Posts Tagged ‘Winston Churchill’

Winston Churchill and “the English-speaking club”

Sunday, January 3rd, 2016

reidWinston Churchill the speaker was a force of nature. His rhetorical powers had a critical role to play in saving Europe from the biggest threat it had faced in a millennia, perhaps ever. There’s a reason why his rhetoric worked. Paul Reid writes in The Last Lion: Defender of the Realm 1940-1965: “Churchill, like Samuel Johnson and Shakespeare, could string together phrases that resonated with Glasgow pub patrons, Welsh coal miners, and Cockney laundresses, as well as with the Harold Nicolsons and Lady Astors. At his dinner table or in the Commons during Questions, he sprayed the room with fusillades of bons mots. But his broadcasts and speeches were strategic assaults, not tactical, and were crafted with infinite care. His broadcasts sound so English, but in fact their structural foundations date to Cicero.”

But Churchill was above all a writer, and a professional one (we wrote about that here). According to Reid:

“Churchill had been a professional writer before he became a statesman; he had supported his family with a tremendous stream of books and articles. His love of the language was deep and abiding, he had mastered it as few men have, and he was quick to correct anyone who abused it, especially those who tried to camouflage sloppy thinking with the flapdoodle of verbose military jargon or bureaucratese. He believed, with F.G. Fowler, that big words should not be used when small words will do, and that English words were always preferable to foreign words. He said: ‘Not compressing thought into a reasonable space is sheer laziness.’ On his orders ‘Communal Feeding Centres’ were renamed ‘British Restaurants,’ as ‘Local Defense Volunteers’ had become ‘Home Guard.’ And why not ‘ready-made’ rather than ‘prefabricated’? ‘Appreciate that’ was a red flag for him; he always crossed it out and substituted ‘recognize that.’ Another was ‘intensive’ when ‘intense’ was required. Once [Churchill’s private secretary] John Martin, driving along the Embankment with him, described the winding of the Thames as ‘extraordinary.’ Churchill corrected him: ‘Not “extraordinary” All rivers wind. Rather, “remarkable.”‘ In the margins of official documents, he often quoted Fowler’s Modern English Usage, a copy of which he sent to Buckingham Palace on his first Christmas as prime minister.

fowlers“John Martin believed that the P.M.’s ‘interest in basic English was inspired by politics rather than linguistics: it was a means of promoting “the English-speaking club.”‘ Certainly that was one reason. He believed that all countries where English was spoken, including America, should merge. Here lay a profound contrast with the foreign policies of his predecessors at Downing Street. They had focused upon the Continent and the various combinations of the great powers there. Neville Chamberlain had referred to the United States with amusement and contempt, and called Americans ‘creatures.’ But Churchill, though a European patriot, looked westward, and not only because he knew Hitler could not be crushed without American troops. British to the bone, he was nevertheless the son of an American mother, and long before the war, he had envisaged a union of the world’s English-speaking peoples: the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia, South Africa, and the far-flung colonies of the British Empire.”

That’s strategy, not tactics.

P.S.  Speaking of Cicero, my colleague Frank Wilson over at Books Inq reminds me that today is the birthday of the Roman philosopher, politician, lawyer, orator, political theorist, consul and constitutionalist, with this quotation, which is altogether fitting for a discussion of Churchill: “To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child.” — Marcus Tullius Cicero, born on this date in 106 B. C.

Applebaum and Shore: life under communism and its long, bitter aftertaste

Friday, August 2nd, 2013

Decisions, decisions…

I listened to my mother.

I listened to Mummy.

My political education began very young.  When people would praise FDR in my family home, my mother would hiss “Yalta” between her teeth.  The 1945 photograph of Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill, and Franklin D. Roosevelt sitting side by side at the Crimean resort elicited the muttered remark, “a bunch of criminals” (although she read Churchill’s multi-volume series on the war).  “Poor Neville Chamberlain believed he could trust Hitler. He was wrong. But I don’t think I’m wrong about Stalin,” Churchill naively opined.

Having a mother who was 100% Magyar was a good antidote to political correctness.  And she never forgot nor forgave the conference that forked over most of Eastern Europe to Stalinist rule.  (Perhaps it’s no coincidence that her daughter writes so much about Cold War-era writers from Poland and Russia.)

