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LIVING: BOOKS: A tale of sleaze, vanity and Sir Winston.

Byline: RICHARD WILLIAMSON

WHETHER or not you agree with Winston Churchill's latest accolade as the Greatest Briton, one thing is certain - we can always rely on Winnie to provoke an argument.

He is the subject of an endless stream of books that constantly reassess a reputation that has swayed from national saviour to scourge of the working classes and back again.

But few accounts of the life and times of the national icon with the hat, cigar and V-for-victory sign have been as odd as Winston's Warby Michael Dobbs (HarperCollins pounds 17.99).

So it is important to remember that this is a novel written by someone who enjoys making amusing mischief.

He is the Tory bigwig who wrote the House of Cards trilogy, which was turned into a hit television series starring Ian Richardson as Francis Urquhart, the oiliest, creepiest politician of them all.

In his latest venture, Dobbs is somewhat hemmed in by the indisputable facts of Churchill's life but that doesn't stop some wildly imaginative and distinctly subversive moments.

The book covers the period from Munich in 1938 to the moment when Churchill became Prime Minister at the height of the 1940 crisis.

But there are times when it seems more like a novel about Birmingham's own Neville Chamberlain, the man who came home waving Hitler's autograph, claiming peace in our time.

Chamberlain was welcomed home as a hero from Munich, hailed as 'St Neville', as Dobbs puts it. There were plenty who supported his peace at any price policies and relatively few who backed Churchill.

Dobbs is fascinated by the parallels between then and now, not least in his depiction of the activities of the spin doctors in Chamberlain's office. This pair of crooks are so devious and vile they make Alastair Campbell look like an angel.

These are people who tap the phones of colleagues and play dirty tricks to defeat Neville's enemies, particularly Churchill.

I don't know about the details of Chamberlain's gang but I have no trouble in believing the general point that politics was just as sleazy then as it is now.

Nobody comes out terribly well in this novel. Even saintly figures like the King get a bit of a bashing for allegedly not being on Winston's side.

Dobbs writes of the anti-Semitism rife in Britain at the time. He ridicules the oafish Joseph Kennedy, the anti-British American Ambassador in London. He portrays newspaper magnate Beaverbrook as a crude bully and Churchill's friend, Brendan Bracken, as a hopeless fantasist, no longer able to tell the difference between his real life and the bits he made up.

But Dobbs' big idea is to have Guy Burgess - a notoriously promiscuous homosexual, drunk and Communist spy - as the key man in the machinations that brought Churchill to power.

These days Burgess - along with fellow-travellers Philby, Maclean and Blunt - is reviled as a traitor, making him an ironic hero to save the nation from Hitler. It's true that Burgess and Churchill met at least once in real life but the rest comes from the fevered imagination of the author.

Churchill himself emerges as a rather vain, self-indulgent man but also a powerful figure with a talent for rhetoric and one priceless asset - he was dead right about Hitler.

The question of whether or not a man ought to show loyalty to his party or his conscience is the book's central theme.

Churchill, after all, had changed sides often enough to make his colleagues wary. He also had a decidedly dodgy pedigree after blunders like the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign.

Even his finest hour in 1940 came in the wake of the Norway debacle for which, as First Sea Lord, he had at least some responsibility.

Much of this ground was covered earlier this year by a terrific BBC film called The Gathering Storm, starring Albert Finney, which made Churchill much more human than anything Dobbs manages here.

But Dobbs says he hopes that his blend of fact and fiction will inspire readers to go out and find the truth for themselves.

If the mountain of Winston literature is too daunting they mightlike to start with John Keegan's pocket biography, Churchill (Weidenfeld & Nicolson pounds 14.99). The distinguished military historian offers a concise account of the famous career with all its deep lows and dizzying heights.

An affectionate public acknowledged the great speechmaker as the leader who won the war, but they still decided he was not the man for the peace that followed.

Keegan says: 'Churchill was seen by the man and woman in the street as a reactionary. His reputation was anti-worker and anti-welfare.'

But did they get it right? Keegan argues that Churchill had once been committed to social reform, he supported the idea of the National Health Service and was one of the first politicians to talk of the need for a united Europe.

It seems that we still have plenty of arguing to do on the subject of 'Our Winnie' and the only certainty is that he will keep historians, biographers, novelists and publishers in work for decades to come.

Churchill's famous comment that Russia 'is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma' might well apply to Winston himself.

CAPTION(S):

HEROES OR VILLAINS?... Winston Churchill and Neville Chamberlain
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)
Date:Dec 8, 2002
Words:879
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