I know about all the setbacks and and the successes. I know all the great put downs (Lady Astor: “If I were your wife, I’d put poison in your coffee.” Churchill: “If I were your husband, I’d drink it.”). I know all the speeches. But I didn’t know about all the times Winston Churchill came close to death. It’s as though he lived his life right on the edge to derive the maximum use of his allotted time.
I’m reading Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill by Gretchen Rubin. Forty Ways is one of the books recommended by Dan Carlin in his often excellent Hardcore History series. Dan’s show was great. Gretchen’s book…not so much.
The central conceit of the book is that Winston was such a complex character, you have to see both sides to fully understand him. Each chapter is a kind of He Said, She Said testimony on each of Winston’s traits— Was he an alcoholic? Was his marriage happy? Was he suited to high office? —with anecdotes from his numerous friends and even more numerous enemies.
The overall effect of this rather shallow treatment is to reduce the great man to a series of caricatures and the sense of his overwhelming presence that comes across in more conventional tellings is somehow lost.
The book contains very little information that would be new to anyone who has more than a passing knowledge of Churchill’s biography but there’s one chapter in the middle that sheds a little light on his charmed life. In Churchill’s Destiny—How He Saw Himself, Gretchen rattles off all little details that might have become the most important episode in an ordinary man’s life; the kind of episode one might tell and retell at every opportunity. But, in Churchill’s over-stuffed existence, they barely merit a footnote.
Here’s a sample:
- Churchill battled pneumonia twice: in 1886 and again in 1943.
- At age eighteen, playing tag, Churchill jumped from a thirty foot bridge and tried to land in a treetop on the way down. He ruptured his kidney, injured his spine and was unconscious for three days.
- A few month later, he nearly drowned in Switzerland.
- In a letter to his mother in 1897 while fighting the Pashtun as a Second Lieutenant in British India, “I am so conceited that I do not believe the Gods would create so potent a being as myself for so prosaic an ending.”
- At age 25, he helped rescue a train that was under attack from enemy fire. He was captured by the Boers.
- After the Dardanelle disaster, Winston resigned and went to fight in the trenches (could you imagine a modern politician resigning and then going to fight in the trenches?). His shelter was destroyed by a shell five minutes after he left it to deliver a message.
- After surviving the trenches, Winston took flying lessons. One plane caught fire; another flipped after takeoff; another crashed after the guiding stick failed. He finally quit after a fourth crash that injured his flying instructor.
- He was hit by a car on Fifth Avenue in New York in 1931.
- He was shot at by a sniper in 1944 in Greece. Winston’s response: “Cheek!”
After he became Prime Minister in 1940, Winston “was conscious of a profound sense of relief. At last I had the authority to give directions over the whole scene. I felt as I were walking with Destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.”