So I read with interest the Christopher Caldwells discussion of two impressive and recent books in the New Republic, Anne Applebaum‘s Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56 and Marci Shore‘s The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe.  I have endless admiration for both women.  You can read the article, “When Evil Was a Social System: The Moral Burdens of Living under Communist Rule in Eastern Europe,” here.

applebaumbookI pulled out piles of excerpts to cite, but this humble blog post quickly became top-heavy, and I felt the ominous presence of the copyright cops outside my door.  Let me settle instead for citing Caldwell’s concluding paragraphs:

“These two books are a sign that something is changing in our understanding of the twentieth century. Applebaum and Shore, while close in age, are on opposite sides of a generational razor’s edge. Applebaum, born in the 1960s, has adult memories of the Cold War; Shore, born in the 1970s, does not. Applebaum speaks to, and in the idiom of, those who survived totalitarianism. She dedicates her book to ‘those Eastern Europeans who refused to live within a lie.’ Her big, resolute book gives us the most authoritative knowledge we have about communism, and only the most authoritative knowledge.

marci“Shore is engaged in a different project. Her book shows what erudition looks like in the Internet Age. Like a blog string, it records every false step she makes on her way to understanding. Shore almost never writes about important matters in her own voice. This means a loss of authority compared with Applebaum’s more classical style, but it allows her to share more with the reader. It frees her of the historian’s superego. The question of whether the reader can handle certain of the explosive things she has to say about Jews and communism appears not to have occurred to her.  …

“Reasonable historians may differ about whether this sort of history-through-memoir is more honest (transparent) or more cowardly (non-
committal) than the standard kind. But it will be clear to any reader of good faith that Shore has chosen historical guilt as her subject in order to deepen our understanding, not to sow discord or rile anyone up. She has found a way to illuminate certain Polish and Jewish ideas about the worst episodes of the twentieth century that is frank, fresh, and gripping. Guilt, after all, is not just self-inflicted injury but productive moral work. At any time, “guilty” will describe almost any conscience functioning as it should.”

Read the whole article here.


Right on.

Meanwhile, a final anecdote lingers:  “Applebaum mentions a girl sent home from school for saying, ‘my grandfather says Stalin is already burning in Hell’—sent home not because the teacher disapproved, but to protect the girl, her friends, her grandfather, her school, and the people who ran it. In such circumstances, propaganda can be a balm. It provides a way for men to lie to themselves, to rationalize submission to the strong, to save face. ‘I don’t like everything Stalin says,’ you could mutter (quietly!) to your wife, ‘but someone has to do something about the illiterate.’” Do I detect a whiff of Czesław Miłosz‘s  ketman here?


How pots of jam saved the Bolshevik revolution

Monday, August 13th, 2012

The Bolsheviks were saved by pots of jam from the Britain’s Midlands and lots of Scottish herring, though you would have thought the Baltic Sea was already full of fish.

Last month, Robert Service, author of Spies & Commissars, told an unconventional and riveting story of the Russian Revolution, looking beyond official government documents and examining the worlds of business, journalism, and espionage to see how the West interacted with the new Bolshevik government.

The story he told during the Hoover Archives Summer Workshop focused on some of the lesser known players of the era – such men as Sir Paul Dukes, the accomplished British spy who “rescued princesses, was a master of disguises, and was a very, very modest man.”  The cast of characters also included sometime-diplomat, sometime-spy Robert Lockhart; the dashing Captain George Hill; Sidney Reilly, the notorious “ace of spies”; and the children’s writer Arthur Ransome, “a pro-Soviet British agent” who liked Lenin.

While World War I raged around them, the Western powers needed to know what was going on in Petrograd, said Service, which was “extraordinarily important, especially if Germany won.”

“Both sides were trying in a gingerly fashion to persuade the other to take an indulgent view of it,” said Service.  Hence, although the nations had no formal diplomatic relations, the British prime minister would take lunch with Maxim Litvinov, Lenin’s man in London.

Reilly, "ace of spies"

Over in the fledgling Soviet Union, Trotsky wanted an air force, so he recruited British spy George Hill.  “As you can imagine, he got a lot of information,” said Service.

This delicate choreography ended abruptly in March 1918, when Russia signed a pact with Germany, bowing out of the war.  Western telegraph experts, the precursors of today’s technologists, helped break the code to find out what was happening in Russia.  Meanwhile, Bolsheviks smuggled jewelry to the West to help far-left groups set up Communist Parties in their own countries – unnecessary, from one angle, since “they did it for free, they did it eagerly,” according to Service.

