Sir Martin Gilbert CBE, 1936-2015 (2)

Sir Martin Gilbert CBE, 1936-2015 (2)

The art of the talk

Con­tin­ued from part 1“Stop that!” Seat­ed beside him the first time we’d met—the sec­ond Churchill Tour on 17 Sep­tem­ber 1985—I caught Mar­tin Gilbert rif­fling through a brief­case crammed with sheets of yel­low foolscap. As the min­utes ticked by before his talk, “Churchill’s Lon­don,” he would toss some sheets away. “What are you doing?” I whinged to my new friend. It was the my first Mar­tin Gilbert speech, and here he was, culling it already.

“This is my ‘Speech Form,’” Mar­tin explained, refer­ring to the term Churchill used for his own speech notes: typed texts includ­ing every word, the lines picked out like vers­es of the Psalms.

Mar­tin Gilbert was a superb extem­po­ra­ne­ous speak­er, with no need for that. His own sheets con­tained only a few hand­writ­ten words. When he began a new sub­ject 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. If he thought he might run too long, he would self-edit by omit­ting the sheets he thought superfluous.

“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.

“Humility, humour, command”

A Gilbert lec­ture, wrote Matthew Gould, British Ambas­sador to Israel, was a mix  of “humil­i­ty with humour and extra­or­di­nary com­mand of detail.” There were no grand flour­ish­es or great cadences. Mar­tin “kept his audi­ences rapt in atten­tion. His under­stat­ed and dif­fi­dent style often left me feel­ing he was on the verge of run­ning dry—only to answer every ques­tion with a great depth 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. He would 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.

Always the same Martin

I mar­veled at his spon­tane­ity. Like Churchill’s, his pub­lic voice was the same as his pri­vate one. Mar­tin was 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,” Mar­tin remarked to Max Hast­ings. “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.”

“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.” —from Lady Diana Cooper’s note intro­duc­ing Mar­tin Gilbert to Ran­dolph Churchill, 1962.

He meant so much to us all

Many Churchill writ­ers, like Dou­glas Rus­sell, remem­bered how hon­ored they were by a Gilbert fore­word to or approval of their books. In my own book of quo­ta­tions, Churchill by Him­self, he not only wrote the intro­duc­tion, but coined the best pro­mo line we could hope for: “Unput­down­able.” I was so very 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 their books on the racks. (Or what the pro­pri­etor thought of this stranger scrib­bling in his stock!)

A con­stant friend, Mar­tin was always there for us, answer­ing com­pli­cat­ed ques­tions, pro­duc­ing schol­ar­ly arti­cles, trav­el­ing to lec­ture at con­fer­ences near and far, guid­ing our tours of “Churchill’s Britain.” In Suf­folk, he joined us at Stour, Ran­dolph Churchill’s old home. It was his first vis­it since Randolph’s death, and Mar­tin shed tears of memory.

“Rose-lipt maidens, lightfoot lads”

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 coun­sel to suc­ces­sive prime min­is­ters from Mar­garet Thatch­er to Gor­don Brown. But he did once share an amus­ing anec­dote. In the Mid­dle East to meet with 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 Mr. Major had exact­ly described Martin’s role.

Last autumn I had the hon­or to pro­duce a festschrift in Martin’s hon­or, where 20 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 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

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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

RML Books

Richard Langworth’s Most Popular Books & eBooks

Links on this page may earn commissions.