Thursday, July 17, 2008

Churchill is Prime Minister

And it took only 588 pages of Roy Jenkins' biography to get him there. Winston Churchill was 65 years old when he ascended to the premiership of Great Britain in 1940, which is coincidentally the age I'll be when I finish the more than 1,000 page-long book.

It is written in British English, which I am learning is distinctly different from the form we speak here in the colonies. It doesn't help that Mr. Jenkins is far more erudite than I and he uses a disturbing number of words that I do not know. Their meaning is more obscure than those of the French phrases he sprinkles liberally throughout the text. There is also frequent use of the word "rumbustious," which in context seems to mean the same thing as "rambunctious." (Merriam-Webster online confirmed that it does.)

The author also presupposes that readers will have a knowledge of English history and a familiarity with the workings of the British government that I do not possess. Readers who don't already know are left to figure for themselves that an MP is a Member of Parliament. "Chancellor of the Exchequer" reqired some Googling to learn that that's the British equivalent of our government's Secretary of the Treasury.

And I can only hope that the next 400 pages or so will better elucidate what "peerage" means. I am presuming that the esteemed author, himself a longtime MP in the second half of the 20th century, did not simply misspell "porridge" time and again, though perhaps being elevated to the porridge is just one more English thing that I don't understand.

One last glossary tip: "Irish Home Rule" is apparently not a zoning regulation.

Difficult as treading the text may be, Churchill is a fascinating enough figure to make it worthwhile. (Spoiler alert: He dies at the end.) Though now almost uniformly revered as a historical giant, until he became Prime Minister, he was often denied a place in top levels of government. His reckless crashing from one issue to the next created more enemies than allies -- hence the need for his biographer's repeated use of "rambustious."

"Intransigent" is another oft-used adjective in the book.

Churchill's legendary oratorical skill was one of the many talents that friends and foes alike readily acknowledged. He was one of the most prolific and highly paid authors of his time, which was important because he needed the income to fund a lifestyle whose extravagance consistently outstripped his considerable means. He vacationed often and lavishly but always took his work with him.

As a member of his own Conservative Party at the time wonderfully summed it up:
When Winston was born lots of fairies swooped down on his cradle with gifts -- imagination, eloquence, industry, ability and then came up a fairy who said 'No one person has a right to so many gifts', picked him up and gave him such a shake and twist that with all these gifts he was denied judgment and wisdom. And that is why we delight to listen to him in this House we do not take his advice. (p. 511)
Another political colleague described him more succinctly: "It is like arguing with a Brass band." (p. 512)

It is a testament to Churchill's immense talents and drive that he was able to stay close enough to Britain's inner-circle of power, even if not directly within it, that in 1940 when England needed a leader with his will to fight and the confident eloquence and to rally a desperate nation, he was still there to answer the call.

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