Churchill and Orwell
by Thomas E Ricks
Ricks wrote a fascinating account of the construction of this book for The Atlantic. His editor, Scott Moyers, warned Ricks at the outset against writing “an extended book review that leaned on the weak reed of themes rather than stood on a strong foundation of narrative.” That’s exactly the draft he originally sent in. This book is the revision.
In principle, narrative is strong. In practice, there’s not much real narrative here. It often seems that all the 20th-century English writers and journalists knew each other intimately. Take any two writers: if they hadn’t been at school together, the odds are good that one gave the other the pram now sitting in her foyer. Yet Churchill and Orwell never seem to have met; Churchill read some of Orwell’s books, but Churchill read everyone. Orwell admired some of Churchill’s war speeches: who did not? Both Orwell and Churchill entered old age as failures and then achieved the success for which they had been preparing for decades. That’s interesting, but it’s not a narrative.
I loved Ricks’ Fiasco, his superb book on the Iraq disaster. On more familiar ground, Ricks’ touch is less sure. His interpretation of Churchill rests heavily on Manchester’s superb biography, and explaining the history of the second world war tends to crowd out any but the most straightforward thinking about the wartime speeches. Yet if Churchill and Orwell are to be compared, it is these war speeches that matter; Churchill may not have been a great strategist or an ideal negotiator, but Orwell had nothing to do with strategy or negotiation at all. Some interesting points are made about the literary qualities of the war memoirs, but this is not enough — and our interest in those memoirs rests, in the end, on the success of those speeches as well as the success of the war.