Sunday, December 19, 2010

JOHN CHUCKMAN REVIEW OF ROY JENKINS' CHURCHILL

This is a biography by a writer who admires Churchill, yet it notes many critical points in Churchill’s career. It is also a biography by a politician-scholar, a man who always has a deep grasp of his subject (he has written about twenty books, many of them notable biographies) and of the inside details of political life, something absent in some biographers, particularly William Manchester’s.

Both Jenkins and Manchester admire Churchill, and I always favour biographers who have a positive view of their subjects. Yet differences between these two substantial biographies are remarkable. In the real world, especially in a real world arena like politics, admiring someone does not exclude criticisms and disagreements, nor should it.

Roy Jenkins’ work may be viewed as almost a required antidote to William Manchester’s romantic epic. There is a realism and balance in the Roy Jenkins’ book missing from Manchester’s. Of course, one pays a price for this pull back to realism: also missing is the vibrant sense of adventure, the Boy’s Own galloping story pace, communicated by Manchester, especially in his first volume.

Here are just a few topics where Jenkins provides a counterbalancing view to Manchester. Jenkins spends little time on Churchill’s childhood, a topic which engrosses Manchester and which heavily colors what follows. Jenkins agrees that Churchill’s mother was a sexual adventuress, but does not accept her sleeping with the Prince of Wales and future king.

Churchill’s beloved wife, Clementine, is a more forceful figure in the Jenkins’ book, including her substantial and lengthy argument with her husband over his relationship with Prime Minister Asquith: she was for a far more accommodating face than Churchill was ready to show.

Lullenden, the forerunner to Chartwell as Churchill’s country estate, was hardly a “cottage” as Manchester calls it. Indeed, Churchill’s constant need for luxuries of every description is better covered by Jenkins, although Manchester does give us the silk under-shorts Churchill insisted on wearing.

Jenkins also provides a better assessment of Churchill’s manner towards Parliament and colleagues, his rather high-hat leaving so often after he had himself spoken, not staying to hear responses.

One of Churchill’s rather dark aspects, his insistent demand for India to retain her colonial status in the 1930s, hardly smacks of heroic democratic values. His views on India at the time also alienated many in his party.

Along a related line is Jenkins’ revelation of Churchill’s rather intense admiration of Stalin, even though he always opposed the Soviet system. Churchill always regarded himself as a superior man, and he responded to those who had similar, tested qualities.

Of course, Churchill was such an extraordinary character, he well deserves many quality biographies, and it has always been my view that you cannot begin to understand a major historical figure without reading several. The truth, as it were, cannot be captured by one observer, much as all the characteristics of an atomic particle cannot be stated by an observer. Truth about people and their motivations and decisions can never be fixed, only suggested or approximated, and we do that best by several attempts.

This book will be of interest to Churchill admirers, students of British and European history, students of politics, students of human psychology, and lovers of good biography.

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