Lord Longford re-evaluates Winston Churchill's literary gift
Thoughts and Adventures and Great Contemporaries both by Winston Spencer Churchill (Leo Cooper. £16.95 each).
Frank Longford THOUGHTS and Adventures was first published in 1932. Great Contemporaries in 1937. The former was based on articles published between 1924 and 1931, the latter on those published between 1928 and 1936.
Churchill is often described as the greatest Englishman of the century. Some would put him higher still. But he has always had plenty of critics.
Lord Moran, his controversial medical biographer, once said to me, "Winston had only two supreme gifts — a determination to succeed and a marvellous command of the English language". But "Winston — no judgement".
His literary eminence is open to argument. No one was more severe on modern prose writing than Evelyn Waugh. He was particularly quick to identify cliches. I once asked him whether he found a good many in Churchill's writing, expecting the answer yes. He replied: "I always think that he is about to perpetrate a cliche but he saves himself at the last minute with something original".
Most of us would acct-pt Churchill as the most brilliant phrase-maker of the 20th century, with Oscar Wilde his only rival in the 19th. In conversation he seldom failed to produce, if slowly, a memorable image. On one occasion "Monty" said to him about myself, "Don't you think he wants his hair-cutting. Prime Minister," (ignoring the baldness on top?) Churchill spelt this out deliberately: "Your head, my dear Field Marshal, requires compression under a military cap. He needs his for speaking in the House of Lords".
Many happy examples of phrases or whole passages can be found here, though in the essay on Curzon I miss one of my favourites. "He soused him with sonorous correctitudes". Some are brief. Of Rosebery: "He would not stoop; he did not conquer." Of Clemenceau: "He had no hope beyond the grave: he mocked at death. Happy nation which when its fate quivers in the balance can find such a tyrant and such a champion".
His description of Mr Scrymgeour, the prohibitionist, who eventually defeated him at Dundee, shows Churchill at his most generous: "I felt no bitterness towards him. 1 knew that his movement represented a strong current of moral and social revival. He was surrounded and supported by a devoted band of followers of the christian socialist type. He lived a life of extreme self-denial. When it came to his duty to move the customary vote of thanks to the returning officer Mr Scrymgeour moved it himself to almighty God".
In an essay on Roosevelt new to me we find this marvellous caricature of the typical millionaire whose value to society he has just been praising: "This money-gathering, creditproducing animal can not only walk — he can run. And when frightened he can fly. If his wings are clipped, he can dive or crawl. When in the end he is hunted down, what is left but a very ordinary individual apologising volubly for his mistakes, and particularly for not having been able to get away?"
It is impossible to discover in these brilliant essays any particular set of moral values, though Churchill mentions courage as the supreme virtue. The piece on Joseph Chamberlain begins: "One mark of a great man is the power of making lasting impressions upon people he meets. Another is so to have handled matters during his life that the course of after-events is continuously affected by what he did. . ." It would be difficult to improve on that definition once one excluded the idea of goodness as irrelevant to greatness.
Churchill admires almost all the subjects of his essays except Trotsky: "The dull, squalid figures of the Russian Bolsheviks are not redeemed in interest even by the magnitude of their crimes."
In an essay first published in 1935, but not in book form here until 1937, he was surprisingly lenient to Hitler. He warned the public about the limitless perils involved in German rearmament possibility that his words will appeal to Hitler.
"Those who have met Herr Hitler face to face in public business or on social terms have found a highly competent, cool, well-informed functionary with an agreeable manner, a disarming smile, and few have been unaffected by a subtle personal magnetism.. . . The world lives on hopes that the worst is over, and that we may yet live to see Hitler a gentler figure in a happier age."
Strange though it may sound, it seems to me that he always had a feeling of respect or even a soft spot for the Germans. When I was minister for the British zone in Germany in 1947 he lumbered across to me at a Buckingham Palace garden party and told me (slowly as usual) "I am glad that there is one mind suffering for the miseries of Germany. One English mind" For once in my life I did not proclaim my Irishness.
We must all be grateful to the distinguished publisher Leo Cooper for offering these books to a younger generation and for giving us senior citizens who have lost their copies the chance to acquire new ones.