I Love Churchill
400 Fantastic Facts
Stroud: Pitkin, 2016.
Paperback. 160 p. ISBN 978-1841657349. £9.99
Reviewed by Antoine Capet
Université de Rouen
The prolific History Press, whose seat is in Stroud (Gloucestershire), seems to have more and more subsidiaries. The well-known Pitkin Press, famous for its tourist guides, has apparently just become part of this growing stable. With an eye on the festive season and the enormous Christmas-present market, the Pitkin people have commissioned this excellent little ‘fact book’ – published well in time for that annual spending spree.
All this to say that one must not expect an austere academic compendium – but this does not mean that this small album would be out of place in a University Library. On the contrary, its attractive lay-out has a lot to say for it when one bears in mind how difficult is it sometimes to persuade young students to read anything not on their syllabus. Reference books can be off-putting for them, as their way of life tends to lead them to prefer to ‘google’ words and names rather than look them up in the impressive encyclopedias and dictionaries on the shelves of our libraries. It may also be surmised that the ‘Did you know?’ format, with its short entries which can be consulted separately, provides an easy entry point for people who do not read much.
In this world in which the image reigns supreme, the publishers have gathered an enormous number of useful and apt pictures, which sometimes face the text proper or sometimes act as a sort of background to it. The result is that the reader hardly has a page without some illustration or other. The range is excellent, from portraits of Churchill’s parents to photographs showing him from infancy to the grave – at least his heavy oak coffin. His love of fancy dress is of course duly reflected in the variety of images selected, from Churchill in impeccably modest bathing costume to Churchill in the lavish robes of a Knight of the Garter, with his son and grandson equally richly dressed up behind him. French readers will naturally expect his 1916 photograph as a ‘poilu’ with his treasured French helmet, the casque Adrian modèle 1915 – and it is there, on the front page of The Sketch (22 March 1916), surrounded by eleven ‘medallions’ showing him wearing other types of headgear. This would be the occasion for most students to learn that the Roaring Lion of 1940 (a whole chapter is deservedly and not unexpectedly devoted to the Second World War) had in fact served in the trenches in Flanders in 1915-1916.
The important people whom Churchill met through his long career – often having protracted conversations or negotiations with them – are almost all there (curiously his old adversary, de Gaulle, is not featured – and neither is Gandhi) : all the kings and queens whom he revered, the Kaiser, Kitchener, Mussolini, Roosevelt, Stalin. He never met Hitler, of course – but he attacked him so often in his speeches and in his writings that his portrait is not out of place here. Likewise, Mrs Pankhurst is there to remind the reader of his difficult relations with the suffragettes when he was Home Secretary before the First World War. If his wife Clementine naturally recurs all through the book, their children are seldom mentioned – perhaps a reflection on the unease and lack of communication which prevailed in the family when they were adults, with the exception of Mary.
As for the ‘facts’ proper, they cover his background, his career, his hobbies and his personality, ranging from the trivial to the historically or psychologically important, Among the former, one may quote ‘No. 10’s top secret phone number during the war was “Rapid Falls 4466” ’ [Fact 267]; ‘Churchill’s beloved pet [gold] fish were hand-fed on maggots specially imported from Yorkshire’ ; ‘One of Churchill’s favourite nightcaps was a bowl of turtle soup’ ; ‘He wore expensive (pink) silk underwear, declaring that this luxury was “essential to his well-being” ’ . Among the important historical facts, one finds ‘Churchill caused a scandal in December 1936 by speaking up for his dear friend Edward VIII before his abdication’ , which is well known – but also ‘Churchill was so succesful as Minister for Munitions [1917-1918] that the US awarded him the Army Distinguished Service Medal, a rare honour, for his success in supplying the US Army with weaponry’ , which is not.
Fact 38 gives us an interesting insight into both his undisguised disrespect for his theoretical ‘elders and betters’ if they were not really ‘better’ and his life-long appreciation and knowledge of the Bard: ‘At school he would correct his teachers if they misquoted Shakespeare’. The many adepts of Freudian theories about Churchill’s complex attitude to his father will be ravished by Fact 146: ‘Churchill gave his first speech in the House of Commons from the same seat his father had given his last’. Though we learn that ‘Churchill wrote all his own speeches, which, when Chancellor [1924-1929], could be three or four hours long’ , we learn little about his books published after 1918, which he did not write alone. Concerning the end of his political career, Facts 384 and 387 are complementary: ‘He fought his last election campaign on 8 October 1959, at the age of eighty-four’ and ‘His last appearance at the House of Commons was on 27 July 1964: more than half a century of service’.
The shortest entry is : ‘Winston Churchill was a redhead’, and naturally we have the expected jokes, like : ‘…A young photographer once hoped to photograph Churchill on his 100th birthday. “I don’t see why not, young man”, he replied. “You look reasonably fit and healthy” ’.
The list of sources given at the end is of unquestionable reliability, and the acknowledgements indicate that the author benefited from the advice of two great Churchillians, Paul Courtenay in Britain, and David Freeman, current editor of Finest Hour – The Journal of Winston Churchill and his Times, in the United States. This is reflected in the dependability of the ‘facts’ given: perhaps the only apocryphal quote, as repeatedly argued by the doyen of all active Churchillians, Richard Langworth, is to be found in the supposed message sent to all ships of the Royal Navy when Churchill was again entrusted with the Admiralty in September 1939 : ‘Winston is back’ . This of course is a welcome change from all these collections of ‘facts’ or ‘quotes’ attributed to Churchill in so many commercial publications without serious checking. I Love Churchill can also be safely recommended to students because the proof-reading was of the highest order: no typo was detected – which is more than one can say of many expensive academic monographs.
For all these good reasons, this unpretentious little gem of a booklet would be a useful addition to the Churchill section of any Public or University Library – as well as making an ideal gift for anyone showing interest in the Greatest Briton of all time (BBC Poll, 2002).
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