Why the cult of Churchill lingers on

The historical inaccuracies in The King's Speech are a sign of cynical populism

London 1936. Edward VIII is about to abdicate and Winston Churchill is airing his views on the departing monarch in a private audience with his successor, his brother the Duke of York: "He was careless with state papers. He lacked commitment and resolve. There were those that worried where he would stand when war with Germany comes.War with Germany will come, and we will need a King behind whom we can all stand united."

This is British interwar history, as told by the makers of The King's Speech. And it's bunk. No one would know from this scene, or any of the others in which the two appear, that Churchill had supported, lobbied for Edward VIII's right to wed Mrs Simpson and stay on the throne, that for most of the Thirties he was regarded by the establishment as a crazy, washed-up has-been, and that George VI would go on to become a staunch supporter of Chamberlain's policy of appeasement.

Since Colin Firth picked up a Golden Globe and umpteen Bafta nominations were showered on the film, the press have had great fun highlighting other inaccuracies in the film: "Royal dukes, monarchs and their spouses/squeezes did not wander around London in taxis unsupervised or use creaky Harley St lifts alone" (The Guardian); "No dinner-jacketed BBC executive, surrounded by heavy stand-microphones, would have talked about a royal broadcast 'going out live tonight'" (Daily Mail).

Most of these and other distortions/anachronisms are, in fact, minor and can be reasonably defended by scriptwriter Tom Hooper on the grounds of dramatic licence. It is in the depiction of Churchill, however, that he cannot plead this, though Hugo Vickers, biographer of the Queen Mother and "royal adviser" to The King's Speech has tried: "People can say, for example, that [Winston] Churchill didn't play nearly as big a role as he does in the film - he wasn't actually there at such and such a point, he never uttered those words, and so on. But the average viewer knows who Churchill is; he doesn't know who Lord Halifax and Lord Hoare are. I don't mind these things at all."

Presumably Vickers had to beat off the challenge of fellow Windsor groupies Norman St John Stevas and Andrew Roberts for the role, and no doubt a decent retainer for his services helped to sweep aside any reservations. But while he may not mind "these things", some of us do.

As Vickers blithely acknowledges, Churchill is in there because he is an easy historical touchstone for those who might not know much about the period. He has the added advantage of being a larger than life character on whom writers and actors can feast. Yet his on-screen appearances represent a cynical populism of the kind to which a good film does not need to descend.

It descends to it because it still wants to play off the cult of Churchill. That cult is nothing new but has intensified in the last decade. The key moment may have been in 2002 when he - deservedly - came out on top in the BBC's Great Britons series. Also that year was the award-winning TV drama about his political exile, The Gathering Storm. In 2009, Into the Storm was released.

Like The King's Speech, both those productions were co-funded by the Americans and it is tempting to conclude that Churchill has been thrown into the film as much for an American audience as a British one. In the United States, his wartime leadership was regularly cited as an inspiration and example by those leading "The War on Terror". George Bush, we were informed after 9/11, kept a bust of him in the Oval Office. It's almost as if the film-makers have ticked off all the usual stuff the Yanks like to see in a film of this genre - the pageantry, the stiff upper lip, the picturesque shots of Thirties London and royal estates - and then thought: How can we push the envelope that bit more? Hey, let's give them a bit of Churchillian bombast!
There are two final points to make about The King's Speech. The first, made by Geoffrey Wheatcroft in The Spectator, is that Timothy Spall's Churchill bears a spooky resemblance to this magazine's late political correspondent Alan Watkins. The second point is that, for all these objections, the film is to be recommended.

MICHEL DETAY
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Be transported to an ash-shrouded Iceland with Sjón’s new novel Moonstone

Moonstone is in some ways Sjón’s most straightforward book – but there is a wonderful netherworld quality to its ashen Reykjaví.

On 12 October 1918, the Icelandic volcano Katla erupted, melting glaciers and causing floods that engulfed farmland and villages, destroying crops and killing livestock (but, remarkably, no people). The flood waters carried so much sediment that in the aftermath of the disaster, Iceland was left with five extra kilometres of southern coastline. Ten times more powerful than the 2010 eruption of its neighbour Eyjafjallajökull, the Katla blast generated an ash cloud that enshrouded the island in darkness.

The Icelandic author Sjón (Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson), a miniaturist who deals in large themes, begins Moonstone: the Boy Who Never Was on the night of the eruption but with his focus on a much smaller explosion: the climax of a man being professionally masturbated by the 16-year-old Máni Steinn. Máni is an orphan who is being raised by his great-grandmother’s sister. He is obsessed with cinema, with motorbikes and with one of his schoolmates: a girl he calls Sóla G–. A gay loner in an illiberal society, he lives in the unheated attic of a house belonging to a respectable Reykjavík family. Máni is the latest in a series of outsiders who occupy the heart of Sjón’s fiction.

