Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Not in the Calendar of Saints

Not by a long shot. But it is his birthday: Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill's, I mean. He seems to have his own website here with his own domain name and everything. (And after a short review, I wouldn't blame you if you thought I got it wrong about him not being in the Kalendarium Sanctorum. But I've checked. He isn't there.)

In high school I received his multi-volume history The Second World War as a Christmas present (I'd asked for it, believe it or not) and devoured it. Well, perhaps, slogged through it might be more descriptive. In any event, WWII was the most significant event in my parent's lives and I was fascinated with the topic. In Churchill's book I meant to get the complete facts right from the source. A recent review says I might have saved my time for something a little racier.

In fact, as Reynolds makes abundantly clear, Churchill’s The Second World War is not history at all and much of it was not even written by Churchill himself. As often as not the reviewers who lauded the superb Churchillian prose of the book were unknowingly complementing the brilliant Sir William Deakin or the more mundane General Pownall and Commodore Allen or the even more mundane Air Chief Marshal Garrod and, most surprisingly of all, the cabinet secretary, Sir Norman Brook. Churchill selected the documents, choosing those that suited his line, omitting those that did not and sometimes altering others to improve their message. He dictated a series of recollections of varying accuracy and then left it to his assistants to join up these products with narrative prose. The resulting patchwork quilt was then chopped and changed, often at breathtaking speed to meet publishing deadlines, to take account of the surrounding circumstances in which Churchill, as leader of the opposition and then as prime minister again, operated. Criticism of Eisenhower the general was toned down so as not to offend Eisenhower the president. Stalin was shown always to have kept his word because Churchill was hoping to convene a postwar summit meeting with him.

There was still nobody like him. Who else could've bluffed Hitler for two and half years, turned the Dunkirk debacle into a PR triumph, and manouevered so many things his way in the desperate circumstances of the early years of the second world war? Happy birthday, Sir Winston, wherever you are.