Churchill: A Life

I just finished reading “Churchill: A Life” by Martin Gilbert, as part of my ongoing effort to read some of the Goldman Sachs reading list. While I knew something about Winston Churchill, this comprehensive text brought much more to light. He was a whiny child, a reckless young soldier, and a passionate member of Parliament. His school assignments were sometimes unsatisfactory, his military strategies were often ignored, and his fellow ministers pushed him to resign. In short, Churchill was neither a perfect leader nor an indefatigable orator, but a genuine person. He enjoyed painting and swimming and he wrote several biographies and historical texts. He suffered through depression and many health issues during his long and full life.


I don’t read many biographies, but perhaps I should. Gilbert’s biography of Winston Churchill inspired me a great deal. Learning about a great person’s life proves that they aren’t great all the time. People are just people. It seems to me that the great ones had a deep passion in the foundation of their being, they then pursued that passion (whether politics, leadership, business, art, or anything else) with a fanatical drive, then, crucially, they don’t stop. Churchill got out of politics when he physically could not do it any more, and not a day sooner.

Although he was well-born, Winston Churchill had some money problems, especially early in his life. Most of Churchill’s money came from his book sales and his lectures, which was not always steady income. In his mid-twenties, he wrote to his fellow Conservative candidate:

Yes please make some profit for me if you can. I have got a thousand pounds now in hand, which I was about to invest in something tolerably solid, but there is no reason why it should not have a gallop first. I don’t understand your prospectus but I shall be very much obliged if you will make me some money.

Later in life, his achievements had grown to such a scale that his income from his dozens of books and a few estates was such that he didn’t need to worry about finances anymore. Officially as First Lord, he completed a business transaction on behalf of the British Government to purchase a 51% share in the Anglo-Persian Oil Company for just over £2 million.

By this purchase, he explained…the Royal Navy would secure all the oil it needed to maintain its warships, without depending on any private company or any foreign government…over the next fifty years the interest alone of Britain’s 51% share of the oil profits was to pay for the cost of all battleships build after 1914.

While serving in the trenches, Churchill told his officers to “Laugh a little & teach your men to laugh – great good humour under fire – war is a game that is played with a smile. If you can’t smile, grin. If you can’t grin, keep out of the way till you can.” When Churchill served in higher office during World War Two, he almost always advocated a strategy of constant attack. He refused to accept defeat or delay and insisted that Britain take the fight to the Germans as soon as possible, and at every opportunity. He believed that “peace is our aim, and strength is the only way of getting it.”

I cannot help but compare great historical leaders against the current political climate of the United States. The world is a far more complicated and hateful place than in Churchill’s day, yet, modern leadership has not risen to the challenge. Instead, we are left making the least bad choice, and hoping to survive, rather than thrive.

Each night, I try myself by Court Martial to see if I have done anything effective during the day. I don’t mean just pawing the ground, anyone can go through the motions, but something really effective.

There are very great things to be done by those who reach a certain scale of comprehension & of power in their early prime. As long as health & life are ours, we must try to do them – not to be content except with the best and truest solutions.

I never saw him tired, he was absolutely totally organized, almost like a clock. He knew how to husband his energy, he knew how to expend it. His routine was absolutely dictatorial. He set himself a ruthless timetable every day and would get very agitated and cross if it was broken. (Bill Deakin, on Churchill)

Writing a book is an adventure, to begin with, it is a toy and an amusement; then it becomes a mistress, and then it becomes a master, and then a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster, and fling him out to the public.

Never flinch, never weary, never despair.

Churchill: A Life

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