Sir Martin Gilbert CBE, 1936-2015 (2)

Sir Martin Gilbert CBE, 1936-2015 (2)

“Rose-lipt Maid­ens, Light­foot Lads” 

con­tin­ued from part 1

"Darling Randy, Here is Martin Gilbert, an interesting researching historian young man, who loves Duff and hates the Coroner. He is full of zeal to set history right. Do see him." —Lady Diana Cooper's letter of introduction of Martin Gilbert to Randolph Churchill, 1962
“Dar­ling Randy, Here is Mar­tin Gilbert, an inter­est­ing research­ing his­to­ri­an young man, who loves Duff….He is full of zeal to set his­to­ry right. Do see him.” —Lady Diana Duff Cooper’s let­ter of intro­duc­tion of Mar­tin Gilbert to Ran­dolph Churchill, 1962

“Stop that!” Seat­ed beside him at his first appear­ance before the Churchill Society—the sec­ond Churchill Tour on 17 Sep­tem­ber 1985—I had caught Mar­tin Gilbert rif­fling through a brief­case crammed with sheets of yel­low foolscap, toss­ing some out as the min­utes ticked by before his lec­ture, “Churchill’s Lon­don: Spin­ning Top of Memories.”

It was the first time I would hear a Gilbert speech, and here he was, culling it already. “This is my ‘Speech Form,’” he explained, refer­ring to the term Churchill used for his speak­ing notes. Unlike Churchill, whose typed speech notes includ­ed every word, the lines picked out like vers­es of the Psalms, Martin’s sheets each con­tained only a few hand­writ­ten words. When he began, he would pull one out, glance at the line, toss it aside and ad-lib flaw­less­ly for five or ten min­utes. Then he’d pull out anoth­er and the process was repeat­ed. Before he start­ed, he would self-edit him­self by omit­ting sheets he thought might run too long.

“A bore is some­body who tells every­thing,” my best edi­tor told me. But here at this time, at the Wal­dorf Hotel in Lon­don, we want­ed Mar­tin to leave noth­ing out. We were Churchillians. We would hang on every word. But Mar­tin kept culling, sym­pa­thet­ic to his audi­ence, deter­mined to fit his talk into what he thought was the right amount of time.

A Gilbert lec­ture, wrote Matthew Gould, British Ambas­sador to Israel, was a mix  of “humil­i­ty with humour and extra­or­di­nary com­mand of detail, with­out grand flour­ish­es or great cadences, keep­ing his audi­ences rapt in attention….an under­stat­ed and dif­fi­dent style which often left me feel­ing he was on the verge of run­ning dry, only to answer every ques­tion with a great depth of knowl­edge and understanding.”

His writ­ten work is much the same. Crit­ics would com­plain that he was too method­i­cal, too “stuck” on chronol­o­gy. But for Mar­tin, as Andrew Roberts observed, chronol­o­gy was the key. It was his job in the “Great Work” to place the read­er on Churchill’s shoul­der, per­son­al­ly observ­ing the march of events—to explain what hap­pened when, and what stemmed from it.

Let oth­ers make broad pro­nounce­ments about whether Churchill was wise or fool­ish; Mar­tin Gilbert made his views plain from his selec­tion of mate­r­i­al. And few ever chal­lenged the valid­i­ty of that selec­tion. The only times I saw him dis­grun­tled were when lat­er writ­ers treat­ed as a rev­e­la­tion some fact or anec­dote he’d pub­lished decades before.

I mar­veled at Martin’s spon­tane­ity. His pub­lic voice was the same as his pri­vate one: con­ver­sa­tion­al with vast recall, and a stu­dious dis­re­gard for “revi­sion­ist” non­sense. He knew the sto­ry so well, you see. He knew it hav­ing sift­ed through more papers, doc­u­ments, inter­views and tran­scripts than any­one else on the plan­et. His words sim­ply flowed, fact upon fact, with irrefutable log­ic. Always he would por­tray the same Churchill, a char­ac­ter with human faults and frail­ties, dri­ven by a love of lib­er­ty and his fel­low man. “I nev­er felt that he was going to spring an unpleas­ant sur­prise on me,” Max Hast­ings quot­ed Mar­tin as say­ing. “I might find that he was adopt­ing views with which I dis­agreed. But I always knew that there would be noth­ing to cause me to think: ‘How shock­ing, how appalling.’”