Lockhart – diplomat and spy

At that critical point, the Americans, British, and the French tried to bring down the Lenin-Trotsky government in a coup – the only such attempt by a Western power to do so, said Service – to enable Russia to select a new government more closely aligned with the Allies.

The plan was to be carried out by Reilly and Lockhart (who later downplayed his role), with help from Hill.  It ended when someone else altogether tried to kill Lenin first, triggering a bloody purge.

Reilly escaped.  The lunch-loving Litvinov was arrested in London, and exchanged for Robert Lockhart. “He protested his innocence, but he wasn’t innocent. Very, very far from it,” said Service.

While doing his research in the Hoover Archives, Service found a letter written by Lockhart’s son, Robin, suggesting that his father had cut his tale to fit the times:

“If the question of my father’s relationship with Reilly still exercises anyone’s mind in the F.O., it is clear from his book Memoirs of a British Agent that once intervention in Russia had been decided on in 1918, he gave his active support to the counter-revolutionary movement with which, of course, Reilly was actively working.

“My father has himself made it clear to me that he worked much more closely with Reilly than he had publicly indicated…”

Service (Photo: Ave Maria Mõistlik)

Lockhart, Reilly, Hill, and Dukes (by that time, another spy whose cover had been blown) gathered in London regularly for “Bolshevik liquidation lunches” to “talk down and drink down the Russian Revolution.  Futile?  Perhaps not.  “They formed a lobby to hold a line,” said Service.

Which brings us back to March 1921, when it all changed again, like the twist of the kaleidoscope, with the Anglo-Soviet trade treaty.  That made the U.K. “the first great power to break rank,” said Service. “Washington and Paris were infuriated.” Britain made its decision “unilaterally and by stealth.”

“If Woodrow Wilson and Clemenceau were horrified, anti-Bolshevik Russians were even more horrified,” he said.

That also returns us to the Hoover Archives: its papers show that pots of jam started to reach the Soviet Union from the British Midlands, and Scottish herring went directly to Petrograd.

Service said Hoover’s huge food and humanitarian missions in 1919 “probably did save Europe from the Bolsheviks.” But did the Britain save the Bolshevik revolution at a time it might have crumbled?

Happy times – Yalta in 1945

Winston Churchill warned the British government in vain. “He could never convince the rest of the government that a crusade was necessary.” Postwar Britain was wary of conflict, and its parliamentarians jeered,  “‘Where are you going to get the money, Winston?’ England was bankrupt, bled dry.”

Success isn’t everything. “It’s pretty clear now that we value those politicians who saw things clearly, and said what they saw as forcefully as they could,” said Service.

I like the slightly different conclusion described in The Independent, as the Communists become more and more like the bourgeoisie:

The communists began to enjoy the perks of their predecessors. “We lived in grand hotels and he wore fur coats and smoked enormous cigars,” remembered Litvinov’s wife Ivy. The story becomes irresistibly reminiscent of Animal Farm, which ends with the pigs and the humans indistinguishable. By the time of the Second World War, Hill was in Moscow swapping tips on poisons with the head of Stalin’s fearsome security apparatus. And by 1945, Churchill and Stalin were grinning for the photographers at the old palace in Yalta.

That explains why, in the Soviet Union, Churchill is remembered as a Soviet ally. After my Russian friend had gone to sleep, our driver – an ethnic Armenian – told me how Churchill preferred Armenian brandy above all others. I doubted this, but it does show how the old man has become all things to all men.

As an afterthought, the New Statesman recently asked Service a question that brought up the name of another friend and frequent subject in the Book Haven. Can’t resist a mention:

Conquest at work (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

You did a lot of the archival work for this book at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, which was the domicile of the great British Sovietologist Robert Conquest. Is he someone who has had a particular influence on your work?

I think Robert Conquest [we wrote about him here and here among other places] is one of the great postwar Sovietologists. The British have had an influence on thinking about the Soviet Union out of all proportion to the number of people working in the United Kingdom on the Soviet Union. Conquest certainly wrote one of the great pioneering books, The Great Terror.

Of bookplates, dragonflies, and pigs

Tuesday, May 8th, 2012

“Your blog postings about bookplates have brightened my day,” wrote Lew Jaffe of Philadelphia.  And then he brightened ours.

