Alibi V.24 No.14 • April 2-8, 2015 

Book Review

Flaws and All

Boris Johnson’s The Churchill Factor personalizes a legend

The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History

Riverhead Books
hardcover
biography
$27.95

May 1940 might have been the most dire month of the entire 20th century: France was on the ropes, Stalin was allied with Hitler, America was in the thrall of isolationists. Meanwhile, the UK stood nearly alone against the Nazi menace, and not everyone thought its new leader was up to the task.

Keep in mind, this wasn’t Winston Churchill, the infallible myth we read about in textbooks. This was Winston Churchill, the career politician with a long history of blunders, drunkenness, opportunism and egotism.

The Churchill Factor by Boris Johnson reveals how this latter version of Churchill morphed into the former. Johnson penned this work while serving as the mayor of London (and is a potential future Prime Minister himself). His pre-political background is in journalism, which gives the writing here a distinct flair. Even the title reads as if Robert Ludlum had turned to historical fiction, letting us know things will move fast without getting bogged down in footnotes or unjuicy details. Indeed, Johnson uses phrases like mini-me, perv, whacko, vamoosed, jefe and sex bomb. He uses Britishisms like prang, tosser, blarney, barmy, twig (as a verb), strop and trowsty. He references Blake and Tennyson, tosses off words like amanuenses and desiderata while making it all seem conversational.

"Back to the wall" by Leslie Illingworth shows Churchill (as John Bull) guarding a wall also being defended by British Empire forces.
"Back to the wall" by Leslie Illingworth shows Churchill (as John Bull) guarding a wall also being defended by British Empire forces.
The National Archives UK

Johnson’s dissimilarities with our American politicians don’t end there however. He doesn’t use the phrase “greatest generation” once, nor any Limey equivalent. I mean, how does one get elected in the UK if not by pandering? In Johnson’s telling, the Germans and Japanese are portrayed as having bellies fired to a higher temperature, while the risk-averse Brits cling to a crumbling empire by the skins of their stiff upper lips. One of Churchill’s opponents in Parliament said of him, “He wins debate after debate but loses battle after battle,” and Johnson seems to pile on with faint praise: “The British military performance wasn’t as bad as all that. It was rare for the Germans to be beaten by anyone unless outnumbered, and often by a factor of two or three.”

Getting halfway through the book, you’d have to wonder how this flawed country with its flawed leader ever came out on top. The answer turns out to be in the title.

In the darkest days, Churchill was one of the few prominent figures not clamoring for a deal with the enemy. Even in respectable middle age, he was still a bit of a buccaneer—what we stateside would call a cowboy—insisting till the 11th hour on being present at D-Day. He was only talked out of it by the combined pressures of his cabinet, generals, king and wife. “I have nothing to offer,” he said on another occasion, “but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

He was a multi-flawed man, but his decisive advantages were the twin gifts of bravery and language. Johnson’s spirited book reminds us of that and is well worth the read.