Revised book review of The Splendid and the Vile

The Splendid and the Vile by Eric Larson

Crown, 2020

503 pages






COVID-19 and The Blitz


Eric Larson’s latest book, The Splendid and the Vile,  recounts Winston Churchill’s first year as Prime Minister, from May 1940 to May 1941. It is not, as Larson writes, an exhaustive examination of Churchill and his time as Prime Minister of Britain but a look inside the man and his inner circle and ordinary citizens as they survived the good and bad moments of that first year. The book, Larson writes, is a look at the year “in which Churchill became Churchill, the cigar-smoking bulldog we all think we know, when he made his greatest speeches and showed the world what courage and leadership looked like.”

Following the German bombing of the East End of London during the Blitz, Churchill, as he did often, arrived to witness the damage. When he stopped to see a air-raid shelter where a German bomb had killed forty citizens,  one East Ender saw him and said,  “Good old Winnie! We thought you’d come and see us.”  Larson continues, “When he [Churchill] came to a group of dispirited people looking over what remained of their homes, one woman shouted, ‘When are we going to bomb Berlin, Winnie?’ Churchill whirled to face her, shook his fist and snarled, ‘You leave that to me!’” Samuel Battersby, a citizen witness of the exchange , wrote that “Morale rose immediately. Everyone was satisfied and reassured.” During The Blitz Churchill went to the bombed areas of London, Coventry, Bristol, and many others to demonstrate his compassion. Often, he would be seen wiping tears away as he surveyed the damage.

As he has done before in his other books, Larson writes of the humanity of his subjects by having extensively read diaries, archives, books, and more.  For instance, he shows us the maturing Mary Churchill as she moves from an adolescent who enjoys night clubs to a young woman in charge of an anti-aircraft battery.  Larson uses holidays and ordinary days to show us life during The Blitz. Max Aitken  (Lord Beaverbrook), the Minister of Air Production, saw one of his most valued men working on Christmas Eve, 1940. When the man went to the bathroom, Beaverbrook placed a small package on the man’s desk. When the unnamed man returned and opened the small package, he found a necklace inside and a note from Beaverbrook which read: “I know what your wife might be feeling. Please give her this with my regards. It belonged to my wife.” The note was signed “B.”

The Blitz, like all events, is composed of people. It is not only the story of Churchill’s growth during his first year, but the stories of both the well-known and often-unnamed people who made the story. Larson moves deftly between Berlin, Washington, London, Paris, and North Africa to  show how Churchill led the small island in defying Germany’s onslaught. We are given glimpses of the German people as they cheer wildly when Hitler vows to “stop the handiwork of these [British] air pirates, so help us God.” And, for me,  one of the most moving episodes told by Larson was the telling of Snakehips Johnson and the night that a 110-pound bomb fell through the roof of the Rialto Cinema penetrating to the basement dance floor of the Café de Paris. Exploding at nine-fifty p.m., the bomb killed and maimed and destroyed. Larson uses the club, revelers who were present, and a German bomb to bring forward the human toil from The Blitz. Snakehips Johnson, the premier act for the coming 10 o’clock show, never left the basement club alive. Yet Larson shows him to be more than one more casualty of The Blitz.

We face our own Blitz. This virus, like the bombers of Hitler and the German people,  comes unannounced and hits suddenly and deadly. We are now having to live in uncharted times, just as the people of the United Kingdom were forced to do. And we can draw strength from Larson’s accounting of Churchill’s first year. We all have a responsibility to the whole of our lives, not as individuals, but as members of our country. Like the 1940 British citizens, we need inspiration, and honesty, and courage, but that will not come, as demonstrated over and over, by our leaders.  However, we the people can emulate the citizens of the small island who came together under dire circumstances to defeat a madman and his Bobble Heads who cheered as he lied, invoking God.

As Churchill repeated often, we owe our united fight to civilization. It’s the least we can do for it. But we are forced to act without a leader who inspires and leads by snarling at the mention of the enemy and says,  “Leave the hard stuff with me. I  will do it for all of us.”

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