First, he kindly sent us his favorite bookplate.  “It was engraved by William Fowler Hopson and depicts a pig fetching a book,” he said.

Yes, but… but… but… why a pig?  I spoke with Lew on the phone and asked.  Well, he said, pigs are smart.

Winston Churchill agreed with him:  “I like pigs,” the Nobel laureate famously stated. “Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals.”

Perhaps you thought there wasn’t too much more to say about bookplates.  You don’t know Lew. He runs a fascinating bookplate blog called “Confessions of a Bookplate Junkie: Random Thoughts from a Passionate Bookplate Collector.

He’s been blogging on bookplates since 2006, and still has enough material left over to post today on that evergreen topic, “How do you remove a bookplate?”  (Hint: answer involves tongs and hot, steaming paper towels.)

And lest you think his is a case of isolated madness, he has a blogroll with other like-minded souls, including “Varnoso, Excellent Bookplate Blog.”

Meanwhile, we rather like his own bookplate, at left.

Check out his blog and other featured bookplates here. And do send on your own favorites.


Winston Churchill’s skivvies

Saturday, May 5th, 2012

But the skin was delicate...

Sir Winston Churchill, Nobel laureate writer, spent a wads on his skivvies.  Who knew?  And who needed to knew?  According to a letter from his wife Clementine, it was  “very finely woven silk (pale pink) … from the Army and Navy stores and cost the eyes out of his head.”

Jason Diamond in The Paris Review writes here: “Churchill had style, and even though his choice of undergarments might not suit his public image, comfort was his first concern. The silk was an extravagant expense, justified by a therapeutic application toward Churchill’s persistent skin problems.”

The article does not set out to discuss Churchill’s unmentionables, nonetheless, it provides some riveting detail in an article that otherwise discusses the only bookstore in the world dedicated to Churchill. In keeping with the former prime minister’s half-American heritage, the bookstore “Chartwell” is located in downtown Manhattan, not the U.K.

The proprietor, Barry Singer, has become “a Churchill historian by osmosis,” writes Diamond.  Singer is the author of Churchill Style: The Art of Being Winston Churchill, published this month by Abrams.

Diamond shares another sartorial tidbit:

“… his greatest sartorial triumph was the zip-up, all-in-one ‘siren suit,’ which Singer’s book points out was conceived and designed by Churchill before World War II. The suits, which looked like a cross between a child’s onesie and the boiler suits worn by bricklayers, were made by the tailors Turnbell & Asser and came in several different colors and fabrics. While the suits did make the prime minister look like he was gearing up for an air raid, they may have also been the single most comfortable article of clothing worn by a world leader while commanding an army in the history of modern warfare.”

They went with the undies, I guess…

Book sounds fascinating and fun – kind of like dessert.  But save some room for the entrée, in the form of Paul Reid‘s forthcoming volume 3 of The Last Lion.


“Fondle them – peer into them, let them fall open where they will…”

Monday, February 20th, 2012

A shocking moment in a recent conversation:  A professor of my acquaintance said that he’d gotten rid of almost all his books.  Why books, he said, when there’s Kindle?


Randall Jarrell voiced his misgivings this way: “Sometimes when I can’t go to sleep at night I see the family of the future. Dressed in three-tone shorts-and-shirt sets of disposable Papersilk, they sit before the television wall of their apartment, only their eyes moving. After I’ve looked a while I always see – otherwise I’d die – a pigheaded soul over in the corner with a book; only his eyes are moving, but in them there is a different look.”

I can’t help but feel, still, that Kindle is only one step away from a computer screen, which is one step away from a television screen. In fact, perhaps Kindle may be  closer to the television screen to begin with, since both reading a book and watching TV are essentially passive activities.  So … why does the tactile quality of the book, which at least offers the interactivity of turning the pages, seem so much less deadening than staring at a screen, any screen?  Why does it seem so quietly redeeming?

And why does book addiction seem the most forgivable of compulsions?  Gabe Habash describes his own habit in Publishers Weekly‘s “The Wonderful and Terrible Habit of Buying Too Many Books“:

If book buying addiction wasn’t a real thing, articles like this and this wouldn’t exist, and searching for “book clutter” on Google wouldn’t turn up 18 million results. Most of the articles are about a book lover, searching for obstructed light switches and tripping over wobbly stacks, finally saying “enough” and resolving to trim the fat, these being, more often than not, the library’s duplicates and never-will-reads or already-read-and-didn’t-really-likes.

