Book review – Churchill: Walking with Destiny, by Andrew Roberts

Seven lessons from a superb new biography of a remarkable man.

3 comments

Every so often, history throws up a wonder.

A Shakespeare.  A Rembrandt. A Mozart.  A wonderful person who manages in one brief lifetime, to achieve so much more than any contemporary, that you hold your breath at what they have done.

Churchill had several such people in his mind.  His greatest hero was Napoleon, but close second was his astonishing ancestor, Marlborough.

And you don’t need a new book to make the case that Winston Spencer-Churchill was one such himself. Even if he had never stood for parliament, he would have been one of the most productive writers we have ever seen.  Even if he had never been in government, he would been one of the longest serving members of parliament in the twentieth century. Even if he had died in the 1920’s, he would go down as a landmark contributor to victory in the first world war, on the land, on the sea and in the air.

Available from Amazon here

He lived an extraordinary life, and Andrew Roberts has done a brilliant work in summarising it. Repeatedly, you’re awestruck at how much the man experienced and lived through – and then you discover that he was doing something else as well.

He was a wonder. When I was off sick a while back, I spent a morning watching a replay of his funeral, as it had been broadcast. 

It’s not just that the man was honoured alongside the likes of Wellington and Nelson. Rightfully so.  Its that if he hadn’t said and done what he did, in the 1930s and 1940s, well, not to overstate it. the entire course of western civilisation would have changed, terminally. There are not many individuals in global history who stand at the hinge of history like that.

Here’s something weird.  He had a sense he would do that.  If you don’t know them, guess when he said these words:

“I can see vast changes coming over a now peaceful world; great upheavals, terrible struggles; wars such as one cannot imagine; and I tell you London will be in danger—London will be attacked and I shall be very prominent in the defence of London. I see further ahead than you do. I see into the future. This country will be subjected somehow, to a tremendous invasion, by what means I do not know, but I tell you I shall be in command of the defences of London and I shall save London and England from disaster.…dreams of the future are blurred but the main objective is clear. I repeat—London will be in danger and in the high position I shall occupy, it will fall to me to save the Capital and save the Empire.”

You can probably hear the growling voice and the familiar cadences and falls.  But to quote Roberts, ‘Churchill said those words not in 1931, 1921, 1911 or even 1901, but in 1891, when he was only sixteen years old’ (p975).

A wonder.

And still controversial. Readers will be uneasy about a number of his views and actions which have not stood the test of time well.

Do we need a new biography? I guess the official reason is that Roberts has had access to more of the papers than even Sir Martin Gilbert saw, and there is space for some fine tuning. Roberts is astute on Churchill’s need to win the approval of his dead father, and the dysfunctional nature of his relationships with most of his own children.

But the best reasoner this book is that Roberts can write like a dream, and he had superb form as a wonderful  biographer of Napoleon, which I raved about here. 

This can’t be a review.  I don’t have the knowledge necessary, and it would be impossible to do this book justice, any more than he would say that the book does its subject justice.

But I have come away, humble and struck.  In awe of remarkable genius (as I was with Napoleon), and similarly challenged by the way Churchill lived to focus himself.

Here are seven random observations

1.He was a voracious reader

By training and experience, Churchill was a writer of history, and a journalist.  To do those two jobs well, he had to restlessly intuitive about the present, but also deeply informed about the past.  And so he read, read, and read more.

He had a freakishly retentive memory, of course, and he could pull out names, dates, quotations even decades after he had read them.  In multiple languages. But in order to come out, they had to have been put in, in the first place.

So with us, pastors.  We need to read, read, read.  Now mark this carefully, because it’s the obvious objection.  You don’t want me to spend all my time in the study, do you?  What about the rest of being a minister?  What about the danger of being a selfish bookworm?

And here’s the answer: WSC did all that, AND achieved everything else as well.  No-one ever accused him of being a passive and ineffective bookworm.  But bookworm he was.

2.He was endlessly productive

He had to be, of course.  Although he inherited one of the finest surnames in the country, that was pretty much all he did inherit.  He had to work, to eat, live, marry and have a family.  And his work, constantly, was writing.

Roberts lists 36 books published in his lifetime, but some of the major titles (on Marlborough, The First World War, The Second World War, The History of the English Speaking People) were serious multi-volume productions. There were many thousands of newspaper articles.

And what words!  No wonder he won the Nobel prize for literature.

So, let’s admit the freaky.  He had freaky powers of concentration, and energy.  He was intellectually restless and curious, across as wide range of activity.

Nevertheless.

