May 12, 2008

Winston at work

Winston Churchill has as this essay from the New York Review of Books makes clear always divided opinion. Many in his own lifetime echoed the anecdote made by Asquith who said that a fairy had come down at Churchill's birth and showered him with all possible gifts, accept that is for judgement. Many like Asquith imagine that Churchill was an undisciplined rover, an inspired genius who did not have the ballast to achieve the highest office. What is interesting is that Churchill did have the ballast to take on the burdens of office- and an important mistake in the article above suggests exactly why he was. Geoffrey Wheatcroft suggests that

One day Churchill would win the Nobel Prize for literature (largely on the strength of The Second World War, much of which, as David Reynolds has shown in his splendid book In Command of History, was ghostwritten)

Actually Wheatcroft gives the wrong impression of what Reynolds argues that Churchill did. The book was researched and written largely by others: but Churchill altered the wording, or added the key document. Reynolds prints passages before and after Churchill with his pencil went through it: and he demonstrates that Churchill kept a real control over the text. He changed crucial words which changed the entire sense of the text. In reality what Churchill proved himself to be was a competent writer: he was of course a best selling journalist and his writing, somewhere in a no-man's land between Macaulay and Gibbon not to mention the occasional touch of sentimentality, is definitely reasonable. But even more than a competent writer, he proved himself a master of delegation. He was not a historian- so Maurice Ashley did the research, what he was was a master of drafting, and one of the most known politicians of his age. He was able to get official documents and help that noone else could have got, he managed to alter the text to make it reflect things that he thought had happened, and also to give the dry work of the researchers the lightness of touch of a journalist and political speaker. In reality, Churchill's accomplishment when writing his histories was his insight into himself and his audience: he knew what he was doing, delegated what he needed to and kept the final draft to himself- in that sense what Reynolds shows is that his history proved, not that he was a great writer, but that he was a good organiser and a good politician.


Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Interesting post and I see your point about WC's relationship with his readers.