My library has received its fair share of criticism. I gingerly proposed adding another shelf near the doorway of my roommate’s bedroom door, and I received a pretty impassioned response as a result. When my friend Matt comes over, he likes to engage in a favorite pastime called “You’re Never Going to Read That,” which involves him standing in front of the bookshelves with his chin haughtily tilted up and suddenly pointing at books that he thinks are stupid and that, for the life of him, he can not imagine why I have. “I think I have too many books,” I said once, and he said, “Okay I’ll help you out,” and quickly reached for House of Leaves.

Well, we’ve written about bookshelf porn before, and featured book furniture here and here. The craving for more books links inevitably  to the need for a space to put them in.  So Habash raises a bigger, more philosophical issue, apart from needing more understanding friends than Matt & co.:

But despite the fact that I probably have too many books, despite the fact that I am running out of room, I’m not sold on the notion of purging my library. The reason is this: most of the library consists of books I haven’t read (I did inventory for this article: I’ve read 85 out of the 371 books sitting on my shelves). In “Unpacking My Library,” Walter Benjamin shares this anecdote:

And the non-reading of books, you will object, should be characteristic of all collectors? This is news to me, you may say. It is not news at all. experts will bear me out when I say that it is the oldest thing in the world. Suffice it to quote the answer which Anatole France gave to a philistine who admired his library and then finished with the standard question, “And you have read all these books, Monsieur France?” “Not one-tenth of them. I don’t suppose you use your Sevres china every day?”

Sevres stayed in cupboard

I couldn’t agree more.  Why would you want to have in your library only books you have read?  Isn’t the whole point of a library to provide objects for contemplation in your solitary hours, the thrill of new discoveries on an otherwise humdrum rainy day?  And for the writer, a book collection is a research library on Sundays, holidays, and at 3 a.m., and more comprehensive than what scattershot google searches can ever offer. How many sleepless hours have been devoted to thoughtful book browsing!

And should the Big One strike, and the earth shake my shelves around my ears … I die happy.  Until the last battery dies within my flashlight while I hunker in the cave of books, I would contentedly read all those volumes I bought and never got round to finishing – William Anderson‘s Dante: The Maker comes immediately to mind, or Aleksander Wat‘s My Century. But so do many other books that I never even started.  Edith Grossman‘s translation of Don Quixote, for example.


As Winston Churchill said: “If you cannot read all your books, at any rate handle, or as it were, fondle them – peer into them, let them fall open where they will, read from the first sentence that arrests the eye, set them back on the shelves with your own hands, arrange them on your own plan so that you at least know where they are. Let them be your friends; let them at any rate be your acquaintances.”

Perhaps I could even finish his History of the English-Speaking Peoples, vol. 1.

Out from under his bed: Paul Reid speaks about Churchill, Manchester, and The Last Lion

Monday, December 12th, 2011

A few weeks ago I wrote about the world anxiously awaiting the final third volume of William Manchester’s The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Defender of the Realm:  “I know, I know,” I wrote. “It’s going to be written not by Manchester, who died in 2004, but by Paul Reid, and everyone is wondering if it will be up to snuff.  So much so it’s a wonder that Reid doesn’t just hide under his bed and refuse to write anything at all.”

Relax, everyone!  He’s fine!  Paul Reid emailed me over the weekend to say: “I have emerged from under my bed to assure you that The Last Lion is being edited, all 470,000 words, every man-jack of them composed, proofed, and sourced while I labored with just ten inches of head room.  It’s so cramped under there even the rats are stoop-shouldered.”

Then he invited me to chat:  “Please allow the phone to ring several times, as it takes me a while to crawl from under the bed, climb the ladder from the bunker to the padded room, and reach the phone.”

Chat we did, and it was great fun.

He recalled the October night when his friend Bill Manchester, in failing health, asked him to continue the series.  “We were watching a Red Sox game – the Red Sox lost, as usual.”

“The night he asked me to do it, I said, ‘Gee I don’t know, Bill.’”

Both men had been feature writers for daily newspapers, banging out articles of about 800 words.  Manchester’s advice to the budding author: “String together a thousand short feature stories and you’ll have a book.”

