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Keep buggering on

2020-08-07 08:18 BST

A few days ago I finished Churchill: Walking with Destiny by Andrew Roberts. It’s been on my to-read list, but I admit this book moved up several places since I heard Churchill was getting cancelled.

The book is really good. Whatever you think about the subject, Winston Churchill’s life was pretty insane. Walking with destiny sounds like a stereotypically hagiographical subtitle, but it’s kind of true. He predicted that he would save London as a child,

'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.'

And he predicted he would die on the same day his father (who always underestimated him) did, and he did. It’s been a while since I actually read a book this long cover-to-cover.

Some more fun stories:

Churchill on appeasement,

‘If his proposal means that we should come to an understanding with Germany to dominate Europe, I think this would be contrary to the whole of our history,’ Churchill told Britain’s foremost press baron. ‘We have on all occasions been the friend of the second strongest power in Europe and have never yielded ourselves to the strongest power. Thus Elizabeth resisted Philip II of Spain,’ he reiterated. ‘Thus William III and Marlborough resisted Louis XIV. Thus Pitt resisted Napoleon, and thus we all resisted William II of Germany. Only by taking this path and effort have we preserved ourselves and our liberties, and reached our present position. I see no reason myself to change from this traditional view.’

His favorite poem to recite during the Blitz,

Who is in charge of the clattering train?
The axles creak and the couplings strain,
and the pace is hot and the points are near,
and sleep hath deadened the driver's ear,
and the signals flash through the night in vain,
for death is in charge of the clattering train

And, I’m totally okay with,

Critics have accused Churchill of lying about the U-boat sinkings in order to promote his prime ministerial ambitions, but the buoying up of morale, which of course was what Churchill was trying to do, is an essential part of waging war. ‘Is everything you tell us true?’ a young rating asked Churchill on board a battleship in 1940. ‘Young man,’ Churchill replied, ‘I have told many lies for my country and will tell many more.’


On the morning of 18 October, Churchill’s junior minister at the Admiralty, Sir Geoffrey Shakespeare, arrived in his office to find a minute on his desk, with an ‘Action this day’ label attached, saying, ‘I am concerned about the shortage of fish … We must have a policy of “utmost fish”. Parliamentary Secretary will report to me by midnight with his proposals. W.S.C.’

Utmost fish! And eggs,

When he saw a ship crossing the Atlantic with 7,000 tons of eggs he had Pim ask the Ministry of Agriculture how many eggs there were per ton, and exclaimed, when told the answer, ‘Do you realize that cargo represents one egg for every second person in the British Isles?’

Fun fact about the war I didn’t know, about a plan to merge Britain and France into one country as France was surrendering,

Chamberlain went to update the King on ‘what is being done to his Empire’, and the tricolour was flown over Westminster Abbey for the only time in history. ‘Who knows,’ Colville joked, ‘we may yet see the “fleurs de lys” restored to the Royal Standard!’ He thought the new country might be called ‘Frangland’.

When Pétain was told of the idea he ridiculed it as ‘fusion with a corpse’ (strikingly, the same metaphor used by Brooke two days earlier).

Another fun fact,

On 18 April, Alexandros Koryzis, the new Greek Prime Minister, shot himself. After the Greek armies that had been fighting the Italians in Albania since October 1940 had capitulated on 20 April, and Germany had established total air superiority over Greece, the Defence Committee took the decision to evacuate the country. It was Gallipoli, Namsos, Narvik, Dunkirk and Dakar all over again, with people joking that ‘BEF’ stood for ‘Back Every Friday’.

Churchill going outside to watch air raids, advice maybe relevant during coronavirus?

He used to quote Raymond Poincaré, the French President during the Great War: ‘I take refuge beneath the impenetrable arch of probability.’

My favorite anecdote from the book, about how Churchill secretaries had to get used to his idiosyncracies,

She recalled the time he had commanded Kathleen Hill, ‘Fetch me Klop.’ Hill proudly struggled back some time later bearing Professor Onno Klopp’s fourteen volumes of Der Fall des Hauses Stuart und die Succession des Hauses Hannover (1875–88). ‘God Almighty!’ Churchill roared. He had meant her to bring his hole-puncher, which he nicknamed ‘Klop’ for reasons of onomatopoeia. (He despised staples and paperclips; sheaves of paper had to be ‘klopped’ and then fastened together with metal-and-thread Treasury tags.)

But this story is also really good,

Chequers and No. 10 enjoyed surprisingly haphazard security against assassination and terrorism. John Martin recalled that there was a competition in the Foreign Office to see who could get into Downing Street with the least adequate credentials. A railway season ticket and golf club membership card were runners-up, but ‘finally the prize went to a man who walked confidently through the entrance holding out a slice of cake.’

