Old Victory’s Pride (Extended Review): “Churchill & Son” by Josh Ireland

Old Victory’s Pride (Extended Review): “Churchill & Son” by Josh Ireland

Churchill & Son by Josh Ire­land (New York: Dut­ton, 2021) 464 pages, $34, Kin­dle $14.99. First pub­lished in The Amer­i­can Spec­ta­tor7 April 2021. I was lim­it­ed to 1500 words, and so have added cer­tain reflec­tions that occurred since pub­li­ca­tion (“Just Among Our­selves”).   —RML

Josh Ireland’s “Life with Father”

Despite an inaus­pi­cious begin­ning, this is a thought­ful study of a father-son rela­tion­ship dur­ing the storms that rocked a trou­bled cen­tu­ry. Ran­dolph Churchill has now prompt­ed six books—not bad for most Churchills, short of his father (1150 and count­ing). Josh Ire­land here con­fronts his bit­ter­sweet Life with Father, adding fresh insights and thought­ful appraisals to our under­stand­ing of the great man and his offspring.

Sir Winston’s cousin Shane Leslie wrote off WSC’s rela­tion­ship with his father: “Few fathers have done less for their sons. Few sons have done more for their fathers.” A review of Churchill & Son para­phras­es: “Few fathers did more for their sons than Winston….Few sons have done less for their fathers than Randolph.”

Both remarks are unjust. Lord Ran­dolph Churchill was a busy politi­cian, wrote Celia and John Lee. Yet he tried “to secure the future of both his boys.” In fact “he went to a good deal of trou­ble on their behalf, for which he gets no con­sid­er­a­tion what­so­ev­er.” Winston’s son Ran­dolph gave birth to the longest biog­ra­phy on the plan­et. Win­ston S. Churchill is the stan­dard work for gen­er­a­tions of schol­ars. Both fathers and both sons did much for each other.

Josh Ire­land avoids such pat sum­ma­tions. With no appar­ent axe to grind, he limns the 45-year Win­ston-Ran­dolph rela­tion­ship, good, bad and ugly. There are a few errors and skewed judg­ments, an uneven gloss on events. Yet Ire­land large­ly fol­lows Randolph’s own max­im, “I am inter­est­ed only in the truth.”

Slow start

The pro­logue is brief, elo­quent, and a good omen, but after the first two chap­ters of pot­ted back­ground I was ready to toss this book, with its super­fi­cial accounts of Lord Randolph’s pur­port­ed syphilis, Winston’s parental neglect, a Clemen­tine Churchill remind­ful of a flawed recent biog­ra­phy, and some bad his­to­ry. Win­ston is adamant for war in 1914. He “aban­dons” the Admi­ral­ty to defend Antwerp. Then he invents the Dar­d­anelles oper­a­tion. Next he plays the “toff in the trench­es” of World War I. Lat­er he mort­gages a coun­try house in Clementine’s name.

Each of those asser­tions is wrong, obfus­cat­ing the broad­er real­i­ty. Churchill tried hard­er than any min­is­ter to save the peace; the Admi­ral­ty was ready for war because he made it so; Antwerp’s pro­longed defense sal­vaged key French ports and he didn’t “aban­don” his post, he was sent there. But nev­er mind. What fol­lows is increas­ing­ly good. It’s best to skip to Chap­ter 3, as Ran­dolph begins grow­ing up—all too precariously.

Growing up with Winston

The boy matures in the Churchill milieu with all its bois­ter­ous vivac­i­ty and con­tention, its pan­theon of exalt­ed per­son­ages. His father betimes accom­plish­es the work of two men: speech­es, arti­cles, books, meet­ings, hob­bies and trav­el, hold­ing nine min­is­te­r­i­al offices with­in 16 years. Such a mélange was bound to affect any youth grow­ing up in it. Win­ston, try­ing to com­pen­sate for what he sees as his own father’s neglect, overindulges Ran­dolph. His friend Lord Birken­head teach­es Ran­dolph to drink, and drink hard. The com­bi­na­tion pro­duced ora­tor­i­cal flour­ish­es and boor­ish over­con­fi­dence. Win­ston con­tributed by wav­ing his famous cig­ar for silence when­ev­er Ran­dolph held forth to movers and shak­ers of the age.

