This is a splendid

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This is a splendid book and if you’re a Churchill fan I recommend it to you heartily. What’s more, even if you’re not a Churchill fan I think you may find it a treat. It’s not a big book in either the literal or figurative sense of the word. But it accomplishes in spades what most books can only hope to do: it pulls you into another world.

Churchill wrote this book in 1930 when he was 56 years old, at the tail end of a long, successful, but in some many checkered career in public life. Of course, we know that from our perspective he had barely even gotten started yet. But at the time that was hardly clear. The book covers the years from his dawning of consciousness into his late twenties when a mixture of luck, daring, heredity and ingenuity landed him in the House of Commons, where he was to stay – more or less continuously – for the next six decades.

Churchill writes in his characteristic simple but vigorous prose. But what’s captivating about this book is its candor, its ingenuousness, and really its alien-ness. Not only did most of these events take place more than one hundred years ago. But

Churchill lived in a world that doesn’t exist anymore, that of the Victorian British aristocracy. And the book is filled with the details of that life. Most surprising is that much of it is quite funny, intentionally so.

He recalls very early years in Ireland, fitful experiences in school, Sandhurst, his posting to India where he gets terribly bored but discovers the written word, and then the whirlwind series of events which had him in Cuba during the Spanish-American war, in the Sudan during its reconquest by Kitchener, then in South Africa during the Boer War, and finally back in Britain and even on a speaking tour of America where he has a momentary encounter with Mark Twain. (Having read a good Churchill biography will help read between some of the lines, but it’s by no means necessary.)

A few points. Churchill intentionally writes to mimic the level of knowledge and awareness he had at the time he describes. This occasionally misfires, but in general works quite well. So early on you have such gems as …

In 1880 [when he was six] we were all thrown out of office by Mr. Gladstone. Mr. Gladstone was a very dangerous man who went about rousing people up, lashing them into fury so that they voted against the Conservatives and turned my grandfather out of his place as Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland.

Churchill’s grandfather, of course, was the Duke of Marlborough.

What stands out about this book for me is how it captures the fact that failure and disappointment were, in many ways, the defining experiences of Churchill’s life – depression also, though he doesn’t call it such here – and his successes and greatness were found in coming up with ways to overcome them, finding novel ways out of or solutions to his circumstances.

His high birth, his politically-connected family, his mother’s special relationship with the future King of England all helped Churchill. But he was also given up on and ignored by his father, whom he revered, as too stupid to ever amount to anything. His mother was loving, but distant. (She did him her best turns later on when she got her influential lovers to pull strings for him.) He never did well in school and was sent off for a career in the army because it was thought he wasn’t cut out for the University. It took him three tries to get into Sandhurst. But once he was there he began, he begins, to find himself. And he begins charting his way.

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