225 of 230 people found the following review helpful
"Of all the towering figures of the twentieth century, both good and evil, Winston Churchill was the most valuable to humanity, and also the most likable. It is a joy to write his life, and to read about it. None holds more lessons, especially for youth: How to use a difficult childhood. How to seize eagerly on all opportunities, physical, moral and intellectual. How to dare greatly, to reinforce success, and to put the inevitable failures behind you. And how, while pursuing vaulting ambition with energy and relish, to cultivate also friendship, generosity, compassion and decency."
That's the opening paragraph of Paul Johnson's "Churchill", and if you appreciate clarity, authority and verve in historical writing, you will understand why I gulped down the next 190 pages and now declare it the most exciting biography I read in 2009.
I've studied Churchill; we all have. But the breadth of the man gets lost in a handful of anecdotes and film clips. Paul Johnson delivers the big picture and the tiny detail. So masterful is his approach, so sharp is his observation, so exacting his sense of detail that it's not hard to agree with his assessment --- Churchill saved the world as we know it.
And not Churchill the God, but Churchill the extremely interesting man. Johnson piles on the detail. Yes, Churchill drank whiskey or brandy all day --- "heavily diluted with water or soda." Yes, he stayed in bed as much as possible, for as he told Johnson (who interviewed him at the tender age of 17), the secret of life is "conservation of energy. Never stand up when you can sit down, and never sit down when you can lie down."
As a young politician, Churchill was asked what he stood for. "Opportunism, mostly," he quipped. In fact, he was a liberal, and very progressive. Raised by a nanny, he helped her when her services were no longer needed, sat at her deathbed, kept her grave maintained. In 1910, he was a leader in the fight for old-age pensions. He saw the merits in prison reform: "The treatment of crime and criminals is one of the unfailing tests of the civilization of any country." He helped end the incarceration of children. He wrote 8 million words. He was under fire 50 times. He saw the need to overhaul the Royal Navy. His mother had more affairs than she could count; after he married Clementine, "he never looked at another woman." He painted so well that professionals couldn't believe he was an amateur. He championed the creation of Israel. He drank Pol Roger champagne at meals and smoked a dozen cigars a day. He played polo until he was 53. He loved building walls of brick.
It's a dizzying life. Eloquence, energy, ambition --- this Churchill was a force of nature. It is Johnson's great achievement in these pages that he also establishes Churchill as a colossal failure, who made serious mistakes and paid for them with long years in the wilderness. This only makes even more dramatic his ascendancy; at 65, with German bombers overhead, he finally became prime minister. "I was conscious of a profound sense of relief," he wrote later. "At last I had authority to give directions over the whole scene. I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.... I slept soundly and had no need for cheering dreams. Facts are better than dreams."
The key fact: If Britain lost the war, it would lose its civilization. So the nation simply couldn't lose. The war years are thus the most thrilling years of all, and we see how Churchill was everywhere. Giving great speeches that roused a people under siege. Working 16 hours a day and inspiring others to do the same. And strategizing all the time --- manipulating Roosevelt, preparing for the battle of Germany, forcing Hitler to deal with Greece and postpone his invasion of Russia until the winter, with disastrous results for the Nazis.
The lessons to be learned couldn't be clearer. Churchill was armed with facts, not ideology. He had the right priorities, and in the right order. He repeatedly interrupted his schedule for well-publicized acts of kindness. He was ruthless in pursuit of victory. He held no grudges. He was, in short, a leader on a level we can hardly imagine now --- a protean figure who really did save the world.
If you have an evening reserved for thrills, here they are.
73 of 79 people found the following review helpful
Paul Johnson's new book on Churchill is a mini-biography that partakes of the 'character' tradition, so important in the seventeenth century. It covers Churchill's entire life, but in a schematic way. With less than 200 pp. of text there is not much room for detail. For a one-volume life Johnson himself recommends Lord Jenkins' 2001, thousand-page account. Still, Johnson's book is rich in anecdotal detail; it is clear that he could have delivered a much larger book, had he desired to do so. The portrait is highly favorable, as one would expect from Johnson's earlier written comments on Churchill, but it includes a significant number of criticisms. It is admiring, but not fawning.
Most of all it is an enjoyable read, a kind of children's book version of history, but written for adults. For those who have little knowledge of Churchill and the great events with which his life intersected it is a good place to start. It is also a nice 'character' of a political leader. Johnson is not shy in recording his views and this is (as I recently wrote about John Lukacs' LAST RITES) a strength, since we know precisely where Johnson stands and we can agree or disagree with his clearly-articulated point of view.
