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Sunday, October 17, 2021

Book Review: Young titan


The making of a legend
SAURABH KUMAR SHAHI | Issue Dated: November 30, -0001, New Delhi
Tags : Young titan | Michael Shelden | Book Review |

History is rife with people who have been made important because of the thrust of history. There are others, unlucky ones, whose individual achievements got lost in the tsunami of big events. General Erwin Rommel, most certainly a better commander than Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, had the bad luck of being on the wrong side of history. In fact, World War II had affected many like him. However, if there is one individual whose entire persona has been defined by that War, it is British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

There have been volumes written on him, but there has hardly been any title outside of pure academia that has tried to explore his personality beyond the realms of World War II. American writer Michael Shelden has tried to bridge that gap. Shelden’s ‘Young Titan: The making of Winston Churchill’ focuses on Churchill’s formative years as a politician and a person.
Before moving further, it should be made clear that Shelden writes primarily for American readership and this book is no different. After all, which Brit will need to be told that Tonypandy is in Wales and Dundee in Scotland. But having said that, this must also be mentioned that the book do  have incidents about the life of Churchill that are not well known even among British readership.

Winston Churchill is one legend who has both mistakes and success written all over him. But in his initial years as a politician, the mistakes he committed were pretty frequent and pronounced. Churchill’s father, Lord Randolph Churchill, was a blue blooded aristocrat who was running out of money, and fast. It did not help Lord Randolph either that he married Jennie, a New York beauty who went on to become Winston’s mother. This was a peculiar era in Britain where American gold-diggers were marrying declining aristocrats in Britain, and under the circumstances, Jennie’s marriage to Lord Rudolph not only scandalized his class, it virtually also finished his political career for good. Lord Rudolph was also not particularly attentive or caring when it came to his family, even by the dismal standards of 19th century British aristocracy. All these had huge impact on Winston in his formative years. The book does manage to bring it out effectively.

However, the most interesting aspect about junior Churchill’s formative years was his initial days in Conservative Party and his later defection to Liberals. Unlike what he turned out during or after the War, Churchill in those days was a deeply polarizing character. Shelden unearths almost equal number of people who thought Churchill was a figure worth promoting and those who thought he was a figure worth ridiculing. Also, across the party line, there were equal number of politicians who thought he was a snob, upstart and threw his weight around, and those who considered him brilliant.

But it is also striking how much rigour one had to put in those times to be able to even qualify as a possible Prime Minister-in-waiting, leave alone Prime Minister itself. Churchill never completed his university degree. However, the hands-on experience gained during his stint at Board of Trade, the Treasury, the Home Office and the Admiralty, gave him enough apprenticeship to be taken seriously. Those were not the days when being a PM at the ago of 40-45 was considered an achievement. The likes of Blair and Brown wouldn’t have possibly passed gates of 10 Downing Street had they been born just a century shy.

But those were also the days when democracy was still maturing. Unruly behavior, sabotage and plain thuggery were widely accepted norms of parliamentary process and young Churchill was not left untouched. He crossed the floor in 1904 and joined the Liberals over the issue of ‘Free Trade’. And then returned in 1925. However, he did not think twice before he quipped, “The only instance of a rat swimming toward a sinking ship,” when a fellow Liberal aspired to fight the election on Conservative ticket.

However, the author also appears to put Churchill off the hook on mistakes that he made. In fact, the author appears too enamored at times to judge the incident impartially. For example, the author fails to mention that his jumping parties were more about being in the right spot at the right time and less about issues per se. After all, the politician who apparently “despised the crude methods of violence as a tool” vehemently defended the British colonialism till his dyeing breath. Incidents like  the Tonypandy miners’ riot or for that matter the Siege of Sidney Street, where he particularly showed penchant for violence as a tool, Shelden absolves him on rather flimsy grounds.

Such small aberrations apart, the book remains an essential read to understand the man and the zeitgeist. 

Author: Michael Shelden
Publications: Simon & Schuster                         
Edition: Hardbound     
ISBN: 978-1-47111-322-2
Pages:  402               
Price: Rs 699

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017