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Review: New Churchill biography sweeping, superbly written full-life account

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"Churchill: Walking With Destiny" by Andrew Roberts

CHURCHILL: Walking With Destiny. By Andrew Roberts. Viking. 982 pages. $40.

Taking on a nearly 1,000-page biography of Winston Spencer Churchill is apt to leave most readers feeling as if their lives have been a silly waste of time. This protean figure, surely the most influential statesman of the 20th century, who served over his 90 years in nearly every office of the British government, including twice as prime minister, and who led his country through the horrors of World War II, was also a deeply eccentric man.

Well known as a consummate politician and prolific and best-selling author, he also pursued such varied interests as butterfly collecting and bricklaying. He could recite reams of poetry from memory, as well as music hall tunes, and was an avid film fan. He was quite a good painter.

Frequently uncompromising, often tough as nails, famously (sometimes infamously) courageous, with an encyclopedic knowledge of military affairs and history, he had actively taken part in both the Boer War and World War I and, later, insisted on wearing a full set of silk underwear at all times due to sensitive skin.

Churchill could be so opinionated and high-handed that he was occasionally called mad, but he also was excruciatingly funny, often at wildly inappropriate times, and quite soft-hearted. He was often observed to be in tears, not just manly dampened eyes, but real sobs, a quality he considered almost a physical weakness and what biographer Andrew Roberts calls his “lachrymosity.”

He must have been immensely good company at dinner.

The amount of primary documents on Churchill is stupendous. His own written output, outside of speeches, letters and memoranda, amount to some 6.1 million words in 37 books, according to Roberts, author of “The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War” and other volumes.

The reason the Churchill Archive at Cambridge University is so considerable is because Churchill himself kept an enormous cache of personal papers, including old menus, seating plans and correspondence about his pets, Roberts explains in his new biography.

The sheer volume of these documents has been called “one of the richest records of human undertaking.” Given this daunting trove, Roberts’ 982-page book might actually be a neat trick of distillation.

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Roberts also had first-time access to King George VI’s war diaries, as well as transcripts of War Cabinet meetings and letters and unpublished memoirs from Churchill’s contemporaries. It is only in the previous decade that the last pieces of archival material have become available, allowing historians to produce a truly complete picture of the leader. Thus this new volume, Roberts has said.

“Churchill: Walking With Destiny” is an absorbing, full-blooded, birth-to-death biography, but the emphasis is on Churchill’s professional life. Roberts argues that Churchill entered politics in an effort to vindicate the memory of his brilliant but troubled father Randolph, whom he felt had been mistreated during his own public life. It is difficult, however, to get through this book without coming away with the feeling that Churchill was driven by both raging personal ambition and an almost manic energy.

To the degree that his spectacular career was ignited by feelings about his parents, the unfortunate Randolph and the American heiress Jennie Jerome, it may have been in reaction to their selfishness and extreme neglect of him as a child. Roberts insists, almost angrily, on several occasions that Churchill was neither “depressive” nor bipolar, but Churchill’s lifelong habits of constantly chewing on a cigar, sometimes of “Brobdingnagian proportions,” and having a weak whisky and soda at his side throughout the day may cause one to argue differently and may have amounted to singularly successful self-medication. Despite Roberts’s referral to the paucity of documentary evidence about Churchill’s alleged depression, no one knew how often the man’s “black dog” visited him but Churchill himself.

Roberts is clearly a fervent admirer of the man he has spent years studying, and he gives Churchill full credit (as do most) for his prescience, often annoying to his contemporaries, concerning threats posed by Prussian militarism in 1914, Nazism in the 1930s and 1940s and Soviet Communism after the Second World War. These stand atop the long list of Churchill’s achievements that the author describes and explicates at length.

Roberts also states, though, that his book is not hagiography. That may not have been his intent but, in his view, Churchill seems to have rarely set a foot wrong. He does not pull back from long discussions of his subject’s few errors, but when doing so he often, rather slyly, takes the spotlight off Churchill and zeros in on the missteps of others around him.

For instance, when dealing with the disastrous 1915 Battle of Gallipoli, for which Churchill bore much responsibility, Roberts shifts a bit of the focus onto 62-year-old Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. During the crisis, Asquith was writing love letters to 27-year-old Venetia Stanley, with whom he seems to have been obsessed, confiding military information “in direct contravention of the Official Secrets Act” and, in general, “not concentrating fully on the Gallipoli campaign, where hundreds of thousands of lives would shortly be at stake,” Roberts writes.

It is doubtful that Churchill himself would have appreciated such defensive sleight of hand. While he often suffered both publicly and privately for his mistakes, his intelligence, grit and stubbornness usually ensured that he survived to fight another day, often triumphantly. The fact is, Winston Churchill had more lives than one of his beloved cats, which Roberts himself proves over and over.

Magisterial is not too strong a word to describe this superbly written, richly sourced book, one that, despite its great historical sweep and almost day-to-day detail, remains interesting throughout. It will likely be the definitive biography of Winston Churchill for some time to come.

Reviewer Rosemary Michaud is a writer in Charleston and regular contributor to the book page.

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