Friday, 6 July 2012

Churchill Style: Not so Much the Accoutrements as the Attitude

In a strategy that he would pursue throughout his life in all manner of purchases, Churchill allowed many of the establishments to believe they were his sole, preferred source of supply, thereby stretching his credit with each to the maximum.
-- Churchill Style, p. 68

...[I was offered] £2,000 if I went teetotal in 1936. I refused, as I think life would not be worth living... 
-- Winston Churchill writing to his wife Clementine about a bet offered to him by the press baron Lord Rothermere, which he turned down, p. 142

[ Churchill Style: The Art of Being Winston Churchill

I recently picked up the delightful little and well-illustrated (many from the Churchill family archives) volume Churchill Style: The Art of Being Winston Churchill by Barry Singer (foreword by Michael Korda). With chronological chapters from childhood to knighthood it is peppered with the paraphernalia of Churchill's life: automobiles, cigars, copious book orders from Hatchard's, Saville Row tailoring and, of course, in its own special category: "imbibing." It is a story in some ways typical of his class and his era: the young and somewhat impecunious upper-class man makes his way through life. In Churchill's case with a surfeit of confidence, imagination, and the necessary wiles to realize his goals (he soon became known as a "medal hunter" and a "self-advertiser") and to procure just enough resources to sustain his luxurious lifestyle.

It is interspersed with an (admittedly very friendly) narrative of Churchill's struggles and glories as a servant of the nation. If fondly remembered in the public imagination, Churchill is a rather more problematic figure for professional historians who have pointed to, at the very least: Gallipoli, his dogged imperialism, high-handedness, blunders during the war, hyperbolic language used to described his moderate Labour opponents (Stalinists, Gestapo-inclined, etc.).

To me, Churchill is simply a very human character. As Michael Korda writes (detailing his domestic eccentricities), "it is hard to dislike such a man." Larger-than-life, and yet a bundle of faults, inconsistencies, and divided motives. I have written, in part, about him before. One post about his patronage of "The Other Club" with his great friend and colleague F.E. Smith, demonstrates his rebellious and eccentric streak. In another post about politicians of yesteryear who would be deemed "unelectable" today, I proffer the argument that the qualities of such individuals made them especially useful when the orderly, business-like, boring and predictable simply did not suffice. Churchill's "bulldog" qualities, which pushed him through life as an adventurer, writer, soldier, and politician with boundless ambition, were precisely what wartime Britain required.

One of the more poignant sections of the book highlights Churchill's childhood and longing to win the approval of his statesman father, Randolph Churchill, and to be close to his loving but distant mother, the American heiress Jennie Jerome. The book recounts a letter from his father following Winston's entrance into the cavalry at Sandhurst because his exam results did not qualify him for the more prestigious infantry [p. 31]:

"I am rather surprised at your tone of exultation over your inclusion in the Sandhurst list," he wrote to his son in a letter so scathing it has gone down as a landmark in Churchill's biography and must have occupied a singular, tormenting place in his psyche. Lord Randolph castigated Winston for missing the infantry. "In that failure is demonstrated beyond refutation your slovenly happy-go-lucky harum-scarum style of work," he insisted. "...With all the advantages you had, with all the abilities which you foolishly think yourself to possess... with all the efforts that have been made to make your life easy... this is the grand result that you come up among the 2nd rate and 3rd rate class..."
"I shall not write again on these matters," concluded Lord Randolph, "and you need not trouble to write any answer to this part of my letter, because I no longer attach the slightest weight to anything you may say about your own acquirements and exploits."
 One might well say that Winston Churchill responded to this letter by spending the rest of his life accruing "acquirements and exploits" and then having his own say about them all.

The Idle Historian might add that the workings of human character are subtle and mysterious. There were undoubtedly dozens, even hundreds, of more studious and industrious cadets at Sandhurst with Winston Churchill -- those who dotted all the "i"s, crossed all the "t"s, and served as honourable soldiers, politicians and what have you. But one is glad that there is room in the world for the happy-go-lucky and the non-conformists. And it is equally to the good that sometimes the happy-go-lucky prove their unique worth.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 

1 comment:

The Ancient said...

If you haven't already seen it, you might enjoy this --

The best part, of course, is how he scrupulously avoids saying a word about his role in all these events.

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