The Education of Winston Churchill A presentation at the International Churchill Conference

What I found, very much to my surprise, was that this nighttime reading wasn’t altogether a diversion from what I was thinking about in the day, because Churchill was exploring the same problems that I had been studying in these eminent philosophers—the same questions that had divided the ancient philosophers from the modern ones. In the essays at the end of Thoughts and Adventures were questions of whether nature or Providence—or whatever it is out there in the world that we don’t choose, that we simply have to accept—whether that all was a friend to man, so that the fundamental human posture here on earth would be one of gratitude; or whether nature was a kind of hostile foe that had to be mastered and bested, so that the fundamental posture of human beings would be defiance. In short, again: Plato versus Machiavelli.

Churchill, very surprisingly to me (I guess I was a little snooty about politicians), seemed to have thought through all these great questions of philosophy for himself and then had offered us some of the results of these reflections, with a very light touch, and modestly, saying to us in effect (as he actually did say to us in his essay on painting): these thoughts are very pleasant for some people and you at least ought to try them and see if they are for you—which may account for the fact that Thoughts and Adventures has had a larger readership than Hegel’s Phenomenology.

I begin with Thoughts and Adventures, which was published in America with the title Amid These Storms, because that was the book where I began reading Churchill, and also because it is one of Churchill’s most charming books though somewhat neglected—of course Churchill didn’t write any charmless books—but above all because I think it is one of his most underrated books.

It’s underrated for reasons that are helpful in making my point. You can’t understand Churchill right or completely unless you pay a great deal more attention to his books, and the time he spent writing them, than is ordinarily done. The books are not sufficiently appreciated. For instance, lots of people have bought Churchill’s books but haven’t quite got around to reading them. This is no great criticism: after all, he wrote so many books that it takes a great while to read them all.

Thoughts and Adventures is thought to be typical of the faults of his books which cause them to be overlooked or neglected or underrated or looked down on by scholars. To begin with, the preface wasn’t written by Winston Churchill. It was written by his secretary Eddie Marsh. Churchill complimented Marsh on the preface: he said that it was so well done that no one could tell that it wasn’t by Winston himself. Bits of the book were pulled out of another book Churchill wrote as part of the last volume of The World Crisis (until he wrote another last volume called The Eastern Front) and with minor reworking were turned into separate essays.

Thoughts and Adventures was not originally conceived as a whole at all: it was written in bits, late at night, for newspaper columns and magazine articles. These were Churchill’s famous “potboilers” by which he and his family lived “from mouth to hand,” as he said, by which he supported his life at Chartwell. Now we know that Churchill did take great pride in his ability to support his family and to live like a lord without inherited wealth, because of the money he made in his career as a writer. Yet I think the money motive has been very much over-emphasized by his biographers. They dismiss his literary product as owing to this motive above all. Anyone who is tempted to dismiss what Churchill did as a writer should consider the shelfful of books that he published and the fact that he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953. He was one of a very few historians to have won that prize, though it puts him in a very select but rather mixed company of authors, ranging from indifferent to great. It would be fair to say that Churchill adorns the award more than it adorns him.

Those who look down on Thoughts and Adventures will say that the book is the unsystematic and superficial work of a intellectual parvenu or a dilettante, and, at any rate, not a scholar. The essays are light and fanciful. He always paints in broad strokes, the way Sir John Lavery’s wife taught him to. It’s unadorned with footnotes, and the essays come at you in no apparent order.

Perhaps scholars find it hard to be serious about a book that starts out, “How would you like to live your life over again?” This is a kind of a question that is interesting only to people who are actually living a life, not scholars who spend their time pulling apart other people’s footnotes. That’s the question of Churchill’s first essay, and a very good essay at that. His second essay suggests that you can learn a lot of history in cartoons. Again, it might be dismissed by someone who is determined to be solemn and serious. But I think that you can learn a lot from it.

Churchill was conscious of the difference between his approach and the approach of scholars. Sometimes he seemed to have an undue respect for scholars and what they are able to do as opposed to him. Fortunately, some of that is put on. He seems to sense the difference between his approach and the usual scholarly approach when he refers in one of the essays in Thoughts and Adventures, with some contempt, to two imaginary scholars, whom he calls Dr. Dryasdust and Dr. Gradgrind.

