What it was really like

The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson is one of this author’s excellent histories. I’ve read a few of them and particularly recommend Dead Wake which tells of the sinking of the Lusitania, The Devil in the White City which is the true story of a serial killer’s activities during a World’s Fair in Chicago and Isaac’s Storm which is about weather forecasting and what happened in one city when a storm was not foreseen. All these books are well written and easy to read and I look out for books by this author.

The Splendid and the Vile is the inside story of Winston Churchill’s life between the date he became Prime Minister (10 May 1940) and the end of the war although most of the book concentrates on the Blitz and the period before Pearl Harbour when it seemed very likely at the time that Britain would lose the war. It’s not a political history but the story of how Churchill felt and how he reacted with people around him. We also see events from the point of view of those who saw him every day. It leans heavily on diaries from his daughter and from various security officers and civil servants. This is the sort of book where you want to read snippets out to others because they are so interesting or quirky.

I have a good working knowledge of what happened during this period and how the war developed but this book introduced a new way of looking at events. We see the personal obsessions of Churchill and of those he trusted as well as the things that he got wrong. We get a good understanding of the stress he was under as well as that experienced by those around him and lots of glimpses into what life was like for everyone. Churchill was a privileged man who liked to surround himself with friends and those he trusted and to eat and drink well. He was also very intelligent and understood the power of words and of public relations. You can see from this book that he wasn’t perfect but you do wonder who could have coped better with the situation.

There are snippets of information and anecdotes I haven’t heard before – there is much discussion about the rationing of tea and its importance for morale, we discover how Churchill used to work when in the bath and was known to greet guests whilst naked, we follow the love lives of the people around Churchill and are reminded that life still goes on even when there is war, and we see the effort that Churchill put into his relationships with America.

This is not a history of the war and nor is it a biography of the Prime Minister of the time. It is a glimpse into how Churchill and those around him lived at a particular time and in abnormal circumstances. I enjoyed it a lot.

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