On a 1929 hol­i­day in North Amer­i­ca (incor­rect­ly called a lec­ture tour), Randolph’s cir­cle widened to movie stars and cap­tains of finance and indus­try. What they saw “was a young man whose self-con­fi­dence was so large it appeared it could swal­low galax­ies whole.” What they missed was the deep sen­si­tiv­i­ty acquired in his upbring­ing: he “learned ear­ly on to hide this vulnerability…beneath the sur­face arrogance.”

“A brutal mix of anger and pain”

Josh Ire­land often spots cru­cial con­tra­dic­tions. Ran­dolph was explo­sive, “his con­ceit unsup­port­able.” Yet inward­ly he ached for his father’s approval (and his mother’s, much hard­er to come by). Fre­quent­ly he tried to resolve the dichoto­my with con­flict. Win­ston would say, “I love him very much,” yet his son often reduced him to apoplexy. Ran­dolph would say, “I do so very much love that man, but some­thing always goes wrong between us.” Their rela­tion­ship was a “bru­tal mix of anger and pain.”

Winston’s hopes for his son waxed in 1935. That was when Ran­dolph ran for Par­lia­ment in Tory-blue Wavertree, Lan­cashire, chal­leng­ing the offi­cial Con­ser­v­a­tive can­di­date. His father, hop­ing for office in the next Tory gov­ern­ment, was ini­tial­ly out­raged. But when Ran­dolph began attract­ing huge crowds, Win­ston hope­ful­ly cam­paigned for him. Alas Ran­dolph split the Tory vote, hand­ing the seat to Labour. (The book omits the tal­ly: Churchill 24%, Con­ser­v­a­tive 31%, Labour 35%). Josh Ire­land has writ­ten the best account yet of this episode—Randolph’s rol­lick­ing polit­i­cal apogee. (True, he got in for Pre­ston in 1940, but that was an uncon­test­ed seat dur­ing the wartime polit­i­cal truce, and he was prompt­ly eject­ed in 1945. He ran oth­er times before and after the war, but always lost.)

Father and son were nev­er clos­er than in the 1930s, each a pari­ah to the Con­ser­v­a­tive Par­ty. But Win­ston could sep­a­rate pol­i­tics from per­son­al friend­ships, and his son could not. “Every­one knew what Win­ston thought about men like Bald­win,” Ire­land writes, but “he was also punc­til­ious about pre­serv­ing at least the appear­ance of civility.…Randolph either did not care or could not con­trol him­self.”

War and forgetfulness

With war and Winston’s gov­ern­ment, Ran­dolph was passed over: his “explo­sive ener­gy; his will­ing­ness to defy any­body, irre­spec­tive of their rank or position—were hin­drances now.” As close as he came was the office of Chamberlain’s toady, the appeas­er Horace Wil­son. The day Churchill became prime min­is­ter, Wil­son returned from lunch to find Ran­dolph and Bren­dan Brack­en on his office sofa, smok­ing huge cig­ars and glar­ing at him. Wil­son fled, nev­er to return.

Brack­en was imme­di­ate­ly appoint­ed Churchill’s Min­is­ter of Infor­ma­tion. A long­time crony, he liked to fan the sil­ly canard that he was Winston’s ille­git­i­mate son. Ran­dolph, who was left to join the Army, loved Brack­en but called him “my broth­er the bas­tard.” Ran­dolph served brave­ly, in part with Yugoslav par­ti­sans. When his father told Mar­shal Tito he wished he was fight­ing at his side, Tito remon­strat­ed: “But you have sent us your son,” and tears of emo­tion rolled down Winston’s cheeks.