If you or I mustered 1% of his energy and focus, what might we produce and achieve between us?

And if you’re reaching for the excuse that you’re not that well educated, remember that he was a bit of a dunce at school, and never went to university.  These were deliberately self-taught, hard won skills.

3.He was unafraid of being confidently right

Famously, of course it was his speaking on the rearmament of Germany and the rise of Nazism that won him that crown; but he was equally forthright on the dangers of communism.

In detail, as Roberts shows, he exuded that confidence on a daily basis, and won through on numerous occasions.  The tank, the convoys, the RAF, the navy, focussing on Normandy.  Those are just the headlines.

Could he be wrong?  Of course. Gallipoli is the most notorious, but he misread Japan and lost Singapore, and made numerous mistakes of execution in WW2 that were infuriating to his team.  As Roberts points out, though, his team confronted, challenged, defeated and frustrated many of his wilder ideas, and he lost with good grace – and it is hard to imagine that happening in Berlin.

And he knew he could be wrong, and publicly admitted to changing his mind on numerous occasions.

So, let’s learn.  We are to be humble, servant leaders (arguably, in a secular way, WSC was that too); we are not to be confident in our gifts or words or powers.  We know that.

But we are heralds.  We declare, announce, and are to sound a certain trumpet.

How’s that sermon coming along?

4.He was unafraid of being the only one who was right

And here’s the rub – many times when he was right, he was alone, and unpopular for being so.  No-one in the 1920s wanted to hear his criticism of the Treaty of Versailles.  No-one wanted his detailed, informed recounting of the state of the Nazi war production, and the gap across the channel.  No-one wanted to hear that in the new age of air warfare, the Channel was no longer the impregnable barrier it had been before.  No-one wanted to hear that Chamberlain had been – at best – deceived.  

And yet, he spoke, and wrote, endlessly until – finally – he was proved right.

If I’m right, and unless God sends revival, we are seeing the end of the Christian hegemony in the UK, for the foreseeable future.  I fear that the signs of life in the churches, and there are many, will be throttled by the legal enforcement of anti Christian values, because we shall be tackled before we are ready.  

Maybe you recognise that pattern too, and – without being alarmist or tabloid – discern shifts, and foresee cracks.

So what shall we do?  Shall we speak?  And if I weaken and remain silent, will you be wiling to be the last one?

5.He was a collaborator

Most obviously with Stalin, but there were many others, less viciously dictatorial but who needed to be kept on side. He would cheerfully have ditched de Gaulle. He thought Eden, his successor, wasn’t up to the job. He reached across the carpet in the Commons to make friends. (famously, he walked across it too, and made enemies, but that’s a different story).

And he remained willing to work with Stalin even when it became clear that the man was a bloodthirsty tyrant, because of the more pressing need of defeating Hitler.

So, what’s the lesson?

We live at a time of hard, sharp edges.  The internet forgets nothing, and forgives nothing.  It’s making us partisan.

Roll back the clock.  What was Schaeffer’s teaching on how to win in our culture? Co-belligerence.  It’s how he was willing to be thought to compromise, in order to have a chance to win the battle of ideas.

In normal times, we have the luxury of laying out our position, with nuance, clarity and distance.  WSC shows us that if we were to go into more dangerous times, we might need to hold hands with some unlikely people, in order to survive. Collaboration without compromise.

6.He was persuadable

We’ve spotted that Churchill could be wrong and stubborn – more to the point he knew it was always a possibility, and was constantly open to better ideas – it’s just that they did have to be better.  He was always learning, and always curious.

So, pastor – when did you last read a book you knew you would disagree with?  When did you last allow someone to change your mind?

7.He rested

The man was a workhorse, of course, and I really, really don’t commend his lifestyle. The fuel of brandy, champagne and cigars in formidable quantities is not recommended for ministry.  Or health, frankly.

But, every day, Churchill rested.  He napped.  He took time to paint, or watch butterflies, or build walls, when he could.

I wonder if one reason why we are less productive than we could be, is that we muddle in the middle: not really working 100%, and not really resting 100%.  Perhaps it might be fun and effective to live in rhythm, but at the extremes.

There’s so much more we could learn from this impossible, brilliant, frustrating, hilarious, selfish genius of a man. Buy the book.

But, rather than wondering at his staggering capacity, perhaps we should wonder more at our lack of energy and productiveness.

3 comments on “Book review – Churchill: Walking with Destiny, by Andrew Roberts”

  1. Cracking analysis Chris. You’ve made me want to buy it….after the other thirty books on my list! Thank you!

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