There is a brief but attractive series of photographs accompanying the text. This is a lovely afternoon read (one that should include whiskey or brandy and soda, fine claret, champagne, tea or some similar beverage of which Sir Winston would approve). It is uplifting without being unrealistic and brings both smiles and tears at various points.
53 of 59 people found the following review helpful
on December 8, 2009
The vast mountain range of literature about Winston Churchill has sprouted another foothill. Paul Johnson's biography, as you might expect from a Briton, is full of unstinting admiration for Churchill the person as well as the political figure. His faults and failures are duly noted but almost always excused, and there are spots where the amount of credit piled upon him strains credulity a bit. But all in all, the story of his adventurous life is told succinctly and colorfully. We get to know Churchill as a human being, not just as a face on the front page of wartime newspapers. For those unwilling to burrow through the huge Churchill literature, this slim volume will provide a good basic account, albeit from the pen of a fervent admirer and fellow countryman.
Winston Churchill (1874-1965), born to wealth and privilege, was an indifferent student at Harrow, but his energy and boundless ambition carried him easily into Parliament at the age of 26 and kept him there through two world wars, the first of which dealt him a humiliating setback, but the second of which he was a major factor in winning.
Churchill's dogged advocacy of the disastrous Dardanelles campaign in World War I very nearly ended his political career. In typical Churchillian fashion, he first accepted the blame and then got up from the floor, dusted himself off, and went back to the job of keeping British world power in tiptop shape. Johnson gives a workmanlike summary of Churchill's lonely interwar campaign to wake his country up to the menace of Nazism, his assumption of power in the war's darkest hour, and his five brilliant years of leadership. All the famous Churchillian quotes are recycled: "Blood, toil, tears and sweat," "This was their finest hour," "Never before have so many owed so much to so few," "Give us the tools and we will finish the job," and a number of others less celebrated but just as effective. When someone remarked that his defeat in the British election of 1945 might actually be a blessing in disguise, Churchill remarked laconically, "It appears to be very effectively disguised."
Johnson correctly singles out Churchill's mastery of words, both written and spoken, as a major love of his life and a crucial factor in making him famous. He also lets us in on his own personal encounters with Churchill. As a boy of 17, he asked the great man for the secret of his success in life. Churchill responded: "Conservation of energy. Never stand up when you can sit down, and never sit down when you can lie down." Johnson cannot resist adding, "He then got into his limo."
In Johnson's prose, Churchill's political colleague, David Lloyd George, becomes "LG," and Churchill's wife Clementine is "Clemmie." These touches sometimes give his book the air of a series of close-up snapshots taken by a good friend. Churchill is described as a man who never held grudges, had a ready wit, and found peace of mind in his late-in-life hobby of painting, all of which are certainly true. Although mentioned, his drinking habits, long the subject of worldwide gossip, are never emphasized.
Johnson goes so far in his admiration as to give Churchill some of the credit for the success of the Normandy landing in June 1944 and speculates that Churchill "scented victory" in the war as early as the following August. His long and close relationship with Franklin D. Roosevelt is given very short shrift. He faults Roosevelt for his failure to realize the looming danger from postwar Stalinist Russia, adding that Churchill was actually relieved when Harry Truman succeeded to the Presidency upon Roosevelt's death. He feels that Churchill would not have hesitated a moment to use the atomic bomb against Germany had that been necessary. Johnson's only serious charge against Churchill's World War II leadership is his blindness toward the importance of moving strongly against Japan.
Johnson's answer to the basic question, "Did Churchill save Britain in World War II?" is an unequivocal "Yes." No one can quarrel with that. His book is a concise and closely argued brief for the defense of a great man who surely needs no defense even at a historical distance of 44 years. His five years of wartime leadership were most certainly, in his own memorable words, that nation's "finest hour."
--- Reviewed by Robert Finn
16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on January 18, 2012
This was my first book on Churchill so my review must be taken with a grain of salt. I am a fan of short biographies, but only for one reason... to determine if I want to read full-length, multi-volume treatments of one's life. Given the magnitude and length of Churchill's life I find it hard to fault Johnson for his effort but found myself slightly disappointed. It wasn't until the end of the book that I realized most of my disappointment is due to the fact that this man's life cannot, perhaps should not, be treated in 190 pages. I almost tempted to fault Johnson for trying. To be honest, I'm a little bewildered because I can't think of any other biography primers to compare this to. Most of it felt like a whirlwind of fact upon fact. The rhythm of the book was, "Churchill did this... and then this... and then this."