Decline, devotion, duty

Randolph’s post­war years were suf­fused by the grim, mono­chrome real­i­ty of rationed, strait­ened, impov­er­ished Britain. An Ado­nis in youth, he aged like Wilde’s Dori­an Gray. His 1939 mar­riage to Pamela Dig­by went aground in 1946, not least because he knew of her wartime dal­liance with Averell Har­ri­man. Ignor­ing his own count­less flings, he unfair­ly blamed his par­ents for abet­ting the affair to court favor with Roosevelt’s envoy. Few of his lady friends could real­ly han­dle him, but those who did, like his last love Natal­ie Bevan, assuaged Randolph’s intense crav­ing for affec­tion. They found him impos­si­ble; they admired his gen­eros­i­ty and courage.

One of Randolph’s great redeem­ing qual­i­ties was a hatred of injus­tice. In Amer­i­ca he voiced out­rage over the “bar­bar­ic, unlaw­ful negro lynch­ings in your South,” com­par­ing the “out­ra­geous treat­ment of your Red Indi­ans” with the “benev­o­lence” of the Indi­an Raj. Upon land­ing at Cape Town he was required to state his race. “Damned cheek!” exclaimed Ran­dolph. Fan­ning an old myth, he proud­ly declared his “coloured blood” through “the Indi­an Princess Pocahontas.”

In 1963, when the paparazzi hound­ed John Pro­fu­mo fol­low­ing a scan­dalous affair, Ran­dolph made his home the Pro­fu­mos’ sanc­tu­ary, order­ing his staff to bar the media: “There shall be no rot.” (In 1940, Pro­fu­mo had been the youngest MP to vote against Cham­ber­lain in the divi­sion that brought Win­ston Churchill to power.)

Lord Nor­wich said, “If you knew Ran­dolph well, you loved him.” Few, says Ire­land, saw that side of him. He “stag­gered around Lon­don, lit­ter­ing his path with gra­tu­itous insults….He ruined par­ties, gate-crashed pri­vate din­ners, immo­lat­ed friend­ships that had last­ed for decades….Randolph lived in a cheer­ful kind of chaos, a func­tion of the self-sab­o­tag­ing streak in him that had been nur­tured by alcohol.”

Randolph’s achievements

Josh Ireland
Ran­dolph wrote 15 books, hun­dreds of arti­cles, edit­ed sev­en vol­umes of his father’s speech­es, and pro­duced the first sev­en vol­umes of Win­ston S. Churchill, the offi­cial biog­ra­phy. (Pho­to by the author)

Despite his many hand­i­caps, Ran­dolph became a notable jour­nal­ist. He cov­ered three wars, wrote 15 books, hun­dreds of arti­cles, edit­ed sev­en vol­umes of his father’s speech­es. In 1959, he pub­lished his sem­i­nal Lord Der­by: King of Lan­cashire. His enthralled father gave him what he’d long want­ed: the writ­ing of his biog­ra­phy. It was his chance at redemp­tion, “to cre­ate a last­ing record of his love and devo­tion to the man he had loved more than any oth­er per­son he had ever known. In the process of telling the sto­ry of his father’s life, he belat­ed­ly gave mean­ing to his own.”

In 1996 I thought His Father’s Son, by Randolph’s son, the best book about him. I still do, but Churchill & Son deserves to stand with it as the tes­ti­mo­ny of Josh Ire­land, a per­cep­tive out­sider. “Ran­dolph Hope and Glo­ry,” as detrac­tors referred to him in the 1930s, emerges as a dynam­ic speak­er, a bril­liant jour­nal­ist, a gal­lant sol­dier, a skilled biog­ra­ph­er, a frus­trat­ed son—and an hon­est man: as hon­est about him­self, as he was of oth­ers. Not so bad an epi­taph, after all.

In 1996 his son wrote: “We buried him in Bladon church­yard, beside his grand­fa­ther, and his father, whom he loved and revered so deeply. To this day the mem­o­ry of him lingers on in the hearts of his friends.” I think Ran­dolph would set­tle for that.