Even many of those who admire Churchill undervalue his books. They don’t realize that the unsystematic quality of a book like Thoughts and Adventures may actually reflect real life better than the artificial systems of the 19th century. The very felicity of Churchill’s prose style is often used against him, as if writing well disqualifies you from being a serious thinker. Clearly Churchill’s books are not technical—they are not written simply for specialists— and that’s why they are so much more valuable than if he had just written a series of scholarly monographs.

I was reading an appendix in The World Crisis in which Churchill discusses the settlement in Iraq. When I was about halfway through this appendix (the Iran-Iraq War and the Gulf War within recent years had made Iraq quite interesting), I said to myself, “this has got to be the dullest thing I have ever read by Winston Churchill.” A few weeks later I came across the very polite and friendly thank-you note that Churchill wrote to a distinguished military officer for adding this appendix on the settlement of affairs in Iraq.

There’s a kind of grumbling campaign that goes on in Britain that says: oh yes, all those books, but of course, Churchill didn’t write them. I’ve gone into that with some care. I’ve mentioned the two instances I’ve found where that claim seems to be justified. There’s no doubt that many people contributed to the understanding which Churchill put into his books. There is also no doubt when you study Churchill’s books and reflect on his situation that he did write them himself, and that he is responsible for them.

Churchill’s books offer their readers a matchless political education. And when I talk about the education of Winston Churchill, that’s the one I mean: the education he gives you when you read his books.

But the books were crucial to his own political education as well, and that will be the theme of my forthcoming book. Stop a minute to think about how unusual it is for a political man to write a serious book of any kind, much less a whole shelf of them. Most politicians write one of two kinds of books, or perhaps both: autobiographies, my lif~ as told to so-and-so—which are usually ghost-written; and books of speeches, the great pronouncements of so-and-so, usually remaindered a year later—also often ghost-written, Of course, Churchill published quite a few books in both of these categories, but written to a very high standard.

His autobiography My Early Life was the next book I read by him. It sheds a lot of light on the question of his education. In My Early Life, which was published in America with a different title, A Roving Commission, Churchill describes first his time at school. There you can learn about the travails at his first school, St. George’s, which he calls St. James’s—where he was beaten; the consolations of his second school run by the Misses Thompson at Hove, near Brighton, where he learned poetry and French and religious latitudinarianism; the hard work that he put in at Harrow School, where he learned English and the school songs; and the delights he took in learning the military art at Sandhurst, where for the first time his schooling and his own predilections converged. Instead of arranging his lead soldiers on the floor, he was learning to command soldiers—and also to drain the Wish Pond to find the watch that his father had given him.

You may wonder when my reading of Churchill late at night became all-engrossing. After my marriage in June 1988, we went to live for a year in London. It was our wedding trip, and also my sabbatical. While Judith busied herself getting a second master’s degree, I was busy working on Winston Churchill at the Library at the British Museum, and also at the London School of Economics, where I was an academic visitor. Judith used to say there were two men along on her wedding trip, I and Winston Churchill, because we visited as many Winston Churchill sites as we could find that year, including all four of his schools.

There is much to be learned about Churchill from visiting the schools, particularly Harrow, and especially from the Harrow School songs. For instance, one of the songs that he asked the boys to sing when he went back to Harrow during the war was a song written in 1874, the year of his birth. It had fallen a bit out of favor, but now it’s fallen back into favor because Churchill patronized it. The theme of the song is the boyish uncertainty about whether boys can measure up to people who came before them. The song is called “Giants:

There were wonderful giants of old you know,
There were wonderful giants of old
They grew more mightily, all of a row,
than ever was heard or told
All of them stood their six feet four,
And they threw to a hundred yards or more,
And never were lame or stiff or sore,
And we, compared, to the days of yore, are cast in a pygmy mould
For all of we, whoever we be, come short of the giants of old, you see.
For all of we, whoever we be, come short of the giants of old, you see.

The song has four verses, but it goes on to describe splendid cricketers and scholars of marvelous force among the giants, and daunting and unmatchable academic and gymnastic feats. Yet the final verse of the song offers the boys an entirely different message:

But I think all this is a lie, you know,
I think all this is a lie.
For the hero race may come and go,
But it doesn’t exactly die
For the match we lose and win it again,
And a Balliol comes to us now and then,
And if we are dwarfing in bat and pen,
Down to the last of the Harrow men, we will know the reason why.
For all of we, whoever we be, come up to the giants of old, you see.
For all of we, whoever we be, come up to the giants of old, you see.

