One of the classic volumes of autobiography, My Early Life is a lively and colourful account of a young man's quest for action, adventure and danger. Churchill's schooldays are undistinguished, but he is admitted to Sandhurst and embarks on a career as a soldier and a war correspondent, seeing action in Cuba, in India, in the Sudan - where he took part in the battle of Omdurman, of which he gives us a stirring account - and finally in South Africa. Taken prisoner by the Boers, Churchill makes a daring escape. Back home he embarks on the political career that is to make him one of Britain's most distinguished parliamentarians. First published in 1930, when Churchill's most testing time still lay ahead of him, My Early Life is memorable both as an adventure-story and as an account of the events and influences that helped to shape the career of a great Englishman.
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I remember reading about a dinner party Winston Churchill attended in the late 19th Century. When the table talk turned to God and the Cosmos, a female guest observed that all men are worms. Churchill agreed. “All men are indeed worms” he said, then added a characteristic coda, “but I do believe I am a glow worm.”
And so he was. Another reviewer has likened the adventures in this book to those of Indiana Jones, and they are about right (with the crucial, almost unbelievable difference that these adventures aren’t the product of Hollywood scriptwriters and stunt men).
Accused of rampant self-promotion then and later for his willingness to insert himself into the thick of events, it’s hard not to see his side of things. Born to privilege, he nevertheless found himself on the outskirts of power—due to his father’s political miscalculations—and in need of a way to make a living. Not content to merely possess a respected name, he strove to make others respect him. Though without an aristocratic purse he certainly enjoyed an aristocratic self-confidence—and a confidence in his country and its empire—that carried him through events that would leave you and me seeking the nearest bomb shelter.
Besides high adventure there is common sense and uncommon insights here. Do we revere the Greeks and Romans for what they wrote and thought? Of course we do—they came first, when all the good ideas were as yet un-thought and unwritten. Has the similarity between your daily routine and a hell-for-leather cavalry charge ever occurred to you? There is a parallel:
“In one respect a cavalry charge is very like ordinary life. So long as you are all right, firmly in your saddle, your horse in hand, and well armed, lots of enemies will give you a wide berth. But as soon as you have lost a stirrup, have a rein cut, have dropped your weapon, are wounded, or your horse is wounded, then is the moment when from all quarters enemies rush upon you.”
There is much here to cheer us non-glow worms. He was, for example, a flat failure at school. Mathematics and languages frustrated him as much as they frustrated you and me (well, me at least). He lost his first election—a local by-election—by 1,300 votes. His first foray in the public arena—a speech excoriating the barriers that had been erected in music halls to separate the sexes—was never delivered. And perhaps most oddly of all, considering his later reputation, he had to learn to like the taste of whiskey.
Then there is much to make us feel our worm-hood. He escaped captivity in the Boer War twice, hiding in mines and bales of wool. To be in on the campaign that climaxed at Omdurman, he braved the official disapproval of no less a man that Kitchener. It was that bit of hutzpah that lead to his participating the last cavalry charge in British military history. He used the hours of leisure afforded a cavalryman stationed in India to read, making up for his lackluster academic performance. He was under fire more times than I can count. He wrote so well about it all, in both newspapers and between the covers of books, that his work caught the eye of the great—and put his finances on a firm footing. At the end of this volume (published in 1930), it’s hard to believe that the biggest chapters of the story are still waiting ten years in the future.
Fredrick Davidson was the perfect selection for this recording. His cadence, his sense of the shape of sentences and his unerring way of adding just the right sarcastic, humorous or excited edge to the words—along with the slightly Churchillesque tone he assumes throughout—can make it seem at times as if you’re hearing the man himself.