“If I imagined 800 pages, I would have been pretty daunted,” Paul admitted. He also said that he would have been cowed if asked to write about, say, Paganini.  However, Paul had been a World War II buff from way back:  “I knew the battles, I knew Montgomery, ‘Bomber’ Harris – my whole life, that’s been my hobby. I loved history, from my earliest memory.”

Speaking out from the bunker

“You can do it, just write,” Manchester exhorted Paul. “I’ll have my red Number 2 pencil. I’ll edit; you write.”

That was the plan.  “But he died 7 months later,” Paul said.  Then the younger author was on his own, guided by 4,000-5,000 pages of Manchester’s notes.

Manchester was “an organization guy.” But it was an organization not necessarily recognizable to anyone else.

“He had his own system for putting his notes together.” Manchester had called them “clumps” of notes, formed by taking a hundred sheets of paper, taping or gluing pairs of them together to form one long sheet, and binding them at the top to create his own “tablet.” He would tape or glue Xeroxes of speeches and official documents.  He left behind dozens of these makeshift tablets.

Manchester also had his own notation system. On the lefthand margin of the manuscript, he would jot one of at least a hundred “topic codes” (for example, De Gaulle, Nazi Germany).  A little pound sign would indicate information on Churchill’s family.

He marked the righthand side with cryptic “source codes.”  Paul cracked one early: HAR was a code for Averell Harriman’s memoir. But the others?

“I finally had a brainstorm,” he said.  He called the Wesleyan Library where Manchester did his research, and asked for a list of all the books Manchester had borrowed.  It didn’t keep any such list.  “Because I knew Bill,” Paul said he had another flashbulb moment:  Could have a list of all Manchester’s overdue books? “That ran to dozens of pages.” The code was cracked again.

“I went out and purchased everything,” including collections of Hitler speeches, Roosevelt speeches, diaries of generals.  The Bostonian’s North Carolina bunker has about 25 linear feet of World War II books.  “The war is 85 percent of the story, and that what a lot of people are waiting for.”

Manchester’s manic writing habits were famous (Vanity Fair wrote about Manchester here) – 7 days a week, for 12-14 hours a day.  Paul, however, is a bit more leisurely: he spends about 5 or 6 hours going over sources about a particular week in the war, writes for a few hours, and starts over the next day.

So what does Churchill have to say to us today? “For Churchill, courage – moral courage – was the first virtue in the Aristotelian sense.”

Paul recounted an incident where the prime minister talked to 8 and 9 year old schoolboys at his former Harrow school in 1940.  “That’s when he said, never give in, never give in, to tyranny, to evil.  These are not dark days, best days of our lives.”  This lesson, for 8 and 9 year children, Paul emphasized.

He had a system.

“There was no guile with Churchill.  He didn’t know how to be dishonest.  Stalin knew that.  He [Churchill] was a brave man, but not foolhardy man.”

Nor was he a despot, like his famous foes:  “He pursued knowledge, not power,” said Paul. His pugnacious stances were not just based on opinions, but on his wideranging study:  “He read everything – Aristotle, Plato, Thucydides, Cicero, The Aeneid, The Iliad, The Odyssey, Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, British empiricists,  Macaulay, and all of Gibbons, Yeats and Keats and Byron and Shelley, Longfellow and Emerson.  Everything.”

Manchester and Churchill both threaded through Paul Reid’s mind as he worked, but the final work?  “The work is not only yours, it’s you.”

Now he is close to the finish line.  He won’t prophesy exactly when the book will be out – “it’s a big project, and it will take some time.”

“Churchill would just push ahead. That’s what you have to do.”

Just like I said a few weeks ago.”

Blenheim at dusk: the most beautiful spot in the world?

Friday, November 25th, 2011

Winston Churchill said it was the best view in England … or perhaps the world. For him, it very likely amounted to the same thing.

Tussling at dusk: Georgina, Fabian, and Milo Tudor Caruncho

At Blenheim Palace at dusk, or dawn, or any other time of day, it’s hard to argue the point. You walk in through the gate that leads from the town of Woodstock (not the grander entrance on the main road), look to your right, and you see this delicious scene.

Churchill’s views on his birthplace (he described the estate’s origins in his massive work,  Marlborough: His Life and Times) were related to me by my friend Eliza Tudor, who lives in nearby Wootton, next to Woodstock, the ancient burg where her ancestor Edward the Black Prince was born.


