The Splendid and the Vile
The Sideb00b Reading Club.
Biographies of Winston Churchill, arguably the greatest of Britain’s great prime ministers, are not entirely unlike the offspring of Boris Johnson (inarguably the opposite of great). There are a large but unknown number of them, and precise calculation may never be possible because it’s always possible there is another on the way from somewhere. In 2015 the International Churchill Society noted twenty-six biographies published in Churchill’s lifetime; and another thirty-six between his death in 1965 and the end of the 20th century.
These were, of course, only those written in English. Again, like random Johnsonian loin fruits, one suspects there might be more scattered around the world.
What, then, was Erik Larson hoping to contribute?
His personal Churchill, as it turns out.
The American author of primarily historical nonfiction moved to New York before 9/11, and like many, he suffered an epiphany after that day. The father of three daughters, he confesses in this book’s acknowledgments to being the ‘king of fatherly anxiety’. But his anxieties were banal. He worried about their boyfriends and jobs and ‘the smoke detectors in their apartments, not high explosive bombs and incendiaries falling from the sky.’
At some point, after the twin towers fell from the sky and everything everywhere changed, Larson wondered how Churchill coped with the crushing weight of the war and his familial responsibilities. Two decades later, we get The Splendid and the Vile, a finely woven emotional history of Churchill’s immediate family and the broader family of the English-speaking world.
It’s a masterpiece of narrative non-fiction.
I came to it after finishing a first draft of S.M. Stirling’s new alternate history/time travel epic (thanks for the heads up, Steve) and Raymond E. Feist’s latest fantasy epic, Master of Furies.
I’ll confess I was a bit wary of shifting from high-octane sword and sandal melodrama to a densely researched piece of family history. After all, I’m trying to get back into the reading habit this year. But Larson is a master of the form, and to be fair, he’s writing about a conflict that put Tolkien’s War of the Rings in the corner. From the first line—“No one had any doubt that the bombers would come”—to the eerily beautiful, uncanny horror of their arrival and attempted hyper-murder of a whole city, the story roars along, like a Spitfire flying nap of the earth. Fast, loud, and sometimes too close for comfort.
We have been reminded this last year of what horror looks like when it rides in on a war horse. When the bombers arrive over London, I suspect it evokes in the contemporary reader something more than the prurient fascination it might have just over a year ago. A former journalist with a long list of New Yorker essays to his name, Larson is a master of impeccable detail deletion. A few profoundly personal encounters with the chaos and madness of a city under siege from the air are all we need to find ourselves trapped there.
The diaries of Churchill’s contemporaries, family members, friends and rivals often provide startlingly literate wide-screen views. From his assistant private secretary, John Colville, comes this description of a big raid on a cloudless night, with ‘the moon rising over Westminster’:
Nothing could have been more beautiful and the searchlights interlaced at certain points on the horizon, the star-like flashes in the sky where shells were bursting, the light of distant fires, all added to the scene. It was magnificent and terrible: the spasmodic drone of enemy aircraft overhead; the thunder of gunfire, sometimes close sometimes in the distance; the illumination, like that of electric trains in peace-time, as the guns fired; and the myriad stars, real and artificial, in the firmament. Never was there such a contrast of natural splendor and human vileness.”
With so many previous Churchill biographies (and so many of them being long, multi-volume sagas), Larson chose to dial in his focus on the year of the Blitz. For most of that time, the Brits and their colonial offspring fought alone against the Nazi superstate, and although Churchill memorialised it as their finest hour, it was also the darkest. Defeat and annihilation seemed not just possible but ordained.
Churchill laboured the point that he was not responsible for the ultimate success of the English-speaking democracies and specifically for that handful of transplanted democracies that still thought of themselves as English. But the earliest chapters of S&V paint a bleak picture of an exhausted, worn-out empire on the verge of catastrophe. Whole libraries are filled with studies of why they did not succumb. Still, the charm and value of Larson’s work are how it personalises the impersonal forces of history and makes real the characters in a story fast fading into shrouded myth.
Their human frailty is foregrounded, from Churchill’s depressive mood swings and heavy drinking to his son Randolph’s epic douchebaggery, with dozens of finely-grained pen sketches fleshing out the cast list.
One of the disturbing delights for me was a fast-dawning recognition of just how gross and close the similarities are between Hitler’s favourite, Herman Göring, and a modern fave of your latter-day Hitler stans, Baron Fuckface von Clownstick, alias ’45’, alias Donald J Trump.
To outside observers, Göring seemed to have a limited grip on sanity, but an American interrogator, General Carl Spaatz, would later write that Göring, “despite rumors to the contrary, is far from mentally deranged. In fact he must be considered a very ‘shrewd customer,’ a great actor and professional liar.” The public loved him, forgiving his legendary excesses and coarse personality. The American correspondent William Shirer, in his diary, sought to explain this seeming paradox: “Where Hitler is distant, legendary, nebulous, an enigma as a human being, Göring is a salty, earthy, lusty man of flesh and blood. The Germans like him because they understand him. He has the faults and virtues of the average man, and the people admire him for both. He has a child’s love for uniforms and medals. So have they.”
Just as early and disturbing comes the revelation that some of Churchill’s contemporaries thought they recognised the same character traits echoed in the PM. The wife on one MP diarised that “WC is really the counterpart of Göring in England.” She found him full of bloodlust, bloated with ego and overfeeding, his veins running with treachery, and his public self punctuated by “heroics and hot air”.
However, this was an early assessment written in the aftermath of the bitter leadership spill that brought Churchill to Downing Street.
Within days of the leadership, a new energy sweeps through the corridors of Whitehall, a spirit not to be extinguished even as the bombs started to fall and many of those literal corridors were atomised by high explosives.
I enjoyed this book if you couldn’t tell already. I’d happily recommend it to anyone.
This is the first of our reading club titles, and to remind everyone, it doesn’t matter whether you read it or not or whether you read something else. We’re here to encourage each other to just read a damn book every now and then. If you’ve been reading some cool things over the last two weeks, let us know in the comments below. I might even read it myself.
I love the story about Alice in Wonderland. The original Alice's Adventures in Wonderland manuscript ended up in the hands of Alice Liddell, THE Alice in Lewis Carroll's book, who was forced to sell it in 1928 to pay death duties. It was sold at auction to an American dealer, who sold it on to an Eldridge Johnson in the US. Following Johnson’s death in 1946 the manuscript was was purchased by a wealthy group of American benefactors, who donated it to the British Museum in 1948 as a token of gratitude for the British people's stand against Adolf Hitler.
Yay, I really enjoyed that! Britain's refusal to capitulate in 1940 (or cut a deall) when defeat seemed inevitable was miraculous, a triumph of hope and stubborness over evil. The fact that Churchill was so flawed a human being only adds to the wonder of it. He was wrong about so many things, but right about the one thing on which the fate of the world turned.