Just among ourselves: personal reflections

Josh Ire­land ‘s book reminds us to avoid absolutes when judg­ing Churchill—and his son. The fore­go­ing review was lim­it­ed to 1500 words—which was right and fit­ting. But there’s an added aspect for stu­dents of the Churchill saga, and it is this:

Per­son­al affairs and fam­i­ly trau­mas nev­er affect­ed Win­ston Churchill’s politics—his sense of duty. Despite his peren­ni­al con­cerns over Ran­dolph, noth­ing divert­ed him from his respon­si­bil­i­ty to the nation. (See also “Con­sis­ten­cy in Politics.”)

In 1935, when Ran­dolph dis­rupt­ed his plans and ran in Wavertree, Win­ston was annoyed, then hope­ful, then frus­trat­ed. The very same year found him encour­ag­ing Gand­hi after pas­sage of the India Act. Simul­ta­ne­ous­ly he was seek­ing the truth about Ger­man rear­ma­ment. No soon­er had Ran­dolph stormed out of Chartwell after an argu­ment than Win­ston would wel­come mys­te­ri­ous Britons and Ger­mans, secret­ly advis­ing him on Hitler’s war plans. In 1936, set­ting Ran­dolph wor­ries aside, his father took the lead in defend­ing Edward VIII in the Abdi­ca­tion cri­sis—a waste of time that tem­porar­i­ly dam­aged his cause.

It is true also that Randolph—when he wasn’t “not speak­ing to Papa”—was able to set per­son­al quar­rels aside. Author Celia Lee writes: “Claris­sa [Eden, Lady Avon] told me in inter­view years ago that he was the clever­est of the Churchills—that as a jour­nal­ist he was able to get into places politi­cians like Win­ston could not, and that he was there­fore real­ly valu­able to his father who nev­er gave him one iota of recog­ni­tion for the help he’d giv­en him.” We might argue about “clever­est” (his father wrote 40 more books). But Lady Avon’s com­ments are remark­able, giv­en all the grief that Ran­dolph gave her hus­band, his father’s successor.

Today—when they’re not cov­er­ing up some scandal—politicians let their fam­i­ly affairs all hang out, like spe­cial plead­ing or virtue-sig­nal­ing. Not the Churchills.

One thought on “Old Victory’s Pride (Extended Review): “Churchill & Son” by Josh Ireland

  1. A Churchill schol­ar writes: “Like you, I near­ly binned the book after the first few chap­ters. I nev­er saw such a sus­tained and con­cen­trat­ed assault on Lord Ran­dolph and the author quite spoiled his case with rep­e­ti­tion. I also, like you, per­se­vered with the book and found it infor­ma­tive and use­ful in try­ing to under­stand what made Ran­dolph tick. Not a man I could ever have liked, I think! And we see Win­ston all delight­ed with the birth of a son (exact­ly as his father was with him, with all the same expres­sions of affec­tion); then be absent for long spells in his busy polit­i­cal life, and write him a crush­ing let­ter about gam­bling debts as sav­age as any­thing Lord Ran­dolph ever wrote to Win­ston. My gen­er­al obser­va­tion is this: Lord Ran­dolph, in all his ‘tyran­ny and lack of love for his son,’ pro­duced a world class states­man. Win­ston, in all his gush­ing love and affec­tion, pro­duced a [fill in the blank]. Per­haps we should be glad not to have been born in the shad­ow of a mighty oak?”

    I didn’t know the man, except to get two kind let­ters from him just before he died, so I can’t be cer­tain about him. Natal­ie Bevan loved him “despite every­thing.” Mar­tin Gilbert insist­ed he had won­der­ful human­i­ty. That cuts two ways, to chan­nel Auberon Waugh–there were parts of Ran­dolph that were not malig­nant! Yes, it was a hard thing mak­ing your own way in that milieu. —RML

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