Blenheim is, of course, the 18th-century palace where the Nobel writer Churchill was born, where he proposed to his future wife Clementine, and where all the Dukes of Marlborough lived (Sir Winston was, alas, was the son of a younger son).  It also represents the labor of England’s legendary landscape architect Capability Brown (marvelous name, that), who created two thousand acres of verdant slopes, leading to this lake, with architect Sir John  Vanbrugh‘s Grand Bridge.

Anyway, these pictures (except for Capability’s) are taken from Eliza’s iphone.  Not bad.  With only a little imagination, they take me away from a messy house, a score of emails and letters to write, and the dishes in the sink on a long holiday weekend.

Hope they do the same for you.  At least a little.

Remembering Borders in Ann Arbor

Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

Bye-bye Borders (Photo courtesy of the Ann Arbor Chronicle)

Borders is gone, and with it an era.

So say all the eulogies, but that era has been long gone for me.  The flagship Borders had a special role in my life. I grew up in a north-of-Detroit suburban burg called Bloomfield Hills.  The nearest bookstore, or what passed for a bookstore, was a “media” store that sold newspapers, magazines, and a few top-selling paperbacks.  It was about a mile away on foot for this book-hungry teenager.

So arriving at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor was like a starving man suddenly surrounded with éclairs.  How could I miss the first-ever Borders on Maynard Street?  It was just down the street from The Michigan Daily – at that time called “the New York Times of student newspapers” (by the New York Times, no less) – where I spent all my waking hours, and many hours I was supposed to be in class, working alongside journalists who would became renowned nationally and internationally.  (Tom Hayden was a former editor – and returned occasionally for a visit.)

As I spent all my time at 420 Maynard, I spent all my money at 311 Maynard, the location of Borders, enacting Erasmus‘s famous dictum, “”When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.”

According to the  CNN:

He was right.

“Borders used to be chockablock with books,” said Jonathan Marwil, a University of Michigan history professor and author of a history of Ann Arbor. “It has increasingly looked less like a bookstore than a bowling alley, with its wide-open spaces. Now they’re selling children’s dolls on the front counter. It’s really pretty grim.”

It was a place where employees were devoted to their jobs. They prided themselves on their knowledge of their assigned sections — and everybody else’s. It was a gathering place and community center, just up the street from the university’s main campus.

“We worked when we didn’t have to work because we didn’t know we were working. We would go into the store when it was closed to do more work,” said Sharon Gambin, who arrived for the 1982 holiday season and went on to hold several positions during a three-decade career. “That’s how much we loved what we did.”

According to the Macomb County Legal News, “The 40-year-old Ann Arbor-based bookseller hasn’t turned a profit since 2006, having lost $605 million in the last four fiscal years.”

Borders was founded in 1971 by brothers Tom and Louis Borders, who were University of Michigan students.

Ann Arbor scene ... I don't miss the winters.

Originally called Borders Book Shop, it was located in a 800-square-foot building on South State Street in downtown Ann Arbor (currently, Borders in downtown Ann Arbor is located at Liberty and Maynard in what was once Jacobson’s Department Store — another defunct Michigan-based business — and is considered the flagship store).

Not so.  It began on Maynard and Liberty, and moved later.  I remember Jacobson’s, too – the Bloomingdale’s of Michigan.

I still have the (unread) multi-volume Marlborough: His Life and Times, by Winston Churchill, that I bought on one of my gluttony, when I would leave with a pile of books.  I remember a fellow Daily-ite from Nebraska telling me he had to order books directly from the publisher.  Time was short, buy books now.

As bookstores disappear into cyberspace, many of us are once again miles away from the occasional signpost of civilization.

Isn’t this the part of the movie where I walked in?

Postscript on 9/15:  Others are sharing their memories of their “first time” – first big experience with a bookstore.

From Jeff Sypeck: “I was in college in 1991 when a Borders opened in Central Jersey. It was such a big deal that we brought jealous out-of-towners to see it; they took home t-shirts as souvenirs. If I were 20 now, and someone told me that, I’m not sure I’d believe it.”