Part of Johnson's goal in writing was to answer the question "could Britain have won the war without Churchill?" Johnson says it could not have, but to me it seems a little too ambitious to answer such a complicated question in such a short work. Though Johnson succeeded in arguing that Churchill was massively influential in the War, I don't think he succeeded in his goal.
I had the sense the Johnson had interesting opinions about Churchill, the lessons of Winston's life found on the final pages suggest that, but I just can't imagine why Johnson felt so compelled to attempt it in less than two hundred pages. Thus, I humbly give the attempt 3 stars and am unlikely to recommend to anyone without the aforementioned caveats.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
We're pretty North American-centric here in the U.S. Watching the Winter Olympics reminds us that we Yanks are hardly the center of the universe. Plus, I've always felt a tad guilty that my reading list had never included anything on Winston Churchill. No more guilt.
Paul Johnson's 166-page chronicle of Churchill's amazing life and leadership has received excellent reviews. The page count also works. The author's masterful scan of Churchill's 90 years (1874 to 1965) includes insightful detail, laugh-out-loud sidebars and absolutely relevant commentary on leadership and politics, war, success and failure (lots of failure).
If you're under 40, don't skip this book--thinking it irrelevant to our Twitter times. Churchill was a member of Parliament for 55 years, 31 years as a government minister, and almost nine years as prime minister. He served in the trenches of (and reported from) 15 battles, was awarded 14 campaign medals, "had been a prominent figure in the First World War, and a dominant one in the Second."
And get this: he published nearly 10 million words, including his 880-page book, The World Crisis: 1911-1918. His five-volume War Memoirs book deal in 1947 paid him $2.23 million ($50 million in today's dollars). And in his spare time, Churchill painted over 500 canvases. In 1953, he received the Nobel Prize for Literature.
He overcame family challenges. His cousin noted, "Few fathers had done less for their sons. Few sons had done more for their fathers." Yet the author writes, "Among all the twentieth-century ruling elites, the Churchills must be judged to have had the most successful marriage."
In the epilogue, the author includes five specific ways that leaders can learn from Churchill. Number 2: "There is no substitute for hard work." Yet, this giant of a world leader "also manifestly enjoyed his leisure activities," including his painting, which created a sanctuary-like retreat for his mind and body. He worked 16-hour days (often with full working mornings in bed--to conserve energy). "The balance he maintained between flat-out work and creative restorative leisure is worth study by anyone holding a top position."
He knew the value of face time. He forced himself "to travel long distances, often in acute discomfort and danger, to meet the top statesmen face-to-face where his persuasive charm could work best."
Speaking of charm, the writing enticed me page after page. Churchill's famed oratory: 111 words per minute, "with Gladstone's 100 as the standard." After touring Africa, he wrote My African Journey (completed on his honeymoon): "...full of schemes for industrializing Africa and harnessing the Nile." His politics: "Churchill was carried forward by intellectual conviction, but his reverence for tradition acted as a brake."
He ribbed others, including the Labour Party leader, Clement Attlee. "Yes, he is a modest man, but then he has so much to be modest about." And this: "An empty taxi drew up outside the House of Commons, and Mr. Attlee got out."
He popularized (if not invented) the terms "cold war" and "iron curtain." Dependent on U.S. help to win World War II, he became a student of FDR and wrote more than 1,000 letters to him. With pen and cigar (up to 12 a day) he was a brute force writing factory. He documented all verbal orders in writing, and his results-driven memos began with the famous headline, "Action This Day."
"So did the endless series of brief, urgent queries: `Pray inform me on one half-sheet of paper, why...' Answers had to be given, fast." (This from Johnson's insightful list of 10 ways that Churchill saved Britain. Number 4: "a personal example of furious and productive activity.")
All of this, and more, in just 166 action-packed pages. This is a fantastic book!
