Saturday, 13 February 2016

No Word For Water


I’ve been reading Boris Johnson’s biography of Winston Churchill, ‘The Churchill Factor’, and I have to say that I’m quite enjoying it - it’s zippy, well-paced and entertaining, written with Johnson’s typical brio and zest. I’d certainly recommend it - if you like your history having a bit more emphasis on the ‘story’ bit.

Johnson, being a journalist, knows how to write, and as the saying is, he doesn’t always let the facts get in the way of a good yarn. To be fair, he does state, quite early on, that he ‘isn’t a historian’, which should be enough to put the reader on their guard. He is also, quite clearly, a bit besotted with his subject: The book teeters on the edge of fanboy fiction, and it’s also obvious that Churchill, journalist, politician and serial self-publicist, has been a profound influence on journalist, politician and serial self-publicist Boris Johnson.

He races through the life of his subject, placing Winston under the relatively lightest of scrutiny and conveniently skating over certain topics - the seriousness of his heart attack when staying at the White House, for example, or the absence of a mention of his involvement with the Black and Tans in Ireland. Johnson breezily dismisses much of the criticism of Churchill without going into detail - good for keeping the narrative going, but bad for objectivity.

Anyway, enough of the book critique. It’s still what is often termed a rollicking read. There are two points that really got my attention, and which hopefully I can use to segue into the point of this little essay. Firstly, it was the well-attested phenomenal work rate that Churchill had - he genuinely never seemed to ever stop, even in the later stages of his life: millions of words produced, a mind fizzing with ideas almost to the end, a compendious memory allied to what was clearly a gargantuan appetite for life. Truly, he was one hell of a character, regardless of what light he is cast under.

The second point was what enabled all of that life to happen - an army of servants, cooks, cleaners, secretaries and whatnot, a regiment of enablers, all at Churchill’s beck and call at any time. A phrase from the late, great Terry Pratchett came to mind: ‘It takes forty people with their feet on the ground to keep one man with his head in the clouds’. And then another, from Small Gods: ‘I imagine that fish have no word for water’.
In the final chapter of the book, Johnson makes a  brief mention of historians who write from the perspective  of society and the narrative sweep of time, and dismissesthem rather grandly, stating that his subject is a refutation of their approach. However, his own fanboy biography makes it clear that Churchill could not have been Churchill without the invisible jelly of support that is a human community.

In a way, we could say that Churchill the individual did not exist. Rather, we have Churchill the symbiotic organism, made up of all those secretaries, notaries, servants and whatnot, all facilitating the whims and functions of the Winstonian head teetering at the very pinnacle of the multi-limbed being.
Great individuals do not, cannot, function alone. Rather, they are the product of a great deal of work by others. The veneration of the individual, while attractive to our mindset, is a false act.

My point is that talent and work alone are often not enough - very often, where you find success, there also do you find some network that has nourished and upheld it, be it never so poor. Knowing this, it is perplexing how some people think that they have achieved everything by themselves, and that those worse of than them must in some way be defective. The current government, for example, seems to have a mindset that everyone can be just like them if only they’d Pull Their Socks Up A Bit. They can’t see, because they don’t have a word for it in their minds, that they have been enabled by privilege and happenstance to be as they are: If you’re lucky enough, and it is luck, then the invisible fluid that is privilege will uphold you, keep you up and allow you to flourish with a bit of work - and it’ll give you the confidence to take risks. Some people are already in the sunny upper waters - but many are further down in the murk, and for them, the effort to rise is much, much harder.

Still, it was ever the case: It’s not just the fact that the poor are always with us - so are the rich. Churchill was somewhat aware of this - it's often forgotten that he was involved in the creation of a form of state-based welfare system, even if it was one rooted in Edwardian paternalism. I’m not so sure that the current government are even this aware. If they could find a way to give a name to water, then perhaps they could help us all to swim upwards.

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