Some Churchill productivity advice,

‘You must sleep some time between lunch and dinner,’ he said, ‘and no half-way measures. Take off your clothes and get into bed. Don’t think you will be doing less work because you sleep during the day. That’s a foolish notion held by people who have no imagination. You will be able to accomplish more. You get two days in one – well, at least one and a half, I’m sure.’


‘Every night I try myself by court-martial to see if I have done anything effective during the day. I don’t mean just pawing the ground – anyone can go through the motions – but something really effective.’

And good practices like,

While crossing the Atlantic, Churchill wrote a memorandum on codewords. ‘Operations in which large numbers of men may lose their lives ought not to be described by codewords which imply a boastful and overconfident sentiment,’ he began, ‘such as ‘Triumphant’, or, conversely, which are calculated to invest the plan with an air of despondency, such as ‘Woebetide’, ‘Massacre’, ‘Jumble’, ‘Trouble’, ‘Fidget’, ‘Flimsy’, ‘Pathetic’, and ‘Jaundice’ … Names of living people – ministers or commanders – should be avoided; e.g., ‘Bracken’ … Intelligent thought will readily supply an unlimited number of well-sounding names which do not suggest the character of the operation or disparage it in any way and do not enable some widow or mother to say that her son was killed in an operation called ‘Bunnyhug’ or ‘Ballyhoo’.

Roberts makes Churchill look really good, I think, even though he specifically points out all the parts where he is criticizing Churchill. I obviously don’t know anything, so I’ll stop at what I think Roberts thinks of Churchill. But I wish Roberts engaged more directly with the other, much more critical accounts of Churchill’s actions, like Madhusree Mukerjee’s claim that accusation of British willful starving of India due to racism (I hope I’m represneting her correctly). Relevant recent response tweet here. I’m sure that the other views are serious enough not to be conspiracy theories that Roberts should address them by name instead of rebutting general ‘critics of Churchill.’

Anyway, no one was woke back then,

After lunch at the White House on 5 September, sitting on the South Portico, Mrs Ogden Reid, whose husband was the publisher of the New York Herald Tribune, a long-standing proponent of Indian independence, asked Churchill, ‘What do you intend to do about those wretched Indians?’ ‘Madam,’ Churchill replied, ‘to which Indians do you refer? Do you by any chance refer to the second greatest nation on earth which under benign and beneficent British rule has multiplied and prospered exceedingly, or do you mean the unfortunate Indians of the North American continent which under your administration are practically extinct?’

And in his own words on renaming stuff,

‘I do not consider that names that have been familiar for generations in England should be altered to study the whims of foreigners living in those parts,’ he minuted to the Foreign Office. ‘Constantinople should never be abandoned, though for stupid people Istanbul may be written in brackets after it … Bad luck always pursues people who change the names of their cities … If we do not make a stand … the B.B.C. will be pronouncing Paris “Paree”. Foreign names were made for Englishmen, not Englishmen for foreign names. I date this minute from St George’s Day.

Among a bunch of other things I learned. Churchill did get a lot right.

America does look really bad for not joining the war earlier. If not for Churchill, Halifax would probably have been PM and surrendered Britain. But obviously in other cases the United States should stay out of wars. I guess we’re just never taught in school how the US joining wasn’t inevitably going to be in time.

And, he predicted the demise of Communism 40 years before it happened. He was anti-Stalin after his first prime ministership at a time when it was unpopular to critize a recent ally.

Also he was a historian, wrote tons of books, and painted. And won the Nobel Prize in literature. And he did a ton of stuff in his second prime ministership, whether good or bad, that would’ve made him famous anyway. But of course no one cares because it is overshadowed by his first. Or he could have been famous for the Gallipoli disaster in World War I, which I didn’t know he was responsible for either.

He was also alive when Kennedy was assassinated. But when Churchill died, his funeral drew a larger TV audience in the US than Kennedy’s did. I also never thought about how when he died, it must have seemed like everything he did was in vain. Communism and nuclear weapons, you know, and the end of the British Empire, which he cared very much about.

You should read this book. One more story to convince you,

On the last weekend at Chequers before his resignation, Churchill had the gigantic Rubens painting The Lion and the Mouse, which depicted a scene from Aesop’s Fables, taken down from the Great Hall. ‘It always bothered Sir Winston,’ recalled Grace Hamblin, ‘because he could not see the mouse.’ So he took up his brush and painted in the mouse more clearly, in an attempt to improve the work of Peter Paul Rubens. ‘And if that is not courage,’ Mountbatten said later, ‘I do not know what is!’