“The Splendid and the Vile”

In the fall of 2012, during a weeklong refuge from a wildfire, I found and devoured a secondhand copy of Norman Maclean’s Young Men and Fire.

This week, in a similar burst of affective reading, I picked up and have already consumed the first half of Erik Larson’s latest historical thriller, The Splendid and the Vile.

It’s the story of Churchill, his inner circle, his family, and (some of) his staff during his first year as prime minister, which coincided with the London Blitz and the Battle of Britain. It is neither a history of the Blitz itself nor of Churchill (the man or the politician), but it provides a front-row seat to the year in which “Churchill became Churchill,” as Larson writes in his introduction.

And just how did he do that? Though famously indomitable and indefatigable, energy alone did not accomplish the transformation of the person, the bureaucracy, or the public morale.

In Larson’s portrait, two qualities stand out. As a manager, Churchill knew who ought to take which responsibilities, and he masterfully conducted the orchestra of his cabinet and their departments. As a leader, Larson highlights over and over again Churchill’s ability not merely to turn a phrase, but to deliver even the bloodiest of bad news in such a way as to leave his audience with heightened though clear-eyed resolved.

As Larson writes, “it is one thing to say ‘Carry on,’ quite another to do it.” Churchill did it, and his example, as well as his words, live on because of it.

And, lest we forget, Churchill set that example and spoke those words without knowing the outcome, as we do today. Rather, as he said in his eulogy for his predecessor, Neville Chamberlain (and a phrase that serves as epigraph to Larson’s book), “It is not given to human beings — happily for them, for otherwise life would be intolerable — to foresee or to predict to any large extent the unfolding course of events.”