Johnson on Churchill: History Sublime

On the recommendation of commentators like John Meacham, The American Spectator, and Al Mohler, I am nearly through Paul Johnson’s Churchill

The book is just 166 pages and will come as an easy read for readers who may be interested in the man but scared off by arcane discussions of British politics.  If so, this is the book for you.  Actually, it’s the book for anyone.  It’s swashbuckling history, history written with a refreshing blend of conviction and playfulness.  Indeed, historians aren’t supposed to have as much fun as Johnson does here.

This is not to diminish by any means the book’s content, however.  It’s impressively boiled-down and clear, never airy.  One can learn a great deal about the man and his almost mythical life through Churchill, even if one won’t necessarily agree with every interpretation proffered here.  It shows how honest history, not hagiography, is the best kind, something we all need to remember.

One of my favorite aspects of the work: an ideal blend of fact and anecdote detailing the many ups and the many downs of Churchill’s life, which is in itself a kind of character lesson.  Time and again the man was beaten, whether due to circumstances or to his own generous faults; time and again he got back up, and made a more glorious day for himself.  It’s easy to see why so many leaders admire him, even as we remember with sadness that he was not a practicing Christian.

I’ll leave you with a little snatch of text that shows the engaging character of the narrative.  It’s a discussion of Churchill’s beloved country home, Chartwell:

[I]t is distinctive, personal, and fascinating, an extension of the man himself in brick and mortar, beams and decorations.  It has big windows, which Churchill liked: “Light is life,” he said.  It is equipped for a writer and revolves around the library and study [my note: glorious!].  But it also has an art deco dining room, which saw countless bottles of champagne uncorked, and a dazzling succession of lunches and dinners…He excavated mountains of earth in order to create three connected lakes.  He had a mechanical digger for the task, of which he became very fond.  He treated it like his own prehistoric monster and referred to it as “he.”

Honestly, one of the main features of Churchill the text uncovers is just how fun he was.  That comes through in the quotation, and it comes through in the the text as a whole.  Churchill is history, but in Johnson’s hands, it is more than that.  It is history sublime.

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