Monday, April 9, 2012

An autobiography that makes amends

For decades I had nursed a prejudice against Sir Winston Churchill.  The prejudice was largely due to what Churchill had said in the House of Commons during the debate on the Indian Independence Bill.  "Liberty is man's birthright", he began on a noble note, but descended soon to the depths of insensitivity: "However, to pass on the reins of the government to the Congress at this juncture is to hand over the destiny of hungry millions into the hands of rascals, rogues and freebooters… India will take a thousand years to know the periphery of the philosophy of politics.  Today we hand over the government to men of straw of whom no trace will be found in a few years."

My prejudice remained as deep-rooted as before even after I had read about Churchill's attempt to make amends for his insensitive remarks by praising one of those "men of straw".  "When you write to your Prime Minister, Mr Nehru", he said to the Indian High Commissioner in Ottawa, "tell him I think he is one of the greatest men in contemporary history.  He has accomplished two things that men can accomplish: he has conquered prejudice, and he has conquered fear."

What this penitential note didn't achieve, his book did.  Churchill's autobiography, which I read 82 years after the book had been published in 1930, showed him in a new light.  Emerging from the pages of My Early Life is a deeply sensitive and cultured young man whose battles to educate himself don't fail to strike a chord with the reader.

"Menaced with education" is Churchill's description of his initial contact with formal education.  The first bitter blow came from a governess with sinister looks, and the next, a literal one this time, from the headmaster of a boarding school where he had been sent.  Fortunately for Winston, he had already discovered the joys of reading, and he turned to books to seek relief from the distress caused by Greek and Latin which his masters taught with the "large resources of compulsion" at their disposal.  Then he went to another school where he was taught everything he liked – history,   French, poetry, riding, and swimming.  He was detained in the Fourth Form for as long as possible, and he was happy about it: it helped him master the English language!  "I got into my bones", he says, "the essential structure of the ordinary British sentence -- which is a noble thing."

After Sandhurst, Winston, 22 now, began his army career in India.  Having plenty of spare time on his hands in Bangalore, he spent about five hours a day reading the great classics on history, economics, and philosophy.  He devoured the eight volumes of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and went on to Macaulay and learnt all the Lays of Ancient Rome by heart.  It was followed by Macaulay's History and Essays, Plato's Republic, Darwin's Origin of Species, Malthus's  On Population

Churchill was well known as a master of words.  My Early Life vouches for it.  What it also vouches for is the fact that he was a self-educated man.

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