From John Murphy of the University of Virginia: “‘Purists’ sometime knock the big-box chains like Borders and Barnes and Noble. But, growing up in a a very small town, I appreciate the value they have — or, in the case of Borders, the value they had. We had a good public library, but …we were not large enough as a town to support any kind of locally-owned bookstore at all. So Waldenbooks and B. Dalton half an hour away were a very good thing and Borders and Barnes and Noble an hour away were an even better thing. I truly don’t think that the world would have been a better place if the big-city bookstore cultures where ‘purists’ tend to be had never been ‘subjected’ to Borders at all and if people growing up in small towns like mine had never had access to any bookstore culture at all.

And Ken Latta also remembers the original Ann Arbor Borders.  He had an open purchase order at Borders “so I could walk over at lunch time and pick up books for work. Year later wandering around the country consulting one measure of civilization was having a Borders and a Starbucks, hopefully co-located.”

Winston Churchill “lived from book to book, and from one article to the next”

Saturday, September 3rd, 2011

Time Magazine‘s list of “bests” are often a pile of rubbish – but I was gratified to see one personal favorite given pride of place in “All-TIME 100 Best Non-Fiction Books“:

The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Alone, 1932-1940 (published in 1988) was William Manchester‘s sequel to The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Visions of Glory, 1874-1932 (published in 1983). Alone picks up the story with Churchill cast into the political wilderness and entering what the author believed was the most crucial period of the politician’s extraordinary life — his “finest hour,” if you will — which culminated in his becoming Prime Minister of Britain in 1940, his country once again at war with Germany. Churchill, as Manchester poignantly puts it, “resolved to lead Britain and her fading empire in one last great struggle worthy of all they had been.”

I read this unforgettable book some years ago – stunning, in its step-by-step revelation of Winston Churchill‘s dogged, determined, and humiliating journey through the 1930s to warn a resistant England of the growing dangers of Hitler’s Germany. The war weary U.K. was famously allergic to evidence and eloquence, leading it to the brink of annihilation when Hitler finally attacked.

His study at Chartwell

Partly it was in Churchill’s nature to be so.  In his first book he wrote: “Nothing is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result” and “There are men who derive as stern an exaltation from the proximity of danger and ruin, as others from success.” But the fortitude to face humiliation, rejection, and loneliness is never nature alone.

I was so impressed by Manchester’s book, his last, that I gave a copy to Toyko rock star, and peacenik Agnes Chan when she took her PhD at Stanford in 1994 (she’s the UN Goodwill Ambassador for Japan).  It is at once a depressing and a fortifying work for the peacemakers of the world, but offers a salutary lesson: Peace without justice is no peace, and, as Augustine said, “Charity is no substitute for justice withheld.”

But something else impressed me.  Few know that Churchill made his living as a journalist.  Every night, in his magnificent Norman-era estate Chartwell, after the nightly dinner party with tuxedos and evening gowns, silver buckets of champagne, the Gruyère, the pâté, soup, oysters, caviar, after the port, brandy, and cigars were finished, he would shuffle up to his study at about 11 p.m. and begin his working day in his slippers, “entering through the Tudor doorway with its molded architrave…”

Churchill's desk at Chartwell

Manchester writes:  “Only after entering his employ will [his assistant] Bill Deakin discover, to his astonishment, that Churchill lacks a large private income, that he lives like a pasha yet must support his extravagant life with his pen. The Churchill children are also unaware that, as [his daughter] Mary will later put it, the family ‘literally lived from book to book, and from one article to the next.’ Her mother, who knows, prays that each manuscript will sell.”

“…he enters the room in his scarlet, green, and gold dressing gown, the cords trailing behind him. Before greeting his researcher and the two secretaries on duty tonight, he must read the manuscript he dictated the previous evening and then revise the latest galleys, which arrived a few hours earlier from London. Since Churchill’s squiggled red changes exceed the copy set – the proofs look as though several spiders strained in crimson ink wandered across the pages – his printers’ bills are shocking. But the expense is offset by his extraordinary fluency. Before the night is out, he will have dictated between 4,000 and 5,000 words. On weekends he may exceed ten thousand words.”

I envy the fluency.  I envy the output. I even envy the study, in the oldest, 11th century part of Chartwell.  And above I envy the courage, bravado, and style.  I do not envy the pâté de foie gras, the trout, the shoulder of lamb, lobster, dressed crab, Dover sole, the roast beef, and the endless gin.  It’s an astonishment they all did not perish before 30.