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on May 19, 2010
Johnson, the "great explainer" of modern times and expert dissector of the pretensions of modern intellectuals, has been coasting on his reputation of late. ART: A NEW HISTORY was robust (and colorful) enough, but I wasn't particularly taken with either CREATORS or HEROES. With this engaging "quick sketch" of the life of Winston Churchill, the author is back on form. Some snarky reviews to the contrary, this is not a hagiography, though it certainly gives Churchill the benefit of the doubt more often than not. Its simple goal is to explain why Churchill must be regarded as a major historical figure, regardless of what one thinks of the man and his policies.
The book divides neatly into two sections. Part one is a more or less straightforward biography which takes us up to the point at which Churchill first became Prime Minister in 1940. Johnson avoids the cliche of saddling Churchill with all the responsibility for the failure of the Gallipoli campaign of 1915-16, instead focusing on other, rather less dramatic examples of Churchill's tendency for occasional lapses in judgment. Foremost among the latter is Churchill's bull-headed defense of King Edward VIII during the 1936 Abdication Crisis. This stand had severe consequences for Britain, as Churchill became so unpopular that his (increasingly heeded) warnings of the menace of a rearming Germany were tossed aside as a result.
Johnson then devotes the bulk of the remainder of the volume to an analysis of Churchill's record as a war leader. Johnson sees Churchill as the "indispensable man," the key to Britain's survival, and lays out the reasons why. These reasons are generally convincing, though I wish that even more was made of the salient fact that Churchill regarded both forms of 2oth century totalitarian tyranny -- Fascism and Communism -- as equally evil. While always willing to "jaw-jaw" to preserve peace whenever practicable, he did not fall into the trap of "pas d'ennemis a gauche (ou a droit)" that hinders a sense of moral clarity. One wonders how history would have been altered had Britain and the U.S. heeded Churchill's advice and met the Red Army as far to the East as possible.
The book's ending is its weakest point. Johnson skims over Churchill's second premiership (1951-54) with indecent haste and concludes with a list of "lessons Churchill teaches us today." The latter has the tone of a particularly uninspired business seminar, while it is telling that Johnson prefers to tell us what Churchill did not do during his second turn at the top. (A.N. Wilson's OUR TIMES treats the second Churchill government in a considerably harsher manner, and, given the state of the war-ravaged country and Churchill's own age and weariness, Wilson's treatment rings a bit truer to me.) Happily, in an afterword, Johnson is generous enough to recommend more in-depth treatments of Churchill and his times. If CHURCHILL encourages the reader to forge ahead to these other works, then it will have done its job.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on February 23, 2010
This is one of the very best biographies I have ever read. It's got just the right amount of detail, moves briskly, and is incredibly well written. The author brings his personal knowledge of Churchill in with a light hand, and doesn't shy away from advocating why he believes Churchill saved Europe and possibly the world. I loved the Epilog, with the examination of why and how Churchill was such an effective person. Very uplifting and positive. A fitting tribute to the man.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
No 20th century statesman did more to conserve freedom and democracy than Winston Churchill. The one exception might be Ronald Reagan. So, it goes without saying, that it's hard to read enough about this true giant.
World War 11 might have been very different had Churchill not been responsible for directing England in the right direction against the Nazi Third Reich. Churchill was a man of deep thought and vision. He came to power at just the right time in history.
Certainly there is much to be said about Churchill. But to the overburdened reader who wants to attempt to understand the man and his place in history, this brief book will do the job. Many Americans don't know what a key role Churchill played in the bloody Battle of England. They don't appreciate how his predecessor was a pansy of a man who held Hitler's hand and did little for his own country but lead help put it in harms way.
For the person wanting a short biography of a large man who played a valuable roll in history, this is certainly the right book.
The author uses a less than conventional approach to writing about this giant of a man. He seems to fully understand the complexity of Churchill's character. He allows us to see his faults, his problems, his good side, his bad side and, above all, he makes us see the real person. We learn about his rise and fall from power and his rise again. We learn of his tremendous wit and his numerous kindnesses. Yet we also see his impatience and anger that he often displayed in his 60 years of public life.
Some of the topics the author so successfully deals with include:
* His childhood of privilege in a prominent political family
* His early military adventures in South Africa
* His political ambitions and rise through Parliament
* His great service in WW11
* His "exile" after the war
* His urgent campaign to awaken the world to Hitler's threat
* His magnificent and successful leadership as Prime Minister during World War II
* His role as an elder statesman prophesying the advent of the Cold War
This is a biography that I highly recommend. It's inspiring and intriguing and one you don't want to miss. But there was another side to Churchill that most biographers either miss or decide to leave out --- the self-serving Churchill. The man who planned events and publicized his part in them with a deliberate PR campaign, carefully crafting his image.
