Excerpt from Churchill's Shadow by Geoffrey Wheatcroft , plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Churchill's Shadow

The Life and Afterlife of Winston Churchill

by Geoffrey Wheatcroft

Churchill's Shadow by Geoffrey Wheatcroft X
Churchill's Shadow by Geoffrey Wheatcroft
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2021, 640 pages

    Apr 2023, 640 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Peggy Kurkowski
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Print Excerpt

Prologue: 'This little place'

House of Commons 1963

A hush fell as he entered the chamber in a wheelchair and took his seat, not on the Treasury Bench where he had sat as prime minister at an exalted moment in his country's history, but in another hallowed place below the gangway, from where he had once delivered his warnings about the threat from Adolf Hitler, and before that about the threat from Mohandas Gandhi. Sir Winston Churchill had sat in the House since the beginning of the century, but hadn't spoken for some years, was visibly frail, and may not have properly followed proceedings: by now more sacred talisman than elder statesman.

That day in the summer of 1963 was the one occasion when I ever saw Churchill plain and close at hand. I was a schoolboy absorbed by politics, and a friend's father, a Labour Member of Parliament, had given me a pass to the gallery of the House of Commons. For all that he was aged and infirm, I was glad to have seen him for myself, and to have seen him where I did. 'This little place,' Churchill had once said, 'is what makes the difference between us and Germany.' He was talking to another MP as they left the darkened chamber late one night in 1917, but he might have used the same words still more truly in 1940: 'This little room is the shrine of the world's liberties.' He left Parliament at last the year after I saw him, and died only months later, in January 1965 aged ninety, as if the last drop of political lifeblood had been drained from him when the initials 'MP' no longer stood after his name.

This book is an attempt to make sense of the man I saw that day long ago; to look hard at his reputation during his lifetime, and his influence since he died; to make a reckoning with his life and with his legacy, the long shadow he still casts; and to understand what he really meant to his contemporaries, and what he means to posterity. When I saw Churchill, no reminder was needed of how much he had loomed over our lives; what I couldn't have guessed then was how large he would still loom so long after his death – and yet how hard to grasp the reality of Churchill it would still be.

A few things should be said. 'Far too much has been and is being written about me,' Churchill sarcastically observed – and that was the best part of a hundred years ago, when he little guessed how much more, enormously more, would be written about him, not least by himself. Any writer might hesitate before adding to the huge corpus, or at least try humbly to explain himself if he does so. First of all, this book is not in any way a conventional biography. 'A shilling life will give you all the facts,' said Auden, and the official life of Churchill, begun by his errant son Randolph and completed by the late Sir Martin Gilbert, while costing a good deal more than a shilling, gives you many of the facts, though by no means all.

But then that's only part of the story. 'The posthumous life of Winston Churchill is one of the most remarkable phenomena of the post-Churchillian age and might serve as the subject for a book in itself,' the eminent American historian of modern England Peter Stansky wrote – as long ago as 1974, on the occasion of Churchill's centenary, less than ten years after his death! Nearly fifty years later, as we approach his sesquicentenary, Churchill's posthumous life has become a far more remarkable phenomenon. At one time I thought of writing a book to examine that afterlife, the scholarly and political debates over his reputation, his representation or misrepresentation in popular culture, 'Churchillism' in England, and the truly extraordinary growth of the Churchill cult in America. But I found it impossible to explain that without looking back at his life. Even then, to do so in a comparatively short compass might have a ring of Monty Python's 'summarise Proust' competition, but I emphasise that this is not a 'Life and Times'.

Excerpted from Churchill's Shadow by Geoffrey Wheatcroft . Copyright © 2021 by Geoffrey Wheatcroft . Excerpted by permission of W.W. Norton & Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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