A Whiff of Brass: The Churchill Factor by Boris Johnson

By Bradley Lineker:

Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson, Hodder and Stoughton., 2014. Pages: 416. £25.00 (hardback). ISBN 9781444783025

When young Tories are about to make their maiden speeches in the House of Commons, they can often be found – or so Johnson tells us – in the Member’s Lobby underneath the imposing statue of Churchill, as if trying to channel the great man’s spirit. [1] Indeed, Churchill’s left foot has been rubbed to a brassy-shine with all the attempted thaumaturgy; and while there is more than a whiff of left-footed-brassiness about the book, it is also quite a bit more than this.

Much like Boris himself, the book is an entertaining – if at times buffoonish – introduction to Churchill’s character and achievements that, alongside some very obvious flaws, achieves Johnson’s stated aim: of providing an insight into the life and times of the Greatest Briton to a generation now twice-removed from when he lived.

The structure of the book, similar to Johnson’s other writings, reflects this aim; particularly as the small news-article-style chapters – each thematically dealing with specific parts of Churchill’s character and achievements – emphasise accessibility. While this compliments the breezy conversational prose, there are moments where it can appear lazy – his Jeremy Kyle treatment of Churchill’s fiascos[2] for instance – or grate on the reader – see, in particular, his clunky use of ending paragraphs to introduce new chapters. Furthermore, much like his hero, it seems Johnson has dictated much of the book, and for those expectant of substantive prose, in places it unfortunately shows.

Johnson begins the book by outlining events of 1940, before steadily, and with a rough sort of chronology, moving through Churchill’s life using his character-traits as a sort of guide to base his chapters. Johnson’s chapters arc over Churchill’s courage,[3] risk-taking,[4] use of language,[5] as well as his general character,[6] and personal relationships – to name but a few. This method, while perhaps illustrating how the work cannot really be treated as a work of pure-history (something that Johnson himself admits[7]), is nonetheless effective at offering an accessible kaleidoscope to the man.

The Churchill Factor isn’t a history in the proper sense, nor even is it really a biography, it is more an informal personal appraisal; and it therefore cannot be compared to nor extend the work of Churchill’s other biographers. This is reinforced by Johnson’s constant referral to professional historians, such as Max Hastings’ assessment of the paucity of the British officer class,[8] or Lamb’s account of the destruction of the French fleet at Mers-el-Kébir[9], as well as his cartoonish metaphors – such as comparing Britain’s war reputation to that of Manchester United and its actual record to Tunstall Town F.C.[10] However, Johnson’s playful cavalierness with people and events leads to gross over-simplifications of history that at times mar the text. For instance, “Germany … and German militarism and expansion”[11] are narrowly blamed for the First World War (an argument that has significantly more problems than that for 1939-1945), which, when situated alongside blithe comments about the effects of the reforms of the 1920s (“[Churchill] helped save Britain from fascism not once, but twice”[12]), among many other examples, betrays a dangerously simplistic retelling of history. Moreover, scattered here and there, there is a faint knee-slapping jingoism, demonstrated by Johnson’s account of British national identity[13] and Churchill’s “foreign names … [are] made for Englishmen, not Englishmen for foreign names” telegram[14], which together seem to embellish and glorify imperial Britishness, while dimming its excesses.

Although, one is left to wonder how much of the book is actually about Winston Churchill, as, too often, it is stymied by Johnson’s attempts to work out the ambiguity in his own relationship with the former Prime Minister. While Johnson, much in the same way that a 12-year old Boris may have done,[15] lavishes praise upon the Greatest Briton[16] – even embarking on a pilgrimage, complete with can of “Stella” and cigar, to Churchill’s First World War billet in southern Belgium[17] – the truth seems more ambiguous: “[while] I love writing and thinking about Winston Churchill, the old boy can sometimes be faintly intimidating. I hasten to say that he is always brilliant fun – but as you try to do justice to his life you are acutely conscious of being chained to a genius, and a genius of unbelievable energy and fecundity.”[18] This is the most overt articulation of Johnson’s own presence in the book, where he continually – consciously or subconsciously – compares and at times attempts to match Churchill while recording his achievements.

Some of Johnson’s more welcome interventions are, in fact, when he gives us analysis on the nature of the politician,[19] journalist[20] or writing under the influence of alcohol. [21] Johnson’s deconstruction of Churchill’s speechmaking (“It’s all about the music of the speech, more than the logic. It’s the sizzle, not the sausage.”[22]), and the schmoozing of FDR and America[23] are unique in that they’re being made by an active politician. However his political point scoring can be tedious in places – such as when he says: “[Churchill] was radical precisely because he was conservative. He knew what all sensible Tories know – that the only way to keep things the same is to make sure you change them…” [24] These comments, offered here and there, are interesting in their own right (again, coming from an active politician) but they seem out of place in this book.

The Churchill Factor remains a light-hearted and accessible companion piece to other biographies, an altogether more detailed and distinguished Horrible History,[25] to both a man and his historical period, which remains stunted by its style, marred by wistful historical distortions, disengaged with other histories, and bogged-down with the vanity of its author. The book certainly has its flaws, but it is inescapably entertaining nonetheless – with the easy, conversational charm only broken at times by stylistic chunkiness and a few oddball absurdities that one has to accept as part of the Johnson package. However, in view of its dictated-style and its purposely patchy application of historical and biographical traditions, and especially in view of the excellent McKellen-narrated piece – which share many similarities to Johnson’s book – the question remains: why wasn’t this a documentary instead of a book?

Bradley Lineker is currently a fully-funded ESRC doctoral candidate in the War Studies Department, King’s College London. He has extensive experience working as a consulting research analyst with the UN and the private sector on contexts like Israel/Palestine, Jordan, Kenya, Somalia and Syria. Follow him @BradleyLineker. 


[1] Johnson, B. (2014), The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History (London: Hodder and Stoughton), p. 31

2Ibid., p. 201-224

3 Ibid., p. 56-68 Chapter 5: No Act Too Daring or Too Noble

4 Ibid., p. 201-224 Chapter 15: Playing Roulette with History

5 Ibid., p. 84-101 Chapter 7: He Mobilised the English Language

6 Ibid., p. 134-147 ‘Chapter 10: The Making of John Bull’

7 Ibid., p. 4

8 Ibid., p. 266

9 Ibid., p. 233

10 Ibid., p. 265

11 Ibid., p. 173-4

12 Ibid., p. 162

13 Ibid., p. 136

14 Ibid., p. 199

15 see Ibid., p. 189 for a particular memorable quote

16 Ibid., p. 1

17 Ibid., p. 174

18 Ibid., p. 350

19 Ibid., p. 206

20 Ibid., p. 70

21 Ibid., p. 70

22 Ibid., p. 90

23 Ibid., p. 241-256

24 Ibid., p. 160

25 I have borrowed this likeness from: Coughlin, C. (2014). “The Churchill Factor by Boris Johnson, review: ‘a breathless romp’”. The Telegraph. Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/11182335/the-churchill-factor-by-boris-johnson.html.


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