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"Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these." Luke 12:27 (NIV)

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Book Review: Churchill

Historian and biographer, Paul Johnson, reports that Churchill once offered this piece of pith behind his accomplishments. “Conservation of energy. Never stand up when you can sit down, and never sit down when you can lie down.”

Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill (1874-1965) was unquestionably one of the outstanding statesmen of the twentieth century. In Britain's darkest hours, he stood alone, rallying and steering a people with his courage and oratory while channelling his great energy behind the scenes conducting a war for his country's long-term survival. Historically, there's little doubt that Churchill was the right man at the right time in the right place having learnt the right lessons from past failures. When he died at the age of 90 in January 1965, Churchill had spent fifty-five of those years as a member of parliament, thirty-one years as a minister and nearly 9 as prime minister.

The two most important women in his life was first, his mother... Lady Jennie Churchill nee Jerome, daughter of an American financier... from whom he inherited his boundless energy, ambition and voracious sense of adventure. The second would be his wife, Clementine Hozier, daughter of Sir Henry Hozier at least in name. The Churchills had a relatively successful marriage as political pairings went and despite the adulterous tendencies of their respective mothers. Both remained faithful to one another all throughout their married life with Clemmie devoting herself completely to her remarkable husband as he often relied on her for calm and comfort.

Paul Johnson's immensely readable short (166 pages) biography is not an exhaustive or detailed work but a bird's eye view of one of history's most fascinating personalities. For Churchill was larger than life and yet he was a man given to the occasional whim.  Churchill was an underachiever in his school days but under the tutelage of a good English master at Harrow, he became a wordsmith in his mother tongue which would have a long lasting ramifications as a war correspondent and a lifelong orator in the House of Commons.
Johnson, however, does not overlook Churchill's flaws... for he had many. But he acknowledges that Churchill although made many mistakes as a career politician, he was blessed with the sense to learn from them. Sparkling with wit and insight, Johnson writes with great enthusiasm and skill but never losing sight of the man at the heart of the political mind.

From pondering this great life, Johnson draws five important lessons:

The first lesson is: always aim high. As a child Churchill received no positive encouragement from his father and little from his mother. He was aware of failure at school. But he still aimed high...

Lesson number two is: there is no substitute for hard work. Churchill obscured this moral by his (for him) efficient habit of spenidng a working morning in bed, telephoning dictating, and consulting. He also manifestly enjoyed his leisure activities, for him another form of hard work, to keep himself fit and rested to enable himself to do his job at the top of his form...

Third, and in its way most important, Churchill never allowed mistakes, disasters -- personal or national -- accidents, illnesses, unpopularity, and criticism to get him down...

Fourth, Churchill wasted an extraordinarily small of time and emotional energy on the meannesses of life: recrimination, shifting the blame onto others, malice, revenge seeking, dirty tricks, spreading rumours, harboring grudges, waging vendettas. Having fought hard, he washed his hands and went on to the next contest...

Finally, the absence of hatred left plenty of room for joy in Churchill's life. His face could light up in the most extraordinarily attractive way as it became suffused with pleasure at an unexpected and welcome event... (pp. 162-65)

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