Winston Churchill

Review of: Churchill: Four Faces and the Man, by A. J. P. Taylor, Robert Rhodes James, J. H. Plumb, Basil Liddell Hart, Anthony Storr. Allen Lane. The Penguin Press. London 1969

British Journal of Psychiatry, 118, 1971, pp. 98-99

Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was born on the 30 September, 1874, and he became Prime Minister on the to May, 1940, at the age of 65 years 223 days, an age at which most of us can look forward to being retired and entering our senium. He was certainly one of the most remarkable figures of all time, and he occupies, of right, a unique place in world history. What he did was, in fact, stupendous. He, more than any other single person, won the second world war, and thereby saved Europe from an appalling tyranny. The personality of the man, his mental stature, both in its grandeur and its limitations, are sufficient for that role. He was given without reserve the fervent loyalty and confidenceof the British people in a very black hour; and he welded us into a united force for what at one time seemed ‑ though not to him and not to us – an insurmountable task of endurance and survival.

   Who was he, and what was the source of that extraordinary strength of character and power of will? We are given five accounts here, all by experts in their own fields, all of them thoughtful, enlighten­ing, compulsively readable. The biographical port­rait, though of course still incomplete, is authentic and convincing. These four faces, of the statesman, the politician, the historian, the military strategist, and the insights that the psychiatrist can give is, combine in a harmonious whole. It is partly perhaps because the man was such a whole, without the internal contradictions and ambivalences that most of us have to carry, that his achievement became possible.

   What he did was not, in the main, an achievement of intellect. His most outstanding gift was what one might call lion‑heartedness‑indomitable urge, inexhaustible energy and dynamism, the capacity, indeed the eagerness, to take any amount of stress and anxiety. 'Elephantine stamina' says Plumb; he loved action at close range, he 'drew inspiration from disasters' (Taylor).

   His limitations are less interesting than his gifts, but they show the negative sides of positive qualities. His unrealistic romanticism was part source for his contagious enthusiasm; his incapacity for long term calculations (James), his lack of vision for the future, went along with infinite adaptability (Taylor). If he was in many ways a simple soul, with a touch of the philistine (Plumb), a 'blessedly bad intriguer' (tames), he had instinctive and unshakable con­victions which saved him, and us in the end, from the sort of errors that Chamberlain could make. If the greatest strength of his neuronal organization lay in the subcortical centres, as one feels tempted to suppose, it is rather doubtful just how strong he was at the cortical level. Perhaps he had more 'creativity' than 'intelligence', more capacity for 'divergent' than 'convergent' intellectual work. Plumb judges him as not technically a clever man, with intellectual machinery adequate rather than distinguished. James speaks of his 'formidable intellect', and quotes Ponsonby who thought him 'the most talented man in political life'. Hart sees 'vision', 'brilliant conceptions', 'genius in all its abundance... fertility, versatility, vitality.' Perhaps the best in the way of a thumbnail sketch is quoted by Hart from the memoirs of Sir George Mallaby, who was Under‑Secretary in the Cabinet Office:

Anybody who served anywhere near him was devoted to him. It is hard to say why. He knew the names only of those very close to him and would hardly let anyone else come into his presence. He was free with abuse and complaint. He was exacting beyond reason and ruthlessly critical. He continuously exhibited all the characteristics one usually deplores and abornin­aces in the boss. Not only did he get away with it but nobody really wanted him otherwise. He was unusual, unpredictable, exciting, original, stimulating, provocative, Outrageous, uniquely experienced, abundantly talented, humorous, entertaining - almost everything a man could be, a great man.

   Anthony Storr provides an extra dimension to the portrait gallery, and an essential one. Churchill was a manic‑depressive, as his father and earlier ancestors had been also, and he had several attacks of depression. In physical habitus he combined short stature with marked viscerotonia and somato­tonia. This bodily constitution stood him in good stead; we can derive his tremendous vitality from it, or from the neuro‑endocrinological organization of which it was the most easily recognisable manifestation. There were sources of weakness there too; Taylor notes that fundamentally his outlook was sombre, and Storr that from early on he had a tendency to hypochondriasis.

   Storr thinks that Churchill, in his combativeness, had to go against his own inner nature. He puts down the remarkable achievements to the defensive mechanisms of the constitutional depressive. 'If all depressives could constantly be engaged in fighting wicked enemies, they would never suffer from depres­sion.' I would prefer the hypothesis that the great achievements of constitutional depressives are made when they are out of their depression, and mainly when they have switched over into a mild hyponiania.

   Something of the magic of Churchill's personality, invisible perhaps to those who have grown up since the war, has already been shown in the words of Mallaby. To add one more touch, I cannot forebear to quote an anecdote from James:

What will always be remembered as the 'blood, sweat, and tears' speech was a real turning point. It stirred the Commons to its depths. It rang round the world, and thrilled the many friends of Western civilization wit Ii the realization that Britain was going to fight. There were those in ucjo who believed that Britain should seek a negotiated settlement with Hitler; perhaps it was, technically, the wisest thing to do. But, after that first, unforgettable speech, such arguments lost whatever appeal they might have had... As Churchill left the chamber after an emotional ovation, considerably moved himself, he caught the eye of an old friend. With a sudden impish grins Churchill said to him: 'That got the sods, didn't it?'