- Susanna K. Hutcheson
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on September 24, 2010
Although I have an MA in history, my main interest was always ancient history until recently. I'd like to say my interest in early 20th century history came about by an academic turn of mind, but actually it was brought about by my recent introduction to the series Upstairs, Downstairs - Collector's Edition Megaset (The Complete Series plus Thomas and Sarah) and by a series of murder mysteries, Maisie Dobbs (Book 1) by Jacquline Winspear and the Reavely family series, We Shall Not Sleep: A Novel (World War I), by Anne Perry. Once entranced with the characters and the ambiance of the era, I had to know more.
This was a very nice little book on a very big subject, Winston Churchill. While it definitely just skims the surface of one of the 20th century's most phenomenal personalities, it is a very good overview of the topic and designed to encourage further enquiry by anyone who reads it. Furthermore it is written in a very readable style accessible to any reader from 6th grade and older. A motivated 4th or 5th grader might also enjoy it.
One of the most amazing features of the book is that it really is about Churchill and not about the author. Apparently Paul Johnson actually knew or at least met Churchill on several occasions, but he has avoided the oft seen failure committed by other authors of making himself the center of the book by virtue of this fact. It is obvious from the rare occasions in which he cites a contact with the subject that these were not major and intimate events in Churchill's life. They are recounted for the value they have in illuminating Churchill's personality and the events of his life and not to impress the reader. This shows remarkable restraint and integrity on the author's part.
While the book gives a sense of the almost manic character of Churchill's personal, military and political lives, it does not do so in such overwhelming detail that it becomes a major task to read it all. I think this makes it an excellent book for young people and a good starting point for older readers who want to know about the man but are not as interested in the details of the time period in which he lived. It certainly makes a good introductory work for planning further research into the topic of Churchill and his era, because the author has keep to an almost outline format. Each chapter should provide a good springboard to interesting topics in specific decades and on particular events. Certainly the assembly of the central people and how they all fit together at the time is definitely a resource for further investigation.
All of this also gives the reader an appreciation for just how much has been left out of this narrative and of the amount of effort required to prune it into its present shape. By keeping to a tight theme--the value of Churchill's life as a role model for others--the author has managed to remain concise and focused, narrowing his material to a few highlights. The temptation to cast widely in order to make a definitive biography must have been overwhelming for him, since he seems to have a good handle on the sources.
The bibliography is perhaps the only disappointing aspect of the book. One would have expected a somewhat larger one or at least a larger recommended reading list. This might have made it a better source for further research especially for anyone wanting to write a class paper on the topic. A perusal of a library card catalogue, or in fact the works written by Churchill himself, may well make up for this lack should the student wish to pursue them.
Nice, focused, brief overview.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on February 19, 2012
Johnson's account of Churchill is a noble attempt to condense the life of one of the most interesting characters of the twentieth century to a mere two hundred pages.
Johnson's writing style is very lucid, witty, and overall very enjoyable. However, perhaps due to the shortness of the book, he tends to jumps from subject to subject with no apparent connection, thereby making it hard to follow the storyline.
Also, the speculation on the author's part is somewhat troubling and is oftentimes quite misleading. To cite two examples: When discussing Churchill's reading habits he states, "He read everything of value he could get his hands on, and forgot nothing he read." Obviously, the author is in no position to know what Churchill remembered and what he forgot. Another example is when discussing Churchill's support of Western intervention in Russia during the 1917 Bolshevik Rebellion, the author states that if the intervention was allowed to continue as Churchill had wanted, "it is most unlikely that, with Bolshevism crushed, Mussolini could have come to power in Italy, or still less, Hitler in Germany. Imagine the post-war world without either triumphant Communism or aggressive Fascism!" I found this statement to be just pure speculation, without evidence, or at least a coherent argument to back it up. It would be rather naïve to attribute Hitler's and Mussolini's rise only to the success of Communism in Russia. Such statements as the above do add some appeal and dramatic tone to the book, but they also hurt the credibility of it as well.
Due to its shortness, the book failed to convey the character of Churchill. Having finished reading it, I didn't feel I truly understood who Churchill was, but rather only learned some interesting anecdotes from his life.
Overall, although far from perfect, it is a still every amusing book to read. Just remember to read it with a grain of salt.