Wednesday, October 12, 2005


FORTY years after the dawning of the 20th century, came forth an Englishman in the land of Anglo-Saxon whose looks belied the lion heart that laid within his breast. England's back was against the wall. She was all alone and slightly afraid. Then, the people heard a roar. They turned and looked and stared at one of their own. It was Winston Spencer Churchill - the man who was born to lead Britain out of darkness into her finest and brightest hour.

A RECENT addition to the ever growing library of literature on Time
Magazine's Man of the Year for 1941 - Winston Churchill - is the
voluminous tome written by Martin Gilbert.
Churchill - A Life highlights interesting aspects of the late British
Premier's journey from womb to tomb. The book, therefore, justifiably
covers a thousand-odd pages and a weight of two kilos.
Martin Gilbert has all the right credentials for his latest achievement.
The author, who read Modern History at Oxford, was, in 1962, a research
assistant to Randolph Churchill who was then writing the first two volumes
of his father's official biography. When Randolph died in 1968, the
responsibility of finishing the biography was passed on to Gilbert.
The eighth and last volume of the official biography was completed in
In Churchill - A Life, Gilbert aptly describes his subject's career as "a
particularly full one". He has sieved from the vast libraries of material
the most salient gems of information and woven his treasury of facts into
a stupendous biographical tapestry.
Churchill, the illustrious descendant of one of England's most famous
generals, First Duke of Malborough, was a biological amalgam of two great
families. From his American mother's bloodline, he inherited tenderness
and tenacity, and natural compassion when the situation demands. From his
father, he developed a love for politics and an almost insatiable craving
for the highest political post.
His life began quite ordinarily, in an aristocratic sense, with both
parents pursuing their own careers. Randolph Churchill did not have much
time for his son Winston. His time was spent prowling the corridors of the
House of Commons and engaging in parliamentary debates with his peers. Mrs
Churchill was a woman of society.
Winston's formative years, spent in expensive learning institutions, were
preparatory stages for his later roles in life. The letters he wrote to
his mother indicate that he needed love as much as any child. Fortunately,
Mrs Churchill was not one lacking in parental love and responsibility. As
she had given her love for Winston freely and unreservedly, he too would
later show the same tender love for his wife Clementine in their more than
50 years of marriage.
A lady friend, Pamela Plowden, whom Churchill met in Hyderabad, India, in
his younger days, commented to a friend: "The first time you meet Winston,
you see all his faults, and the rest of your life you spend in discovering
his virtues."
If Cupid had shot his arrow differently, Pamela would have been
Churchill's life companion and history might have taken a different turn.
But it was not to be. Destiny took him to India, South Africa and later
Khartoum in Sudan.
India would give Churchill an invaluable insight into the continent's
cultures, people and its future political problems.
South Africa and the Boer War served to give Churchill his first taste of
blood, sweat and tears. In his assignment as a foreign correspondent
covering a war in a land where colour of skin and human rights was to be
an issue that stretched more than a hundred years and into the present
day, Churchill was captured and incarcerated temporarily. In a moment of
daring and adventure, Churchill escaped and returned to Britain a hero.
From his adventures in South Africa, Churchill began a parallel career as
a writer who held readers spellbound in his own motherland and worldwide.
He discovered early that he had a flair for writing. Through the decades,
the pen would replenish his constantly ebbing financial resources.
Churchill valued friendship greatly and sometimes comrades-in-arms even
more. In Khartoum, close to the end of the 19th Century, Churchill, then
23, found himself enmeshed in a regional conflict. A fellow officer
wounded in battle was badly in need of a skin graft. Without a moment's
respite, Churchill volunteered and gave his own skin, a portion of which
was duly parted from his chest. Churchill bore the scar to his grave.
Churchill had a sense of humour that saved him from many of life's trying
moments. In the fateful year of 1921, he ascended to the office of the
Secretary of State for the Colonies. In October, Lloyd George, then the
premier, plunged into a sudden crisis. His coalition government
disintegrated when close to 200 Conservative MPs walked out.
Churchill, at that time recovering in hospital from an appendix operation,
commented on the situation and his own precarious political career: "In
the twinkling of an eye, I found myself without an office, without a seat,
without a party and without an appendix."
Oratorical skills aside, many of his contemporaries foresaw that
Churchill's leadership qualities and political acumen would eventually
push him to the highest post in the kingdom. In 1929, after serving as
Chancellor of the Exchequer and having the honour of presenting his fifth
Budget, Churchill retained his parliamentary seat at Epping.
With the polling results just in and his party out, T.E. Lawrence, better
known as Lawrence of Arabia, made an astute remark about Churchill: "He's
a good fighter, and will do better out than in and will come back in a
stronger position than before. I want him to be Prime Minister somehow."
Churchill's life and career is abnormal by any standards. At 25, he was
already an author of five books, more than half of which were bestsellers.
At 46, he took on his seventh Cabinet post. Perhaps it was because of his
preoccupation with things political or his having an innate quality very
much part of a genetic legacy that he made some startling predictions and
comments on subjects which till today hold true.
On Palestine and the Jews in 1921, he said: "If in the course of many,
many years, they (Jews) become a majority in the country, they naturally
would take it over." This, he told the then Canadian Prime Minister who
asked if it was Britain's aim to give the Jews control of the government
in Palestine.
On future warfare, Churchill remarked in 1924: "Might not a bomb no bigger
than an orange be found to possess a secret power to destroy a whole block
of buildings - nay to concentrate the force of a thousand tons of cordite
and blast a township at a stroke? Could not explosives even of the
existing type be guided automatically in flying machines by wireless or
other rays, without a human pilot, in ceaseless procession upon a hostile
city, arsenal, camp or dockyard?"
But all else is eclipsed by the brilliance of Churchill's role in World
War II. In 1932, Churchill began the first of his many accurate
observations of German politics and Hitler's growing menace. But his dire
warnings fell on deaf ears. War exploded in Europe.
On May 10, 1940, Churchill was made Prime Minister, owing to an
overwhelming pressure from fellow Englishmen and peers. In the ensuing war
years, Churchill was to rouse to feverish pitch the warrior spirit of
English people whose Viking and Roman ancestries ran deep in their blood.
From the depths of despair on the outset of the war when Britain had to
face Hitler and his war machine alone, Churchill galvanised his fellow
countrymen into swift action, resilience and kept that indomitable spirit
bright and burning throughout the war.
The English never forgot Churchill's contribution to the nation. He went
on after the war to complete six volumes of his now famous war memoirs.
When he died in January 1965 at the age of 90, his state funeral was
attended by heads of state and statesmen from numerous nations. Hundreds
of thousands witnessed the funeral procession that made its way through
the streets of London. Britain came out in force to bury her illustrious
son and remember a life that made quite a difference in everyone else's
After all that is said and done by Churchill and then some by Martin
Gilbert, Churchill - A Life is undoubtedly a magnificent achievement. It
is a wonderful biography to be read and mentally digested at leisure,
without haste. Much akin to having a good meal, or slowly savouring a fine
brandy or inhaling the distinctly fine aroma of a good cigar.

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