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Biographic Churchill


Richard Wiles


Great Lives in Graphic Form Series

Lewis (East Sussex): Ammonite Press, 2017

Hardcover. 96 p. ISBN 978-1781453018. £9.99


Reviewed by Antoine Capet

Université de Rouen




There seems to be a new trend in the publishing industry: the production of serious books in a ‘format’ which used to be the preserve of juvenile albums. Last year, we had Cate Ludlow’s attractive I Love Churchill : 400 Fantastic Facts, and now, at the same keen price, we have this new title in a recently established series which already offers ‘graphic biographies’ of Jane Austen, Cézanne, Leonardo, Shakespeare among others.

Here, we have no photographs: the graphic aspect rests on colour sketches, line drawings, silhouettes, maps, tables and timelines. The author is no Churchill historian: the Press Release tells us that ‘he studied periodical journalism, photography and printing processes at the London College of Printing’ – but he has evidently done a lot of serious research, since most of the facts are accurate (more than can be said of the usual offerings of ‘periodical journalism’). Some common errors are unfortunately present, however.

The Black and Tans are described as ‘Churchill’s brainchild’ [57]. I was surprised to read that Churchill drank his champagne at meal times ‘invariably out of a silver tankard’ [38]: no connoisseur – and he certainly was one – would use such a receptacle, however expensive. Likewise no wine-lover – and he certainly was one, too – would drink claret ‘often mixed with soda’ [39]! Also, there seems to be a confusion over ‘Martini’ and ‘martinis’, featured among his occasional drinks, ‘as an apéritif – consisting of neat gin poured over ice, with a nod towards occupied France’ [39]: the vermouth, Martini, is of course Italian, and the cocktail, martini, does contain a variable dose of Martini; finally, Churchill is reported to have hated the martinis (strong in gin, weak in Martini) to which Roosevelt treated him in Washington. And ‘the final drink of the day a fine port or a 90-year-old brandy’, we read, ‘would be taken around 10 pm, after which he would complete another four hours’ work before retiring to bed’ [39]: this runs against all testimonies, as the four hours were certainly not ‘dry’, especially if spent in discussions with political friends or military aides. Finally, ‘In 1946, Sir Winston…’ [82] is of course a common chronological error.

Some remarks are open to dispute, as when we read ‘Winston’s father…was respected for his political wisdom…’ [72]. Or again ‘Winston favoured Conway Stewart pens’ [89] – what about ‘Send me also a new Onoto pen’? One is also surprised to see the author speak of Churchill’s ‘dogmatism’ [72] – Churchill is generally associated with pragmatism, the exact opposite. Finally, I suspect that there is a confusion with defuse in ‘painting and bricklaying served to diffuse his stresses’ [44] and on p.49, he is seen painting with his left hand: the graphic artist must have used a photograph the way Churchill was taught by Sickert – projecting it on a screen. But Wiles forgot that this gave a reverse image. Another mistake escaped the notice of the proof-readers: the list of places and countries visited during the war includes Argentina [68] probably a confusion with Argentia, Newfoundland, in 1941.

These are after all minor slips, however, considering the wealth of useful, accurate and in some cases entertaining information contained in the booklet. The timeline, ‘A Career in Politics’ [30-31] is faultless, and very convenient with its parallel columns, ‘Churchill’s Political Offices’ and ‘British Governing Party’: one clearly visualises how often Churchill was with the winning party or coalition, and how short were his ‘wilderness years’ in the period shown, 1900-1965 (though the 1923-1924 interlude without a seat is not indicated). The excellent two-page spread on ‘The Battle of Britain’ [66-67] also shows at a glance how close was the numerical difference in aircraft and losses between the two air forces.

Among the entertaining sections, my favourite is ‘Clothes maketh the man’ [50-51], complete with a colour sketch of Churchill’s pink silk drawers – bought from improbable suppliers, usually associated with no-nonsense, practical gear: ‘the Army & Navy Stores’. But ‘The Trouble with Winston’, which shows Churchill’s injuries and illnesses in a light vein [32-33], is also very good – perhaps better than ‘The Teeth that helped win the War’ [42], also on a jocular tone, devoted to his lisp and his dentures. The inevitable pages on his cigars [46-47] are interesting in that they show that he was not a heavy smoker by comparison with Sigmund Freud: an average of 70 cigars a week for Churchill against 140 for Freud. And the equally inevitable pages on ‘The Demon Drink’ [38-39], though unreliable as we saw, do mention Dr Pickhardt’s extraordinary prescription after he was hit by a car in New York in 1932 (during Prohibition), with his ‘post-accident convalescence’ necessitating the intake of a minimum 250 c.c. of spirits daily.

A strong point of the ‘Graphic Form’ concept is the treatment of the famous Siege of Sidney Street. Here, we have a double page supposedly reproduced from the Daily Biographic (4 January 1911 – Price 1d.), with a ‘report’ of the incident, ending in comments on ‘the Liberal Party’s immigration policy that has allowed an influx from Russia’ and ‘the introduction of the Webley & Scott .32 calibre MP semi-automatic pistol to the Metropolitan Police’, together with a facing map of the East End [58-59]. As an intriguing addendum, this time openly authored by Wiles, we are told that the pistol used by the anarchists of Sidney Street, a Mauser C 96, was identical to the model that Churchill used in the Soudan [Wiles writes Sudan – but in Churchill’s time there it was spelt the French way].

The journalists’ favourite ‘canards’ and ‘red herrings’ indefatigably denounced by Richard Langworth are rightly omitted: we have nothing on Tonypandy or Lord Randolph’s syphilis, nothing on Churchill’s supposed silence on the Coventry raids, none of his apocryphal witticisms on Attlee or any other subject – and, unusually, we are spared the ‘Winston is Back!’ story of 1939. On the other hand Churchill gets fair treatment over the Dardanelles, though we fear the worst since the section is entitled ‘Churchill’s Folly’ [60-61].

All in all, this is a most attractive booklet, full of intriguing titbits of (admittedly unimportant) information that I had never seen elsewhere, which does not mean that it is devoid of serious facts and figures – quite the contrary, they are plentiful. While it would make an ideal present for a young – or not-so-young – Churchillian, it should also be acquired by librarians keen to attract a changing public, including university students, too often put off by conventional books.



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