The World Crisis

It is unusual, and probably unwise, to comment on a book I haven’t read—I will avoid doing so, but the fact that it was written almost one hundred years ago, contains three thousand two hundred sixty-one pages, and is authored by Churchill, makes it rather special.

I’ve had a lifelong admiration for Winston Churchill, and am currently working through a new biography written by Andrew Roberts—weighing in at 1152 pages, Walking with Destiny is not a light tome.

At present, I’m traveling through the late nineteen-twenties, when prohibition was law in the United States.

Churchill was immensely fond of booze—he once said ‘I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me’. During prohibition, he visited the US and declared, ‘we realize one hundred million pounds sterling a year from our liquor taxes, which I understand you give to your bootleggers.’

Churchill’s ruse to get a free pass for drinking in the States during prohibition.

The context for the doctor note is highly amusing, but it does highlight one invariant aspect of Churchill’s life—he was always strapped for cash. One of his most reliable sources of income was writing, the other was speaking—very few people were so consistently pithy—he was the master of the tweet one century too early.

From his oratory, Churchill claimed he lived ‘mouth-to-hand’, and he earned many millions from these twin pursuits—he blew the money on good food, booze, entertainment, Chartwell, vacations, poor investment decisions, and the occasional Rolls-Royce.

Any book, and in general any manifestation of art, must be layered, by which I mean that not only should it have an overarching theme, but several sub-themes should be present. If the final product deals well with the main theme, finds connections across these sub-themes, and wraps everything up to the reader’s satisfaction, that is a good book indeed.

In my books, as in my blogs, I strive to achieve this—I’ve found that the overall theme must be established before pen strikes paper, but not the sub-plots, which ebb and flow as the manuscript grows. Authors differ on this—Ken Follett apparently develops a pilot with a few dozen pages, works on that, discusses it, and then grows a book from there.

By contrast, one of my favorite authors, Donald Westlake, who wrote the Parker novels as Richard Stark, said he never knew what the next page was going to be like—since he didn’t know, the reader couldn’t possibly guess it—an admirable quality in a writer of crime thrillers.

Churchill’s opus magnum was written about the First World War. Since the great man was born in 1874, he will have been forty years old at the start of the Great War, but that didn’t stop him doing a stint in the Flanders trenches at a place called Ploegsteert, known to British soldiers as Plugstreet.

One thing that emerges through Churchill’s life is that he was incredibly brave, but also astoundingly lucky. He tested fate on horseback, in airplanes, in the trenches, and even crossing the road.

The other thing that this wonderful biography makes clear is how little we have learned from the cataclismic convulsions of the previous century. In Churchill’s own words, ‘Unteachable from infancy to tomb — There is the first and main characteristic of mankind.’

That aspect of the book fills me with unutterable sadness. No doubt Churchill felt the same when he wrote The World Crisis—perhaps he felt in writing it that his many readers might after all be ‘teachable’.

Not so, as demonstrated by the Second World War. Between the wars, when the loyal toast was drunk at his club, he would follow the words ‘God Save The King’ by quietly muttering ‘And No More War.’

To counter all this tragicomedy, or maybe to emphasize it, I leave you with a classic British show that deals with the nonsense of politics by planting tongue firmly in cheek.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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