And so the Prime Minister and the old Harrovian remarked that the boys at Harrow had been singing of the wonderful giants of old, but he asked them if anyone could doubt that this generation was as good and as noble as any the nation had produced, and that its men and women can stand against all tests.

Churchill held himself up to a high standard, and a sign of this is that, unlike some adults who come back to school with great nostalgia it reminds them how they used to read and think long ago in another life, Churchill kept doing that all his life.

If you read his autobiography, or biographies about him, you know about his education. In India, the puzzled schoolboy now grown into a man devoured not only the Annual Register—which is an amazing feat, like an aspiring American politician reading the Congressional Record endlessly to uncover his nation’s political history—but also works of philosophy and history. This education continues in his books: in Savrola in the various early war books, greatest among which is The River War.

Here another motive for Churchill’s writing comes dearly into view: ambition. He wrote to put his name before the public. That is clear in The Malakand Field Force, where he quotes the little dictum from Shakespeare’s King John about how he will be heard. It is clearer in The River War, when he makes so bold as to criticize his commander-in-chief and impress his own distinct view of the war on his readers, and also in the two South African books.

There’s no question, too, that Churchill’s works, especially as he came into positions of responsibility, were intended as a kind of apology that Churchill was attempting to defend and to explain his own conduct. Here we think, above all, of the second volume of The World Crisis, in which his defense of his conduct of affairs at the Admiralty is made against his critics. One can see defenses of himself even in the biography of his father, who didn’t change parties but who almost might have, his son thought; and in the books he wrote on World War II.

Sir William Deakin, who assisted Churchill with the work on the Second World War books, told Martin Gilbert that Churchill meant his books, taken together, to be his monument. That suggests another motive, in a way is that it wasn’t just fame, or even the good opinion of his contemporaries, that Churchill sought by writing these books, but a kind of immortality He had a premonition, much intensified by the experience of his father, but fortunately not borne out, that he would die young, and therefore a kind of urgency about doing things quickly, which gave him a lifelong assiduity that he and members of his family demonstrate to those of us who are poor, slow, scribbling professors. I’m abashed, for instance, at the number of books that his daughter has turned out-and very good ones too-since I’ve been working on this one book.

Churchill reflected on his more distant ancestor, the First Duke of Marlborough, and asked: What kind of monument did Marlborough leave? Well, of course, the nation left Marlborough this wonderful monument, a “noble monument” as Churchill called it, of Blenheim Palace. But Marlborough himself left his victories and his statesmanship. Thanks to the pen of Macaulay and others, Marlborough’s reputation was tarnished, until he was rescued by someone from his own family who wrote his life. I think Churchill meditated on that long and hard and thought that he’d better write these books as a kind of monument to himself if he wasn’t to suffer the same fate that his great ancestor did.

I don’t think that is a satisfactory explanation of why Churchill wrote his books. I think that ultimately the most important explanation has to do with the fact that Churchill wanted his education to go on throughout his life. Whenever he was gripped by a question and wanted to get to the bottom of it, he would, if he could, write a book about it. The very first book he started to write (though it wasn’t the first published), the novel Savrola, is really Churchill’s first autobiography Of course, it’s imaginative and dreams about what might happened rather than looking back ruefully and with a light touch on what did happen, as in My Early Life.

In that novel, the Churchill character is a young statesman named Savrola, whose study is strewn with all the books that Churchill was reading—a reflective man, and one who, in addition to being the leader of a great popular revolution, has a kind of doubt about politics and a kind of distance from it. This is reflected by the telescope on his roof. He likes to walk up the stairs to his roof and look at the stars through the telescope. This wondering about the things that are above us, or the things that last longer than anything we make, in particular the things that last longer than the disappointment when you are turfed out of the Admiralty or even rejected by the electorate in that most astonishing exhibit of ingratitude in human history after World War II—is characteristic of Churchill as well.

Churchill knew, as he said in My Early Life that a man’s life has to be nailed either to the cross of thought or action. As a man who held practically every important cabinet post in the British government in the course of his long political career, it’s dear that, if we had to choose one or the other, we would say that Churchill nailed his life to the cross of action. His writings show that his choice was not so simple, because in them we see how reflective a political man can be.

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