Bookshot #150: The Splendid and The Vile
I've read plenty of books about Churchill down the years and managed to get through all twelve volumes
of his History of The Second World War. I've got the Roy Jenkins biography lurking around the house that someday I'll sit down and tackle. In short, I've read plenty about Churchill- so I was interested in The Splendid and The Vile, but I was also unsure of how much new territory it was going to tread. After all, this was the subject matter that I had read before.
Happily, I had nothing to worry about.
Erik Lawson had much the same thought and decided instead to hyper-focus on just the first, perhaps the most critical year of Churchill's Premiership- his first one. It's a fascinating and perhaps a brilliant choice. No other leader in history that I can think of has started his first day on the job with such an ugly set of circumstances. Churchill started his first day as Germany invaded Holland and Belgium and grim news and hammer blow after hammer blow followed. Churchill had to hold together a unity government with his own party being less than sure about him. He had to convince a nation to rally to resist what seemed to be an unstoppable German onslaught. He had to convince President Franklin Roosevelt that Britain was going to be in the fight until the end and was willing to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Americans.
The narrative spins outward- touching on the experiences of the everyday people-- (apparently the Home Office had a program where they had regular folks would record their observations in diaries- they used the findings as a way to monitor national morale.) It also looks at the experiences of Churchill's family- from the tumultuous marriage of Randolph and Pamela-- who, interestingly enough, had an affair with American Envoy Avril Harriman before they went their separate ways after the way-- but in a strange twist of fate, they found each other again late in their respective lives and got married for real.
Mary Churchill chafes under her family's protectiveness: she longs to go out on her own and find love-- she actually breaks off an engagement in the first year of Churchill's premiership. Churchill had weekend retreats with people like Beaverbrook (who took charge of the Air Ministry and aircraft production and tried to resign multiple times) and Prof Lindemann (who worked on things like radar jamming and aerial mines and other stuff- some of which proved to be helpful, some didn't.) He'd stay up in all hours at Chequers or Ditchley- his wartime weekend retreat because Chequers was well known to the Germans.
It touched on some things I knew about- but didn't really know about- like some of the worst raids on London and the destruction of Coventry and the fact that resolve was stiffened and that Britain bent but never broke under the weight of such an onslaught remains incredible to me.
But where this book really hits is managing the capture the horror, the urgency, and the stretched elastic-like tension of months of living under the threat of either aerial bombardment or outright invasion. My Grandad would tell me stories about having to drive to work during the blitz. (Basically: he said he would start driving, hear a bomb start to fall, accelerate thinking he was directly under the bomb, then panic because he thought he might have driven directly under the bomb, and then do that a few more times until he would just drive to work.) but this book is the first book that I think really gets close to capturing what it actually felt like- stories your grandparents tell you might give you an idea of what it was like, but the tension and the emotion that Larson bakes into this story are absolutely searing.
Overall: This one is going to stay on my shelf forever. World War II is a topic that is well-trodden and it's an achievement to write anything that could be considered unique or fresh about it- but Erik Larson manages to do just that. My Grade: ***** out of ****