BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week, Churchill’s Passions, is full of powerful images, and sounds fantastic

Over five days, the historian Andrew Roberts condenses some of his new book’s 1,152 pages into five essays that he also narrates.

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Having occasionally prayed for release from Winston Churchill (two movies last year alone; ten-plus door-slamming episodes of The Crown; news that Boris Johnson’s biography just topped 250,000 UK sales) I dragged my heels to Churchill’s Passions (8 October, 9:45am). Over five days, the historian Andrew Roberts condenses some of his new book’s 1,152 pages into five essays that he also narrates… and it sounds fantastic. Not least Roberts’s speaking voice – brisk, fastidious. He says that from the age of 16 Churchill believed, with a blinding light, that he was destined to “save London and England from disaster”, and henceforth operated with a clear sense of a code.

This conviction was dependent not upon some change in outward facts but upon his own will. Having escaped death as often as Bruce Willis (Winston was born premature, stabbed as a schoolboy, voluntarily went into No Man’s Land on 30 occasions, and was in three car and two plane crashes), Churchill had a faith in fate and providence that verged on a “psychological disorder”. He was spookily prescient, too, in his twenties correctly predicting (like some Hindu monk) the exact date of his death. And he was overwhelmingly emotional.  “The older Churchill got,” notes Roberts, “the more he wept.” Poetry set him off. Birthdays. Stories of loyal dogs. March-pasts. Visits to submarines. Train journeys. The memory of funerals of people he didn’t even admire.

Voters loved snaps of Churchill buried in a huge hankie, under a splashy hat – that swollen face, custardy and post-blub (no PM has achieved an approval rating even close to his). Churchill may technically have been a late Victorian but (says Roberts) he resembled more a Regency aristocrat of the kind who bore Nelson’s coffin from church, bawling. It’s one of many powerful images in the essays. We are lucky, states Roberts, to have been led by someone who was not a “cold calculating logician”. Instead we got someone who sounds frequently mad – not in a funny, cuckoo way, but in an unmodern, obsessed sort of way. The familiar narrative that Churchill “saved” us – that there existed a “hero” who actually did it – bears endless, increasingly tantalising retellings. Because it’s not that far from the truth. 

Book of the Week: Churchill’s Passions
BBC Radio 4

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 12 October 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How austerity broke Britain