes, no doubt she spoke a more profound truth than she realized. Even now it is easy to find people lower down the social ladder who were less inspired by Churchill than popular mystique would indicate. I have met men in South Wales who proudly recall switching off the radio in disgust when Churchill broadcasted; they used to listen to J. B. Priestley. I have never seen the case made in print, but there is a good argument, however blasphemous, for claiming that as much was done to knit the British nation together by Priestley’s Saturday-night broadcasts over the BBC which painted the socialist paradise after victory in brilliant colors. Few politicians can have made a more notorious misjudgment of an electorate’s temper than Churchill did with this statement in 1945: “No socialist government . . . could afford to allow free or violently worded expressions of discontent. They would have to fall back on some sort of Gestapo.”

This giant of a man had faults as memorable as his triumphs were historic. But his personality still casts such a brilliant light that history cannot yet see into the shadows of Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill, K.G., O.M.; grandson of the 7th Duke of Marlborough and the parvenu American financier Leonard Jerome; political maverick for two generations, and, in the uncontradicted judgment of even the radical historian A. J. P. Taylor, “the savior of his country.” Like that of most heroes, his life was endowed with the quality of myth—his Gargantuan premature birth, the call of destiny he professed always to hear, and his death, like King David’s, “in a good old age, full of days, riches and honor.”

Rather than a biography, the story is more like a chronicle, and that is how his son has chosen to present it, largely through the hero’s own letters and writings, and those of his contemporaries. The theme of the five volumes describes the method: “He shall be his own biographer.” The first of them states its robust theme of youth like an 18th-century picaresque novel: “How an under-esteemed boy of genius, of noble character and daring spirit, seized and created a hundred opportunities to rise in the world and add glory by his own merit and audacity to a name already famous.” Anachronistic and posturing as this may sound today, it was then entirely possible for anyone who could trace his ancestry back beyond the soldier Jack Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough. It is no accident that this volume has appendixed seven genealogical tables. Grenfell, Beresford, Cowdray, Chelmsford, Stanley, and of course Churchill are among the names emblazoned thereon. They were passports to power. As the author explains of young Winston’s first trip to New York, “All doors were open.” It thus seems curious for him to write later that his hero “had to fight every inch of his road.” Given the excesses of Churchill’s character, one can see why that road seems so rocky, but in another sense it was opened wide by birth.

Churchill’s childhood was a struggle to be himself and stay alive. There were recurring illnesses, including a bout of pneumonia that almost killed him. His parents shipped him off to boarding school and he was miserable. (There is one noisomely vivid description of a boy who, as Winston delicately put it in a letter, “let fly” while being birched on his bare bottom; the sadistic headmaster kept whacking away and cleaned up the filth afterward.) Decisions about his future were made without seriously consulting him. His father deemed him too stupid for the bar. After watching him play with toy soldiers, he decided it was the Army for Winston. He failed his first exam for Sandhurst, so Lord Randolph Churchill—the title is that of a duke’s younger son—thought about the next rung down the social ladder: business. Set him up by himself? Never. Lord Randolph thought he “could get him something very good” in the great banking houses of Rothschild or Cassel, whose proprietors he knew on a first-name basis. But it was more than a year before Lord Randolph could manage the half-hour train ride from London to see his son at Harrow. In one letter after another, Winston pleaded with his parents to visit him, to attend Speech Day, to allow him to come to them during the school holidays. It fell to his nanny, Mrs. Everest (!), to explain to Winston at 16: “Well my dearest the reason Mama cannot have you at home is that the house is full of visitors for the race week. . . .”

One of his few contacts with the rigors of Victorian working-class life occurred when the family tried to dump Mrs. Everest for reasons of economy. He wrote from Sandhurst (he had finally passed the exam with the help of a crammer) protesting bitterly against this shabby treatment: “She is in my mind associated more than anything else with home.” As for the beautiful Lady Randolph herself, he wrote in his autobiography. “My mother always seemed to me a fairy princess: a radiant being possessed of limitless riches and power. She shone for me like the Evening Star. I loved her dearly—but at a distance.”

