American perspective on these events. They also tell us a great deal about the weather, for some reason. Indeed, the opening words of the prologue – ‘Christmas Eve 1941 broke cloudy and rainy in Washington DC’ – are almost an incentive to proceed no further, and the literary style (if you can call it that) of this book is horrendous. By the time you get to ‘outside a light drizzle fell on Washington’‚ on page 165, you will be screaming for parole. No doubt someone will take from this a brilliant idea for a new angle on Churchill, republishing the weather reports for key days in his life: after all, they appear to have done almost everything else. The correspondence between Churchill and Sir Archibald Sinclair is another lacuna that has been filled, inWinston and Archie: The Letters of Winston Churchill and Archibald Sinclair 1915–1960(Politico’s 530pp £30). As the editor of their letters, Ian Hunter, points out with a mixture of amazement and joy, there has never been an edition of these before. Having read them, it is easy to understand why: they are fabulously boring. Even Churchill, who was no slouch with the English language, appears to have been inspired to hitherto unknown depths of turgidity by any contact with Sinclair, whom he knew socially before the Great War, served with in the trenches, and then later included – as leader of the Liberal party – in his War Cabinet after 1940. Hunter has done a fine job in editing the letters, but they are for anoraks only. They appear to have been collected as an act of homage to Sinclair, who despite the eminence of his position as party leader is now almost entirely forgotten. The book will, therefore, make some people happy, but those people might like to consider whether or not they should get out more. As mentioned above, Sir Martin Gilbert is the acknowledged expert when it comes to Churchill studies. His eight-volume life (and its attendant, documentpacked companion volumes) will never, for scope, depth or range of scholarship, be surpassed. However, those of us who have ploughed through it will, while never disputing Gilbert’s greatness, know that he has a particular, insomnia-curing style of writing. His tactic in his biography was to pile in almost every available fact, relentlessly, with little space for interpretation or analysis; though, to be fair to him, had he been more discursive it might have taken up twice as many volumes, and become impossible and unmanageable. In his work on Churchill’s relations with America and Americans, though, he might have thought it feasible to adopt
THE POETRY BOOK SOCIETY
more the style of an essayist, and to strive to analyse this unquestionably important aspect of the great man’s life. It was not just, after all, that the alliance Churchill managed to forge with Roosevelt in 1941 ultimately helped to win the Second World War for the forces of light: Churchill was also the son of an American mother, so the special relationship was literally in his blood. Sadly, Gilbert chooses not to take the opportunity for such reflection. In traditional style, Churchill and America (Free Press 501pp £25) is little more than a relentless chronological list of every trip Churchill made to the USA, and of every important American he knew and what contact he had with them. Much of it is simply recycled from the life: none of it is at all illuminating. Gilbert’s failure of being unable to resist including even the most banal details – such as yet more fawning birthday greetings from FDR, or Ike, or any other of the top Washington cast list – just serves to emphasise the unambitious, tedious, compendious nature of this book. If all you seek is the facts, they are here in abundance. If you seek any interpretation of those facts by an expert, or any great attempt at thoughtfulness or originality, you will have come to the wrong place. The polite would describe this book as a missed opportunity: the impolite would brand it an absolute stinker. In that respect it could not be more unlike the fifth and final work in the Churchill pile, Geoffrey Best’s quite brilliant account of the relationship between Churchill and war. Best has already made an impressive contribution to Churchill studies with his bookChurchill: A Study in Greatness. This sequel, Churchill and War (Hambledon 353pp £19.99), places him in the front rank of scholars on the subject, and for my money is the most impressive and intelligent book on Churchill since Robert Rhodes James’s masterpiece A Study in Failure, published in 1970. In his approach to Churchill, Best complements a fundamental reverence for the man with a full understanding of his weaknesses and flaws. Coupled with profound scholarship, this enables him to draw a picture of rounded humanity missing from so much else written on the subject. Also, he is a superb stylist, and is never less than a pleasure to read. While broadly chronological, Best’s book is really a series of essays. As well as descriptions of the First and Second World Wars, and what they revealed about Churchill’s character through the way he coped with them as a politician, Best describes the effect on his subject’s personality of his early experiences as a soldier. He also draws out the theme of
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LITERARY REVIEW Dec 2005 / Jan 2006