The Literary Churchill – Author, Reader, Actor by Jonathan Rose: life imitates art?
The author poses a disturbing question: did Churchill resort to coups de théâtre in military and political matters as well as in literature – without thinking them through?
Winston Churchill, first lord of the admiralty, at the start of the start of the first World War. Photograph: Popperfoto / Getty Images
Winston Churchill preparing to ride horses while serving with the British army in India.Photograph: Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
The Literary Churchill - Author, Reader, Actor
Yale University Press
At the very beginning of the very first James Bond movie, Dr No, Sean Connery comments to his losing opponent across the chemin de fer table at the casino that he admires her courage, to which she replies, “I admire your luck”. Whatever about anything else about the man, one has to admire Winston Churchill’s luck.
Down and out politically in the 1930s, he was destined to become just one more British imperialist who would never be sculpted in bronze atop a horse, sword in hand and wearing one of those silly helmets, exhorting his men to slaughter a few more natives. In the 1937 edition in the US of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, Churchill did not rate a single entry, while Disraeli had 53 and even Mussolini had six. During that period he was on the wrong side of British public and political opinion on two key issues – the abdication of King Edward VIII and home rule for India. However, luck intervened in the person of Adolf Hitler, and Churchill is fondly and rightly remembered as a great wartime leader by the British people. Others, however, hold a somewhat different view – in roughly chronological order: Indians, Sudanese, Boers, Russians, Arabs, Kurds, Irish, Malaysians and Kenyans – just some of the people who fought the British Empire and who died on Churchill’s orders or, in some cases, at his own hand.
Jonathan Rose, professor of history at Drew University in New Jersey, has written a very different type of biography of Churchill. He has mined his letters and especially his little-known and practically forgotten early writings (especially a melodrama of his called Savrola) and compared them with the novels and plays (mostly melodramas) of the period that Churchill would have read or seen and been influenced by. But more controversially, he explains Churchill’s conduct as politician and warlord in terms of these Victorian melodramas. As a boy and young man in London, he would have read Kipling and novels such as King Solomon’s Mines and seen melodramas such as Khartoum, Human Nature and Boucicault’s The English Rose. These formed his impressions of natives under British rule – innocent or comic but potentially treacherous, and of the role of Britain, like a loving father on a civilising and Christianising mission over peoples not fit for self-government.
The author believes that the now forgotten melodrama, Savrola, written in 1899 by Churchill, holds the key to understanding why historians have long struggled with the conundrum of why Churchill, who was so wrong on so very many other questions, was so right (after some wavering) on Hitler. In the novel, Savrola, a brilliant author and public speaker (now who could that be?) uses his organisational, literary and oratorical skills to vanquish a European dictator who tortures, lies, cheats, steals, etc. The author believes that Churchill’s life, in his own mind, was a playing out of the role of the character of Savrola. And, the author contends that, with every challenge that came Churchill’s way, life invariably imitated (his) art.
Churchill, according to the author, was, whether in parliament or in the war cabinet, always looking to pull off a coup de théâtre using the element of surprise, as the navy in Savrola attempts. As early as late August 1914, less that four weeks after Britain’s entering the war (and before Turkey was even a belligerent!), Churchill first proposed invading the Dardanelles (including the Gallipoli peninsula). The generals and admirals dismissed the idea, but Churchill got his opportunity the following January, over their objections, when fighting got bogged down on the Western Front. According to the author, the assault of the navy in the novel “uncannily anticipates” Churchill’s plan for the Dardanelles. The author cites a number of other examples of Churchill’s decisions where he believes that Churchill was acting out his starring role in a melodrama, usually Savrola.
The first World War, for Churchill, couldn’t come soon enough. Lloyd George describes how all the ministers bore grim faces at the cabinet meeting on August 4th, 1914 that would declare war “when Winston dashed into the room radiant, his face bright, his manner keen . . . You could see that he was a really happy man. I wondered if this was the state of mind to be in at the opening of such a fearful conflict such as this.” Margot Asquith relates that Churchill, in conversation with her around that time, called it a “glorious, delicious war”.
By 1914 he was the Daddy Warbucks of British literary and journalistic life. Already a wealthy war profiteer from his eager involvement in Britain’s colonial wars both as a journalist and writer, he had been not content simply to write about it but sometimes donned a uniform to shoot at a few natives and then write about it.
In 1900 he “entered” politics, as they used to say, for persons of his class, winning the seat of Oldham for the Conservative Party. Having crossed the floor in 1904 to join the Liberal Party, he was appointed home secretary in 1910, then First Lord of the Admiralty the following year. He was determined to become a war profiteer politically, by seizing the first opportunity to create an aura around himself. It came with Gallipoli in 1915, and as many as 500,000 would die or be maimed or wounded or go missing in the Dardanelles campaign because of Churchill’s obsession. After the fiasco Churchill, effectively dismissed from the cabinet, outrageously called the campaign a “Greek tragedy”! For whom? For himself, of course. Life imitating art\ [his] again.