Held so tightly in a child’s world, cut off from his dashing and fashionable parents, and then immured in the constrained and hierarchic life of the army from which he soon broke free—nothing could be more finely calculated to induce a man to spend his life chasing that elusive and romantic world which seemed so distant and thrilling. It comes as no shock to read a letter he wrote his mother from India, using that same romantic turn of phrase: “I have faith in my star—that is that I am intended to do something in the world.”

Even then, Churchill clearly saw his star as the prime ministership of England, a prize denied Lord Randolph by political misjudgment and then mental illness. By lineage, upbringing, and training it was a prize he and only a few others could reasonably expect. But his positively Byronic tendency to romanticize himself and events, now so rare in men of action, almost prevented him from grasping that star. It was eventually to prove his most serious fault as a peacetime politician, as well as his strongest redoubt in defending that kingdom of grand illusions England so heroically became under his wartime leadership.

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War was his first love, for reasons of ambition. He had no estate, and he aimed to “beat my sword into an iron despatch box.” His widowed mother’s contacts helped him gain postings as an officer or a war correspondent in India, Cuba, the Sudan, and South Africa. He won a reputation (fully deserved) for being pushing and ambitious. Describing an act of bravado on the Northwest Frontier, he wrote his mother: “I rode on my gray pony all along the skirmish lines where everyone else was lying down for cover. Foolish perhaps but I play for high stakes and given an audience there is no act too daring or noble. Without the gallery things are different.” Small wonder that he complained his dispatches to the Daily Telegraph did not carry his byline. “Galling anonymity,” comments his son succinctly.

How he got to the Northwest Frontier is worth reading. The following passage comes from Churchill’s own autobiography and is quoted by his son:

I was on the lawns at Goodwood [racetrack] in lovely weather and winning my money, when the revolt of the Pathan tribesmen on the Indian Frontier began. I read in the newspapers that a Field Force of three brigades had been formed, and that at the head of it stood Sir Bindon Blood. Forthwith I telegraphed reminding him of his promise and took the train for Brindisi to catch the Indian Mail.

No, this is not a boy’s adventure story, although it is certainly romance. Sir Bindon Blood was indeed a real person and had promised Churchill a place in his expedition. Randolph Churchill wisely has included a picture of this Victorian general in full uniform and fur-trimmed campaign coat just to prove his existence. Sir Bindon retired as a general in 1907, and surely his like will never be seen again.

By the time Churchill was twenty-five, when this volume closes most appropriately with the death of Queen Victoria, there were few people of consequence he couldn’t and didn’t meet, from the new King Edward VII on down. He had been elected to parliament on the strength of his family connections and his famous escape from Boer captivity. He had made ten thousand pounds writing and lecturing. When it came to social position, the Duke of Marlborough snubbed Grand Duke Michael of Russia to dine with his cousin, Mr. Winston Churchill. It is, in fact, the only snub recorded in the book.

But there is a curious lacuna in this story of one of England’s great literary stylists. It was the age of James and Wilde, Shaw and Wells, but the only mention received by any of them in this book is accidental: Churchill happened to have been falsely accused of “gross immorality of the Oscar Wilde type” and collected damages. So much for literature, so much for modern thought. When he arrived in India, he found he still had time on his hands after collecting butterflies, growing roses, and playing polo. He began reading the great Whig classics—Gibbon, Macaulay, and the Annual Register of the British government, which he annotated with such remarks: “Female suffrage—it is contrary to natural law and the practice of civilized states.” As his son says, he became his own university. But he learned little from his own observations. “You dare not walk or the natives spit at Europeans,” writes the man who held out against Indian independence to the last. In domestic policy, he stands for homes for the workers, tax relief for earned income, and education of the poor—but only up to a point. He recommends: “Reading and writing, the knowledge of sufficient arithmetic to enable the individual to keep his accounts; the singing of patriotic songs and a gymnastic course is all he may expect.” His major contribution to social policy as a member of the great Liberal reform administration was the opening of unemployment offices. Such notions are not based on any radical rethinking, but on an old-fashioned Whig paternalism, the essence of which is that the lower classes should be cared for in their modest needs, and then stand aside to allow the upper classes to play their roles on stage. In case this seems a harsh judgment, listen to the argument for capital punishment he advanced in old age: Not only was it a deterrent, but it ought to be carried out in public so a murderer or a traitor might have the opportunity, as did the first Marquess of Montrose, to address the crowd!