Asked once to describe Churchill in a sin­gle sen­tence, Mar­tin said noth­ing about blood, toil, tears and sweat: Churchill, he said, “was a great human­i­tar­i­an who was him­self dis­tressed that the acci­dents of his­to­ry gave him his great­est pow­er at a time when every­thing had to be focused on defend­ing the coun­try from destruc­tion, rather than achiev­ing his goals of a fair­er soci­ety.” I think this illu­mi­nates Martin’s Churchillian opti­mism that some­how, in the end, “all will come right.”

Many authors, like Dou­glas Rus­sell, remem­bered how hon­ored they were by a Gilbert fore­word to or approval of their own books. In my own book of quo­ta­tions, Churchill in His Own Words, he not only wrote the intro­duc­tion, but coined the best pro­mo­tion line a pub­lish­er could hope to have: “unput­down­able.” I was both embar­rassed and hon­ored by his praise.

His gen­eros­i­ty was unend­ing. A devout Jew, he nev­er failed to wish his Gen­tile friends a Hap­py Easter—even those who were not par­tic­u­lar­ly reli­gious. With me at a Boston book­shop he pulled book after book of his off the shelves, paid for them, and inscribed them on the spot. I won­dered how many authors could vis­it a shop and find four of his books on the racks (or what the shop own­er thought of this stranger scrib­bling in his stock!)

A con­stant friend, Mar­tin was always been there for us, answer­ing com­pli­cat­ed ques­tions, pro­duc­ing schol­ar­ly arti­cles, trav­el­ing to lec­ture at con­fer­ences as dis­tant as Alas­ka, guid­ing tour par­ties from Lon­don to Suf­folk, where he showed up at Stour, Ran­dolph Churchill’s old home, shed­ding tears of memory.

His phe­nom­e­nal recall rarely missed a ref­er­ence. When I offered him the toast, “Rose-lipt maid­ens, light­foot lads,” Mar­tin exclaimed: “Hous­man! From Out of Africa” (Syd­ney Pollack’s great film with Streep and Red­ford, based on Isak Dine­son’s book).

Mar­tin always down­played and offered no details of his work for suc­ces­sive prime min­is­ters from Mar­garet Thatch­er to Gor­don Brown, but he did once share an amus­ing anec­dote. In the Mid­dle East to meet with the Pales­tin­ian leader Yass­er Arafat, Prime Min­is­ter John Major intro­duced Mar­tin as “my guru.” Con­ster­na­tion and a buzz of chat­ter arose in the Arab del­e­ga­tion. It final­ly emerged that they weren’t sure what a guru was! Yet the Prime Min­is­ter had exact­ly described Martin’s role.

Last autumn I had the hon­or to pro­duce a festschrift issue of Finest Hour in Martin’s hon­or, where twen­ty writ­ers and friends spoke of his devo­tion to his­to­ry, his gen­eros­i­ty and friend­ship. His wife Esther was one of the con­trib­u­tors, and able to read each piece to him. She says he sig­ni­fied that he under­stood. I am so glad we were in time.

The time you won your town the race 

We chaired you through the market-place;

Man and boy stood cheer­ing by,

And home we brought you shoulder-high.

To-day, the road all run­ners come,

Shoul­der-high we bring you home,

And set you at your thresh­old down,

Towns­man of a stiller town.

So set, before its echoes fade,

The fleet foot on the sill of shade,

And hold to the low lin­tel up

The still-defend­ed challenge-cup.

—A.E. Hous­man, A Shrop­shire Lad


First pub­lished in Finest Hour 165, Autumn 2014

One thought on “Sir Martin Gilbert CBE, 1936-2015 (2)

  1. I wrote a review of Sr Martin’s book Jerusalem in the ear­ly 90s. Sev­er­al months lat­er I received a charm­ing mis­sive that I trea­sure to this day.

    He was like that. Thanks

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