He was back in the cabinet by 1917. Churchill ordered that poison gas be used against “uncivilised tribesmen”, Kurds and Arabs, after the first World War, thereby knowing full well the consequences. He opposed home rule for India, much less independence. He hated Gandhi, calling him a fakir, a traitor and many other names. As colonial secretary in 1920 he encouraged the Black and Tans ( “gallant”, he called them) to shoot suspected IRA volunteers on the spot, which they did, and to burn down houses and creameries, which they did, and even towns, which they did to Cork and Balbriggan. He supported Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in 1931. He supported non-intervention when Italy attacked Abyssinia, on the grounds that Abyssinia was not “a fit, worthy, and equal member” of the League of Nations. In the 1930s he supported Franco in Spain privately and non-intervention by Britain in Spain publicly while Mussolini and Nazi Germany were supplying men and materiel to Franco, thus ensuring the triumph of fascism there. He did not condemn the military uprising against the elected Spanish Republic in 1936. His praise in 1940 during his “Their Finest Hour” speech for the “brave men of Barcelona” during the bombings there (What about the women – weren’t they getting bombed, too?) rings hollow considering his complete silence during the actual bombing raids in 1938. The raids killed or injured about 2,300 people.
Prof Rose glosses over the Curragh Mutiny in 1914 where Churchill and other ministers allowed 58 British officers to defy an order from the civil power for the first time since the English civil war. Nor does he mention that as home secretary in 1910 he allowed suffragettes to be force-fed. Many developed pleurisy and had early strokes. Nor that in May 1911 Churchill abstained on a vote for women’s suffrage. He called it “petticoat politics”. He was only “ambivalent”, in the author’s words, on the suffragette campaign in the sense that he wanted two referendums – “First, a referendum to the women to know if they want [the vote]; and then to the men to know if they will give it. I am quite willing to abide by the result.” Nor does the author mention that Churchill wanted machine guns used against the workers in the general strike of 1926. Nor his support for Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in 1931.
The truth remains that, leaving apart his five years as part of the fight against fascism, Churchill was one of the most evil leaders of the 20th century, exulting while sending hundreds of thousands of young men to their death or great suffering in a senseless war and defending imperialism and colonialism in Ireland and India and elsewhere at every turn.
That he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953 had more to do with his role during the second World War than with the quality, as opposed to the quantity, of his literary output. As the author says,”His history of the Second World War only briefly acknowledges the sacrifices made by the aircraft workers, the infantrymen, the housewives struggling with ration books, the bombed-out East Enders. It tells us next to nothing about their finest hour.”
His History of the English-Speaking Peoples should have been called the History of the White English-Speaking Peoples. Churchill’s My Early Life, published in 1930, was, in Prof Rose’s words, “a delicious warm bath of Imperial nostalgia, where Indians appeared only as cheerful, obedient servants”. Churchill wrote of life there “All you had to do was hand over all your uniform and clothes to the dressing boy, your ponies to the syce [sic], your monies to the butler . . . Your Cabinet was complete . . . No toil was too hard, no hours were too long, no dangers too great for their unruffled calm or their unfailing care. Princes could live no better than we.” For this the Nobel Prize for Literature!
The author has invented a melodrama of his own when he has Michael Collins “reportedly” saying, shortly before his death, “Tell Winston we could have never done without him.” Not surprisingly, this is not footnoted, as there is no evidence for it, nor does he reveal who reported it. Although this book is a literary biography, literary licence is not appropriate.
The author might have referred to Churchill’s condemnation of the handing over of the “Treaty Ports” in Ireland, Berehaven, Cobh and Lough Swilly, to the Irish Free State in 1938 by British prime minister Neville Chamberlain as a gesture of good will. Although it was the right thing to do, it was, in fact, part of Chamberlain’s general policy of appeasement, in this case not of Hitler but of the Irish people. Churchill was furious about this, not least because he had ensured during the negotiations that the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 provided for the retention by Britain of these ports, which he viewed as essential to Britain’s security, the first two of which he called, in the House of Commons, “the sentinel towers of the western approaches”. As prime minister during the war, he considered invading Ireland during the war to recover them, but decided against it.
The author poses a disturbing question: did Churchill habitually resort to coups de théâtre in military and political matters as well as in literature – without thinking them through to a workable conclusion?
In this centenary year of the obscenity that was Gallipoli and next year’s centenary of the obscenity that was the Battle of the Somme, it is horrible enough to think that the senseless carnage of 37 million dead, maimed, wounded and missing of that terrible war was due to wealthy nations fighting for more wealth and to uncaring leaders and incompetent generals. But it is far worse if Prof Rose is correct and that a large proportion of those senseless casualties from this island and many other places is due to the playing out of a melodrama in the mind of one particular individual, however universal the admiration for him for his luck may be.
Frank MacGabhann is a lawyer and commentator