By the great span of his life, Churchill was not only a survivor but an original—not in thought but in personality. He recognized early on that success in politics was “not so much a question of brains as of character and originality.” Of these he was perhaps the century’s supreme exemplar. Already as a youth his vitality and panache were too much for his contemporaries, and they distrusted him for it. The feeling was mutual: he decried the “solid remnant of the Conservative Party—peers, property, publicans, parsons, and turnips.” He used the Royal Navy as a stepping-stone to power in two world wars (just as he used the Conservative party when it suited him), yet he saw through the navy’s stupidity just as readily: when a wartime admiral protested that some Churchillian scheme would do violence to the navy’s traditions, he is said to have replied: “The traditions of the Navy! What are they? Rum, sodomy, the lash.” But no matter how clearly he saw through these John Bull traditions, he never turned his back on them. The only explanation for this curious contradiction is that whenever this Whig atavar did see through them, he looked in the wrong direction—backward.

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Had he died at sixty-five, before terrible events conspired to put his star within his grasp, he would have been recorded as an eccentric footnote in English political history, and that for his grandiose and sometimes egregious opinions and actions. He ordered out the fleet before the cabinet met to declare World War I, and during it he conceived the disastrous Antwerp and Gallipoli operations. He helped provoke the 1926 General Strike by insisting on a return to the gold standard as an illusory symbol of prewar financial power. When the strike came, he edited a government propaganda sheet that denounced the British working-man as “the enemy.” He resigned from the Conservative shadow cabinet in 1930 because of proposed concessions to the Indian independence movement and formed a group to defend the Indian princes as representatives of “warrior races.” (Harold Nicolson’s diary sums up the feeling of the time by describing Churchill as a has-been, “A great round white face like a blister. Incredibly aged.”)

When he argued for rearmament in the 1930’s, he was distrusted as a warmonger crying wolf. Even after his hour of triumph, when Europe lay at his and England’s feet, he conceived the idea of a United Europe but lacked the dynamism to put it through when he returned to power. Instead, he drew another of his romantic Grand Designs: a foreign policy of three circles of interest—Europe, the United States, and the Commonwealth—which were to intersect at London. These circles now intersect at London like leg irons.

Such decline is nowhere foreshadowed in this ebullient chronicle. One is forced by the vigor and freshness of the central character to take him and his book on their own terms. It is an old-fashioned book, full of the author’s genuine admiration and filial piety for his father, and invoking old-fashioned values and concepts such as courage, loyalty, and destiny. But there is barely a hint of the social, economic, and cultural background of the fading lights and shadows of Victoriana. As the historian J. H. Plumb wrote of Churchill’s own biography of Marlborough: “So long as Churchill is dealing with the question of ‘how’ rather than ‘why’, he reaches the highest class of historical writing. And, of course, the lives of men of action are more concerned with ‘how’ than ‘why’. . . . There is a total absence of the deeper motivations at work in these characters or those with whom they worked or against whom, they struggled. Churchill’s characters are pre-Freudian, as his history is pre-Marxian.”

So was Churchill himself, and so is his son’s book. Randolph Churchill, as eccentric and rumbustious a character as his father, has adopted his father’s methods without his father’s vision to animate them. He has assembled three-quarters of a century of files, some not even opened. There is a vast amount of new material, and Churchill fils is quite properly not sharing it until his project is complete. He makes it quite clear on the opening page that he expects to make a handy sum, invoking his father’s blessing from a 1932 telegram: “Hope some day you will make thousands instead of hundreds out of my archives.” He will. Half a dozen scholars work on the organization of the files, but the final selection is made by the author. He has kept the narrative of this first volume flowing with a pace worthy of the first-class popular journalist he is. As such, he makes few judgments, leaving them to later historians. They will find these books, with their companion volumes of documents, a mine of information for assessing one of the authentic heroes of the age. The time for that task is fast approaching, as England takes a last look back and heaves herself into the future.

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