This review was written in August 2003, edited June 2004.
These are 23 short essays by Winston Churchill published on a wide variety of subjects. I borrowed the book from Ulick O’Connor and read the 1949 edition at the end of May 2003. They are a series of reminiscences and reflections which Churchill had written for newspapers and periodicals between 1924 and 1931. Many of the essays deal with aspects of the Great War, and these, because of Churchill’s intimate involvement on the political side of the war, are of some interest. However, with his energy, courage, self-confidence and his prominent political role in Britain during the early part of the twentieth century, the primary effect of reading Churchill’s reminiscences rests on his vainglorious opinion of himself, which is conveyed by an element of hyperbole, although muted by a far from convincing modesty.
In his essays The U-boat War, In the Air, the Battle of Sydney Street and With the Grenadiers he blandly tells of his heroic experiences which must strike the reader at times as showing courage and recklessness beyond the natural instincts of self-preservation of the ordinary man. For example, he claims to have flown hundreds of times during the dangerous pioneer days of the infant and emerging British air force from 1912 to the end of the War.
The essays are evocative of many aspects of the early twentieth century. I shall refer briefly to one, The Irish Treaty. Churchill was one of the seven British members of the Treaty negotiating group. He refers to the leader of the Irish representatives, Griffith, his knowledge of history, his firmness of character and his high integrity. ‘An unusual figure - a silent Irishman.’ He confirms that Griffith was the person who agreed the Treaty when the negotiations were about to break down, and that it was he alone who took the courageous step to do so.
Michael Collins had ‘elemental qualities and mother wit’. Churchill found him remarkable. Collins received a measure of sympathy from Churchill because, being on the military side of the revolution, Collins found compromise on the Treaty terms more difficult than did Griffith. Nevertheless, in discussion with Churchill, Collins undertook to defend the Treaty unless the majority of the Irish people were opposed to it.
Churchill appears to have been very wise in resisting the American pressure on him to force Ireland into the Second War after America had joined in 1941. He obviously was concerned about the potentially deleterious effect of influencing Ireland on this issue, particularly the effect it might have on Irish soldiers involved in the War and the tens of thousands of Irish civilians in Ireland and Britain who were involved in supporting the war effort in so many ways. Churchill must have been aware of the quiet and little known activities whereby Ireland was giving help to Britain. De Valera was totally committed to neutrality on the grounds of the North of Ireland. Would it have been the correct move for us after the US had joined? I suspect that quite a number of the Fine Gael party might have followed James Dillon and agreed to be more active in supporting the Allies. After the war Costello’s attitude to the North mirrored that of Dev’s. It would have been a great step if Costello had done what Lemass did, making contact with the people in the North and adopting a friendlier attitude to its citizens.
Perhaps Churchill’s two most important essays are Shall We All Commit Suicide and Fifty Years Hence. In the latter essay Churchill shows remarkable insight into the threat to the human race and to the planet by the rapid advances in scientific knowledge and the spectre of advancing war technology, the adverse effects of which are likely to affect whole populations rather than the traditional fighting soldier. He may have read Yeats’s Second Coming!
He states that increasing knowledge, advancing science and gathering power were not matched by any improvement in human virtue or wisdom. Modern Man will be capable of the most terrible deeds and his most modern woman will back him up. We have the power and weapons far outstripping Man’s intelligence and certainly outstripping his nobility. It might be better to call a halt to discovery and progress rather than to be mastered by our own apparatus and the forces which it directs. Without an equal growth of mercy, pity, peace and love, science herself may destroy all that makes human life majestic and tolerable.
As St. Raphael said to Adam, do not try to understand the stars.
In the last paragraph of his Fifty Years Hence, he talks about a race of beings who had mastered Nature
A state was created whose citizens lived as long as they chose, enjoyed pleasures and sympathies incomparably wider than our own, navigated the inter-planetary spaces, could recall the panorama of the past and foresee the future. But what was the good of all that to them? What did they know more than we know about the answers to the simple questions which man has asked since earliest dawn of reason - Why are we here? What is the purpose of life? Whither are we going? No material progress, even though it takes shapes we cannot now conceive, or however it may expand the faculties of man, can bring comfort to his soul. ------ Projects undreamed of by past generations will absorb our immediate descendants; forces terrific and devastating will be in their hands; comforts, activities, amenities, pleasures will crowd upon them, but their hearts will ache, their lives will be barren if they have not a vision above material things. And with the hopes and powers will come dangers out of all proportion to the growth of man’s intellect, to the strength of his character or to the efficacy of his institutions.
Surely a remarkable insight into the future of humanity as it is evolving to-day! Perhaps the most cogent omission among his thoughts about humanity and its future is the lack of direct reference to the profound and disastrous effect the human population explosion is having on the planet with its limited and rapidly diminishing capacity to nurture its inhabitants.
In his essay Shall We All Commit Suicide he writes about the terrifying prospects of modern warfare and its doomsday prospects. And despite the failures of the League of Nations at his time of writing, ‘deserted by the United States, scorned by Soviet Russia, flouted by Italy, distrusted equally by France and Germany’, he believed that safety and salvation could only be found through the League. It is tragic that, largely because of the hegemony of an arrogant and all-powerful United States under Bush, the United Nations may also fail in its ideals to create a better world, a better understanding between nations and a safe balance between Man and his natural surroundings on which he and the natural flora and fauna of the planet depend for their livelihood.
In the same essay he throws doubt on the utility of the democratic system based on universal suffrage, claiming that parliaments in the democratic countries were inadequate to deal with the problems which dominated the affairs of modern society. He believed that nations were no longer lead by their ablest men. One wonders if he was showing a leaning towards fascism at this time, before the advent of Hitler and when Mussolini was earning widespread admiration as he achieved order in a chaotic Italy.
In Ireland to-day we can sympathise with Churchill’s view on democracy as we see successive governments putting the welfare of party before that of the people, a fact which is starkly evident if one reads the history of our health services, our appalling planning history, of widespread corruption in high as well as low places, and our reluctance to adopt badly needed legal reform, to mention only a few aspects of political policy and administration in the Republic. We also have personal freedom without a corresponding sense of responsibility, added to which is the excessive influence of individuals and minorities. Democracy will only survive if personal and corporate freedom goes hand in hand with a sense of responsibility towards society. The period of the Celtic Tiger has seen a sad deterioration in responsibility even among senior politicians, the professions and in the public service. We are no longer lead by our ablest men.