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Churchill: Walking with Destiny.

Churchill: Walking with Destiny. By Andrew Roberts. (New York, NY: Viking, 2018. Pp. xvi, 1046. $40.00.)

Winston Churchill always had a strong sense of himself as a man of destiny. As a teenage schoolboy he had claimed to foresee "great upheavals, terrible struggles; wars such as one cannot imagine" in which he would have a "high position" and "save London and England ... [and] the Empire." In his early twenties a palm-reader predicted: "he would pass great difficulties but reach the top of his profession." "I trust you may be right in your forecast," he told her. The first biography of Churchill, published in 1905 when he was a 30-year-old first-term Member of Parliament, described him as a future Prime Minister. But it took another 35 years and a world war to make him Prime Minister in 1940, after an extraordinary political roller-coaster journey full of advances, setbacks, successes, disasters and controversy. He may then have kept Britain in the war and avoided defeat but--as he recognized and lamented--he could not hold back the decline and loss of his country's power and Empire.

The Churchill story and the Churchill myths and legends are well known and well established. Churchill was protean, unique and iconic. There have already been over a thousand biographies of Winston Churchill--of varying rigor and quality, some hagiographic, some revisionist and debunking, and many more specialist studies of particular aspects of his life and career. Do we really need another thousand-page general biography?

The answer has to be that Andrew Roberts has written a book that should have a commanding place in the field fot years to come. It is not so much that Roberts has come up with a bold new interpretation or hugely significant new research findings. But he has extensively mined archival and primary sources as well as the existing (including specialist academic) literature--much more so than did the statesman-author Roy Jenkins, whose similar-scale but over-praised biography was published in 2001. There are some new sources, such as King George VT's private diaries and the diaries of the Soviet ambassador Ivan Maisky, which add detail and anecdote rather than changing the overall picture. Roberts challenges caricatured views of Churchill as a sort of alcohol-soaked depressive. Churchill once wrote that "to do justice to a great man, discriminating criticism is necessary" and Roberts, while clearly admiring Churchill, does not hold back on his (many) flaws, blunders, mistakes, misjudgements and policy errors. But his argument is that Churchill learned from them, and put the lessons to good use.

Churchill himself had a powerful sense of history, saw and imagined himself in history, and wrote lots of best-selling old-fashioned history, narratives of kings and battles and high command. There is something of that quality to this book with its main focus on politics, war, and strategy, though a rounded and perceptive portrait of the central figure is painted. It is an immense story, with the first 500 pages covering Churchill's life and career before 1940, then nearly 400 pages on the wartime premiership (1940-45) and another 100 pages to wrap up. But Roberts tells the story immensely well and for all its scale, detail and (literally) weight, there are no longueurs in this remarkable and absorbing book.

Kevin Theakston

University of Leeds
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Title Annotation:EUROPE
Author:Theakston, Kevin
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2019
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