Moonstone is Sjón’s eighth novel and the fourth to be translated into English. He has also published volumes of poetry and written lyrics for Björk. His books often contain forms of magic, although he always leaves a margin of ambiguity around supernatural events. They feature characters that emerge from the sea, or visit the underworld, or flee the Holocaust and bring a golem to Iceland.

The Whispering Muse is narrated by a man fixated on the idea that fish consumption is responsible for the superiority of the Nordic race. In 1949, on a Norwegian fjord, he encounters a sailor who claims to have crewed on the Argo under Jason. In The Blue Fox, a hunter debates philosophy with his prey before – perhaps – transforming into an animal. From the Mouth of the Whale, which may be Sjón’s masterpiece, is set in the 17th century and narrated by Jónas Pálmason, a healer and scholar operating at the stress point between science and magic. Jónas participates in one of the more memorable exorcisms in fiction.

It makes sense that Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita is a favourite novel of Sjón’s: his writing gives off a similar sense of flouting familiar rules. Bulgakov’s novel alternates between fantastical picaresque and an almost documentary realism and Sjón clearly enjoys blending styles, too: flick through his novels and you will find folklore, myth, realism, social comedy, local history, musical theory and surrealism. Turn a page and you are as likely to encounter a touchingly domestic description of a husband massaging his weary wife at the end of a day’s labour as you are a dialogue conducted on the seabed between a living man and a drowned corpse (whose speech is interrupted by a succession of ever-larger crabs scuttling from his mouth).

Sjón’s skill in transitioning seamlessly between such episodes is one of the great pleasures of his work, but it also helps to make one of its most important points: that stories are a fundamental part of describing and interrogating existence, and genres – realism, surrealism, postmodernism – are merely tools that help get the job done. In this, and in the way that his books are all puzzles to be solved as well as stories to be experienced, Sjón’s work borders not only Bulgakov’s but also that of José Saramago and, particularly in the funny and eerie The Whispering Muse, Magnus Mills.

Moonstone is in some ways Sjón’s most straightforward book, although it obeys the surrealist rule of awarding dreams equal status to waking life. There is no magic in it, unless we count the magic of cinema as Máni experiences it, and the netherworld quality of Reykjavík when, after being plunged into cinema-like darkness by Katla’s ash cloud, it is depopulated by disease:

The cathedral bell doesn’t toll the quarter hour, or even the hours themselves. Though the hands stand at eight minutes past three it’s hard to guess whether this refers to day or night. A gloomy pall of cloud shrouds both sun and moon. A deathly quiet reigns in the afternoon as if it were the darkest hour before dawn . . . From the long, low shed by the harbour, the sounds of banging and planing can be heard . . . It is here that the coffins are being made.

A week after Katla erupted, two ships from Copenhagen brought the Spanish flu that would quickly kill 500 Icelanders. The same day, a referendum was held on independence from Denmark and, on 1 December, the Act of Union gave the country its sovereignty. The two-month span of Sjón’s novel was, then, an unusually consequential one for Iceland – that outsider nation, that “unlovely splat of lava in the far north of the globe”, as another of his books has it. “An uncontrollable force has been unleashed in the country,” Máni thinks. Unusually, “Something historic is taking place in Reykjavík at the same time as it is happening in the outside world.” Ironically for a nation that avoided the slaughter of the First World War, which also ends within Moonstone’s tight time frame, that “something historic” entails heavy casualties as well. For Máni, this dose of reality feels unreal. “The silver screen has torn,” he thinks, “and a draught is blowing between the worlds.”

Many authors would look to wring the maximum tumult from these events. Sjón’s interest, however, is tightly focused on Máni, and Máni’s strengths are quiet ones. He falls ill, recovers, and bravely helps a doctor treat the sick and dying in the “abandoned set” that Reykjavík has become. On the day of the country’s independence, Máni contradictorily seeks closer ties with Denmark: he has sex with a Danish sailor. Discovered, he rises above attacks from the pillars of Icelandic society, including men who have bought his body. He faces exile, which will turn out to be the making of him.

Sjón’s style is economical, lyrical and sometimes elliptical but, for all his trickster qualities, emotion never gets lost in the intricacies of his storytelling. When the meaning of the book’s subtitle is finally explained, the effect is powerful. Moonstone is about human decency, courage and respect for the individual. It is a small book with a large heart.

Moonstone: the Boy Who Never Was by Sjón, translated by Victoria Cribb, is published by Sceptre (147pp, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad