Remembering a master of the language

 

As Remembrance Day approaches what better way to begin than with Winston Churchill: robust; magisterial; every sentence a torchlit procession.

 

On May 10, 1940, the King asked him to form the government; here’s what he wrote about it at the close of his first volume on the Second World War, The Gathering Storm.

 

Churchill

Thus, then, on the night of the tenth of May, at the outset of this mighty battle, I acquired the chief power in the State, which henceforth I wielded in ever-growing measure for five years and three months of world war, at the end of which time, all our enemies having surrendered unconditionally or being about to do so, I was immediately dismissed by the British electorate from all further conduct of their affairs.

 

One sentence, traveling the full distance of the war. It’s surprising how conditioned we’ve become to short sentences. One of the first edicts I encountered (and chafed at) as a young reporter was, “No ledes longer than 25 words.” And the web, invariably, is serving to further abbreviate (constrict?) the written expression of thought.

 

For the record, the Churchill sentence quoted above is 74 words. A comma-phobe he was not. And Churchill may be a rank amateur at the long sentence compared to Canadian writer Rudy Wiebe, but I digress. Granted, the long sentence in lesser hands can convolute (Quick! Someone tell me that isn’t a verb!) into tangles of meaning, but then clarity in writing is clarity in thinking.

 

I love the idea of Sir Winston sleeping soundly on the eve of cataclysm:

During these last crowded days of the political crisis, my pulse had not quickened at any moment. I took it all as it came. But I cannot conceal from the reader of this truthful account that as I went to bed at about 3 a.m., I was conscious of a profound sense of relief. At last I had the authority to give directions over the whole scene. I felt as if I were walking with Destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial. Eleven years in the political wilderness had freed me from ordinary party antagonisms. My warnings over the last six years had been so numerous, so detailed, and were now so terribly vindicated, that no one could gainsay me. I could not be reproached either for making the war or for want of preparation for it. I thought I knew a good deal about it all, and I was sure I should not fail. Therefore, although impatient for the morning, I slept soundly and had no need for cheering dreams. Facts are better than dreams.

Wow. You’re free to think Churchill is just portentous bombast, but I love it. And fess up: when’s the last time you used ‘gainsay’ in a sentence? Granted, try speaking that way among your friends (if you can!) and you’ll be efficiently ostracized.

 

Alas, they don’t make world leaders like they used to. It makes you wonder what we might expect in the memoirs of someone else who has made an extraordinary contribution to the public discourse.

 

bush-churchill.jpg

 

Yes, that’s a bust of Churchill. And if you ask me, he looks a little pissed to be in the same room with George Bush.

 

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