Thursday, December 1, 2011

Winston Churchill: In Celebration and Memoriam

This week the two most important birthdays to me are those of my sisters, who somehow managed to be born on the same day, two years apart. "Bravo!" I say.

Yet there was also another birthday this week that I cannot let go unmarked - that of Winston Churchill.

When I was a lad growing up in the idyllic, rural southwest of England (which my friends and I call "the Shire", as homage to J.R.R. Tolkien's countryside creation in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit), one of my favorite pursuits was listening to my grandmother's tales of life during World War II. She told me that when she was working at Woolworth's department store in London, she and the other girls wouldn't go to the shelters when the air raid sirens went off, but would instead go back to the break room and put on a pot of tea. I was astounded that they would be so cavalier, and asked her why. "Well," she said, in her unique voice that was a cross between the lilting Irish of her youth and the long-voweled local accent, "we heard Winston Churchill didn't go, so why should we?"

From this point on, I became fascinated by this man, who of course has reached mythic status on both sides of the Atlantic. I quickly found out that Nan's story had only partial basis in fact - Churchill sometimes took cover and sometimes went about his business. Just one of the many stories about him that are untrue are have been distorted, to say nothing of the misquotes (see the "Red Herrings" section of Richard Langworth's fabulous quote omnibus, Churchill by Himself). Furthermore, this complex man certainly had his faults - a short temper, overconfidence, and a maddening tendency to circumvent due procedure, to name just three.

And yet, he was also the perfect man, and arguably the only man, to wake Britain from her slumber to the dangers of Hitler's militarism and extremism, to lead Britain in defiance of the Fuhrer's tyranny and, as I describe in my new book, to define the postwar divide between the democratic West and Communist Russia at Fulton, Missouri, in 1946. While his war memoirs (for which he received the Nobel Prize for Literature) are more apologetic than accurate history, he was also a prolific and profound writer, composing over 40 books and dozens of articles, in addition to his many speeches. Despite his aristocratic lineage, he also had a fondness for people from all backgrounds, and those who loved him certainly outnumbered his critics - despite what revisionist Churchill critics want you to believe!

So, I raise a glass to Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill. May his pronouncements on the virtues of democracy, liberty and freedom live long in our memories, his example of courage in the face of overwhelming odds inspire us, and his true leadership in speaking the truth even when it risked unpopularity embolden those who have followed him into the halls of power.

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