Winston Churchill was always held out, I suppose, as something of a rôle model to me in childhood. His greatness ─ as orator, leader, realist, humorist ─ could only be questioned by a fool. He was essentially right, and decades ahead of his time, in appreciating the slaughterous tendencies of Stalin (Katyn Wood) and the half-century division of Europe into hostile ideological blocs.

When I visited Chartwell, Churchill’s country home in Kent, I stood at his desk, looked at the little bust of Napoleon and realised what a conventional, non-intellectual, middle-class chap he was. This put me in mind of another occasion:

Meeting Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, at Walmer Castle, near Deal in Kent, as guests of the prime minister, Herbert Asquith, and his daughters, Violet and Elizabeth, in January 1915, had “brought home to me very forcibly – very vividly – the limitations by which men of genius obtain their ascendancy over mankind. “[1]

Young Winston Churchill

But more recently, encountering Churchill in the histories of Andrew Roberts, I have wished to discover what Churchill himself had to say in his voluminous historical works. I thought I would begin with the early and readable My Early Life.[2]

Literature it is not. I had recently read Black Mischief, published only two years after My Early Life. Waugh’s tongue-in-cheek satire contains abundant close observation of East Africa and is marred only by a storyline that depends on cannibalism. Although there isn’t really a hero or much of a plot, the book reflects contemporary manners and trends with indirect verisimilitude. Churchill lurches from trope to ponderous rhetorical trope in a language that was anachronistic even when it was written. He cannot express a thought without uttering it in triplicate. With its orotund frills, flourishes and furbelows, this was already, in 1930, a museum of 18th and 19th century styles (Macaulay, Gibbon).

Nevertheless, the prose is but a vehicle for the man and Churchill is already enough of an orator to deploy massive charms of self-irony, good humour and, I think, genuine modesty. He’s not telling us the half of it. We know that Churchill suffered throughout his life from crippling depressions, but he makes sure that the undertow of this autobiography is one of smiling bonhomie.

Churchill was massively disadvantaged by his education. He seems not to have had any penchant for academic study and to have set his face against it, possibly because he was flogged so brutally at his preparatory school. He writes poignantly about his young boy’s longing for a relationship with his father, but this was never to be gratified. He was, and felt himself to be, a disappointment to Lord Randolph who, we know, was declining into syphilitic disintegration[3] at this stage and could not reciprocate his overtures.

But alas I was only a backward schoolboy

he writes (p. 39) of one occasion when his father showed more interest in his school friend companion than in himself. Lord Randolph died when Winston was 20.

From time to time thereafter, Churchill laments that he did not attend university. He felt himself to be a failure and a disappointment to others, although his mother seems to have been gloriously loyal and active in his behalf well into his adult life. In fact, from the moment he transferred from Harrow to Sandhurst, Churchill seems to have come into his own and to have flourished. But it is altogether commendable that he faces squarely and soberly these menaces to his early integrity.

Winston Churchill as a subaltern in the hussars, 1896

The other thing that comes across from these years of boyhood is how impulsive and accident-prone young Winston was. It seems impossible that anybody should slip and fall so often or incur so many dangerous injuries. Mostly this is glossed as an attractive adventurousness, but there can be little doubt that he actively courts death and destruction, especially in military situations. This, of course, is an aspect of depression.

Given these personal characteristics, it is perhaps a help to Winston that he is not given to taking any principles too seriously. He does not adhere to his own side politically, nor eschew the other. He knows he is attractive to both and is not inclined to ponder for long any issues of fundamental importance. His genius is, rather, for friendship and camaraderie. His affectionate nature glows forth like sunbeams in a dawn garden. Though his marriage lies in the future and is alluded to only in the last sentence of the book, one knows that his love for his wife will eventually prove both painfully committed and all-encompassing.

Something of this is redolent in my favourite story in the book, which concerns Churchill’s beloved friend, Louis Botha:

In 1906 when, as newly-elected first Prime Minister of the Transvaal, he came to London to attend the Imperial Conference, a great banquet was given to the Dominion Prime Ministers in Westminster Hall. I was Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, and as the Boer leader, so recently our enemy, passed up the hall to his place, he paused to say to my mother, who stood by my side, “He and I have been out in all weathers.” It was surely true.[4]

So, strange as it may seem in an era of identity politics, if I’ve never had the slightest difficulty about knowing myself to be English, this has to do in part with one generous, expansive and large-hearted Englishman, who was thirty-four when my father was born and who died when I was seventeen.

[1] Quoted in Leon Edel, Henry James: A Life. London: Collins, 1987, p. 699.

[2] Churchill, WS. My Early Life. London: Eland, 2000.

[3] A left-brain tumour is another possibility. Lady Churchill seems to have remained healthy, like their two sons. Richard Holmes, In The Footsteps Of Churchill. London: BBC Books, 2005, p. 38.

[4] p. 251.