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Lord Black reviews 'Mirrors of Greatness: Churchill and the Leaders Who Shaped Him'

1947: Winston Churchill with wife Clementine | Image by: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

3 min read

Just when you thought there couldn’t possibly be more to say, David Reynolds delivers a fascinating survey of the many different manifestations of Winston Churchill’s life

There must be more books written about Winston Churchill than anyone in British history. Apart from his own prodigious output, there are well over 80 biographies in the English language and a plethora of books on different aspects of his life: health; precarious finances; cigars; bodyguard; dysfunctional family; even a (rather good) Churchill cookbook. 

As we approach the 150th anniversary of his birth, do we really need another? David Reynolds’s fascinating, absorbing tome, Mirrors of Greatness, proves emphatically the answer is “yes”.

Even though there is little new to be said, Reynolds’s easily digestible volume cleverly surveys Churchill’s life in its different manifestations – warrior, politician, peacemaker, son, husband – through 11 radically different prisms. 

These “mirrors” of his world – family such as his wife Clemmie, allies like Franklin D Roosevelt, and arch-enemies (including Adolf Hitler and Mahatma Gandhi) paint a unique picture of Churchill. 

Above all it is an impressive canter through six tumultuous decades of world history

They take us through the development of his personal values: a desire to “gain a reputation of personal courage” – the “first of human qualities”; his overpowering self-belief (“we are all worms, but I do believe I am a glow worm”); his love of war (Winston is “enjoying every moment of this war”, Neville Chamberlain lamented); and his often shaky relationship with the facts (“I admire the exaggerated way you tell the truth,” Arthur Balfour quipped). And they chart meticulously his political journey from Tory Democracy to New Liberalism onto the “ideological rigidity” of anti-Bolshevism.

Most absorbingly they reveal the complex love-hate relationship he had with so many of his contemporaries. Leaving Hitler and Gandhi aside, most were “frenemies”. He praised the “courage” of the “Duce” – whom Clementine described as “Pussolini” in view of Winston’s affection for him – before turning on this “hyena”; he relied unswervingly on his deputy Clement Attlee to tell him when he was “being a bloody fool” and run the home front, but treated him as an “object of contempt”; and then there was “Uncle Joe” Stalin, whom Churchill invited to London for a state visit and “magnificent reception” despite believing Russians “not to be human beings at all”.

Mirrors of GreatnessThere are two other “mirrors” of huge importance to him – his father Lord Randolph Churchill, whom he idolised, and Clementine, whom he adored despite her “pinko” views and devout anti-Toryism.

This book works on many levels – it’s actually 12 separate biographies woven into one – and above all is an impressive canter through six tumultuous decades of world history witnessed through different lenses. It will enchant even those who thought they couldn’t possibly read any more Churchill. 

And more books? With Europe at war again, Britain isolated, and with an electorate yearning for courage, inspiration and leadership in public life, Churchill continues to hold a fascination. I suspect historians will still be writing about him in another 150 years. Let us hope their output is as fascinating as this book. 

Lord Black of Brentwood is a Conservative peer

Mirrors of Greatness: Churchill and the Leaders Who Shaped Him
Written by: David Reynolds
Publisher: William Collins

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