25 APRIL 1992, Page 37

A diverting smokescreen of verbiage

Alan Clark

ARTILLERY OF WORDS by Frederick Woods Leo Cooper, f17.50, pp. 184 0 n the subject of Winston Churchill there is a great sump of revisionist com- mentary, just now beginning to drain out. Even Dr Gilbert, whose dignified (not to say prolix) scholarship is a model of worthiness, is not above, from time to time, letting the cat out of the bag. And read John Charmley's Chamberlain and the Lost Peace — a very good book — or Andrew Roberts' telling biography of Halifax. You'll start to get uneasy. As for Roberts' next book, on the 'Great Churchillians' at that time, I predict, the picadors will leave the ring and the process of assassina- tion will start.

Frederick Woods has written a slim work, confining himself purely to Churchill's mastery of words and language, and the use to which he put this gift. It is really a narrative supplement to Mr Woods' own comprehensive bibliography published some 25 years ago, but valuable for its wit, objectivity and clear eye for detail. Actually, the footnotes are a better read than the main text. From them, we learn that Balfour, who had entertained those up-market chatterers, The Souls, with his bitchy verdict on The World Crisis — 'Winston has written six volumes of autobiography, and called them History' at the same time wrote Churchill a flowery note of appreciation:

Five volumes of immortal history is a wonderful addition to that great period of administrative activity ...

The Great War was, indeed, 'a great period of administrative activity'. It was also, as Churchill put it, a time when:

Every outrage against humanity or interna- tional law was repaid by reprisals often on a greater scale and of longer duration. . . The wounded died between the lines: the dead mouldered into the soil. Merchant ships and neutral ships and hospital ships were sunk on the seas and all on board left to their fate, or killed as they swam. Every effort was made to starve whole nations into submission without regard for age or sex. Cities and monuments were smashed by artillery. Bombs from the air were cast down indiscriminately. Poison gas in many forms stifled or seared the sol- diers. Liquid fire was projected upon their bodies. Men fell from the air in flames, or were smothered, often slowly, in the dark recesses of the sea . . . When all was over, Torture and Cannibalism were the only two expedients that the civilised, scientific, Christian States had been able to deny them- selves; and these were of doubtful utility.

Churchill published 50 books, 150 pam- phlets, well over 800 feature articles, plus endless 'extras' of different kinds. Mr Woods' argument is that most of this time Churchill was deliberately and with calcula- tion using his gifts of expression to advance particular objectives of his own. Usually 'in open and splendid panoply' but quite often his technique was, in advertising parlance, 'subliminal'. Money came into it too. Churchill got Eddie Marsh to write six arti- cles for which he had been commissioned at a fee of £2,000 (in 1932) and paid him £300. And there is no doubt that Marsh's diligent and fastidious attention to points of punctuation and order was an essential discipline, when Churchill's dictation to his patient typists would degenerate into monologous oratory.

Certainly it was flowery, extravagant, repititous; often on the very edge of anachronism and caricature. But personally I hold to the view that Churchill's use of language, to communicate, entrance and persuade, is equalled only by Shakespeare. It was fundamental to his powers of leader- ship, concealing, often, hideous errors of strategic judgment. These merit a detailed study in their own right but potentially the most disastrous (competition is strong) was his fixation with keeping France 'alive' in 1940 — even at the price of depleting the air defence of the homeland. Fortunately there were harder heads around. Churchill's telegrams from Paris — . . it would not be good historically if [the French] requests for six extra fighter squadrons were denied and their ruin resulted. . .'; 'The Mortal quality of the hour' etc — were greeted with the com- ment that 'he's still thinking of his books, it's blasted rhetoric'.

After losing the 1945 election Churchill lapsed into the role of seer. And there was a good deal of self-justification and special pleading. Also a lot of guff about Europe — fairly predictable. People who fail in British domestic politics work themselves into a state where they think 'Europe' offers a solution. But Churchill's visionary gift was undiminished. How, 40 years later, do you rate this prediction?

Russia is becoming a great commercial country. Hcr people experience every day in growing vigour those complications and palliatives of human life that will render the schemes of Karl Marx more out of date and smaller in relation to world problems than they have ever been before. The natural forces are working with greater freedom and greater opportunity to fertilise and vary the thoughts and the power of individual men and women. They are far bigger and more pliant in the vast structure of a mighty empire than could ever have been conceived by Marx in his hovel . . . human society will grow in many forms not comprehended by a party machine. As long, therefore, as the free world holds together, and especially Britain and the United States, and maintains its strength, Russia will find that Peace and Plenty have more to offer than exterminatory war.

All these gifts — compulsive rhetoric, visions of a Grand Design, romantic enthusiasm, are most un-Conservative. A fascinating study awaits (barely touched in Sir Robert Rhodes James' Churchill: A Study in Failure) of how what we are now apparently obliged to call 'the Palace' and the Conservative Party, particularly the Conservative Whips, dodged, plotted shunted and manoeuvred to block and denigrate Churchill wherever possible.

Did we get a good deal, or not? I am open minded.

Mr Robert Harris, who burst into tears all over the centre pages of the Sunday Times Review recently, at the time of the Party leadership contest in 1990, made a comparison between Churchill and Michael Heseltine on the grounds that the Party establishment tried to thwart both — so we knew what we ought to do. Well, it's dan- gerous to predict, but of one thing I am sure: Heseltine's speechwriters would never have found so vivid a phrase for a series of linked hypotheses as, 'the terrible ifs accu- mulate'.