Jonathan's Reviews > Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat: The Great Speeches

Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat by Winston S. Churchill
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's review
May 22, 11

bookshelves: non-fiction
Recommended for: History and biography readers
Read from January 13 to March 01, 2011, read count: 1

Winston Churchill – soldier, statesman, author, orator – is widely known as one of the most famous figures of the last century. His legend as the steady hand at the helm of Britain through perhaps the most perilous moment in that nation’s history is known the world round. And that legend is based, more than anything else, on his limitless courage and unshakable resolve – as conveyed to the British public and the watching world in series of seminal speeches. Many of those pivotal moments, as Britannia stood beleaguered against the whole of Axis might, have found their way into this collection of “The Great Speeches” of the great man. And though Churchill’s wartime words form the focus of the collection, they by no means comprise the whole. The book encompasses the entirety of his political career, from his maiden speech in the House of Commons to his final farewell to that same assembly some fifty five years later.

The breadth of subject matter covered makes for fascinating reading. Churchill’s career saw the end of colonial imperialism, the two greatest wars ever fought, and the beginnings of the new atomic age, and the man never wanted for the words with which to capture the time. For instance, the second selection of the book, “The Transvaal Constitution,” offers the young MP’s proposal for that document: a well thought out, highly practical critique, examining very specific issues from all angles and providing clear reasoning for his recommendations. I confess I haven’t researched whether the proposal was enacted and whether Churchill’s predictions came to pass, but had I been in the Commons that day, he would have had my vote. Churchill’s legacy may have been built on soaring rhetoric (“We shall go on to the end… we shall never surrender”) but it’s the attention to detail, necessary for the administration of the country, that are so fascinating for us history buffs. Even his great wartime speeches spend a good deal of time on detail, scrutinizing past failure or success and offering real, solid plans for the future. Editor David Cannadine deserves credit not only for his choice in selection, but also for his concise, pointed introductions which provide both context and commentary.

If the historian will be fascinated by the detail, the biographer will be equally fascinated by the words themselves. Churchill’s penchant for wit and pith is well documented, and all his speeches here ring through with his signature style. Ably moving from humor to sobriety, from subtle jibe to sledgehammer point, each of his compositions is a tour de force of language. Often impulsive and always opinionated, not all of Churchill’s arrows hit home. Even during the second war, when the gravity of Britain’s situation demanded unity of purpose, the Prime Minister had to face several votes of no confidence which he adroitly defused with his well-timed rhetoric. When focused on lesser tasks than the survival of the free world he could be vituperative and even vindictive, if at the same time clear-sighted. His characterization of Gandhi as “a seditious middle temple lawyer” was as inflammatory as it was accurate. Yet despite these foibles, one gets the sense that any lesser character would have been insufficient to the great task which Churchill handled so gracefully. History remembers the Second World War as a triumph for the Allies, but there were many moments when the reverse seemed likely, even inevitable. By sheer dint of the force of his will, Churchill mobilized and galvanized his countrymen to deeds of valor and heroism in an hour of desperate need, and while there was certainly much more to the man, his well-deserved legend as Britain’s greatest statesman will live on as long as the language which was his primary weapon.

Sadly (or perhaps not), YouTube did not exist in the days of Cicero, so the world will never know if that oft-made comparison was warranted, but I will close this review with a link to an edited version of Churchill’s Dunkirk speech, after the fall of France to the Nazi blitz and the narrow escape of the British Expeditionary Force. Let the reader ponder for himself the importance of these words to a frightened and reeling nation, to a frightened and uncertain world. Let the reader take to heart the immortal phrase: “we shall never surrender.”

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Reading Progress

01/13/2011 page 75
18.0% "Reading this one at work. Churchill has a way with words; of all the linguists, perhaps the most cunning."

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