In the run up to the US Elections this evening, Ben Meagher takes a look at a figure of our own great political history, Winston Churchill, through the power of words.
In 1963, after bestowing Churchill with US citizenship, John F. Kennedy praised the former Prime Minister for mobilising the English language and sending it into battle. If Kennedy’s regard is anything to go by, it would seem that Obama and Romney are still stuck in the trenches.
Churchill’s sheer range of work – hundreds of newspaper articles, 58 books (including A History of the English-Speaking People’s, which won him the Nobel Prize in 1953) spread across 40 volumes of biographies, memoirs, essays and, of course, his speeches, place him in the front lines of political, moral, social and philosophical rhetoric.
Sir Martin Gilbert, the leading historian and biographer of Churchill (also a member of the Iraq Inquiry, with a personal academic output of over 80 books to challenge Churchill’s own achievement) is one of the very few men qualified to whittle down Churchill’s words to just 200 extracts.
Throughout this chronological collection of extracts that span the late 1870’s to 1959, Churchill’s strong sense of respect for tradition and the past punch through every page; in history, he would relish Gibbons’ The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, instigated after learning how much it influenced his fathers style of writing and speech.
Years later, Churchill’s attachment to history allowed him to avoid bombastic naivety, admitting: ‘it is true that we are facing numerical odds; but that is no new thing in our history. Very few wars have been won by mere numbers alone. Quality, will-power… the spontaneous surging of the human spirit in millions of hearts – these have proved to be the decisive factors in the human story’.
As one of the highest-paid speakers of his time, Churchill lived by his ‘pen and tongue’, and his words became worth their weight in gold. From his vehemence against the Bolsheviks, to his inhibitions against an empty canvas when painting, his words are almost holographic. It is no surprise then, that dictation formed in his study at Chartwell, Churchill propped at an upright desk, or that Gilbert was urged by Churchill’s son Randolph to read his fathers words aloud. In this sense, the pages feel almost twice as heavy.
From a small island, Winston Churchill’s words echoed across the airwaves into the hearts and minds of millions, making a permanent mark on botht he British and the global stage. Although future elections are unknown, Gilbert’s publication gives us one certainty: Churchill is a hard act to follow.
Churchill: The Power of Words by Martin Gilbert is out now in Hardback by Bantam Press at £25.00.