I am only one quarter of the way through William Manchester’s and Paul Reid’s riveting biography about Winston Churchill, The Last Lion. I find the read captivating and inspiring, particularly in its emphasis on Churchill’s use of language.

Churchill believed in using simple words and felt that thoughts should be compressed “…into a reasonable space…” He was able to capture feelings and emotions with brevity and a succinct turn of phrase that not only moved the commoners but also the aristocracy. His words said much more than what is literally written on the page.

Here are some of my favorites from among his lesser known quotes in just the first 234 pages:

  • On Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin: “Occasionally he stumbled over the truth, but hastily picked himself up and hurried on as if nothing had happened.”
  • On Socialism: “The Socialist dream is no longer Utopia but Queuetopia.”
  • On cooking (having never prepared a meal in his life): “I shall cook for myself. I can boil an egg. I’ve seen it done.”
  • On meeting the long haired, young and bearded code breaking geniuses at Bletchley with MI6 Chief Stewart Menzies: “Menzies, when I told you to leave no stone unturned, I didn’t mean you to take me quite so literally.”
  • On being handed a long report at the Admiralty House (Churchill’s instructions were that reports should fit on one piece of paper): “This report, by its very length, defends itself against scrutiny.”
  • On his lack of concern over being hit by a German bomb, Churchill quoted Henri Poincaré: “I take refuge beneath the impenetrable arch of probability.”
  • Upon being interrupted by cabinet ministers: “Tell them to go and bugger themselves. Tell them there is no need for them to carry out that instruction literally.”
  • When asked by Lord Moran whether he read the Bible: “Yes, I read it; but only out of curiosity.”
  • On Germany’s operation Sea Lion: “We are waiting for the long promised invasion. So are the fishes.”
  • The brevity of Churchill’s message to Field Marshall Archibald Wavell after the defeat of the Italian army at Sidi Barrani in North Africa: “St. Matthew, Chapter 7, Verse 7.” Which is “ask, and it shall be given to you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.”
  • On Italy’s declaration of war: “People who go to Italy to look at ruins won’t have to go as far as Naples and Pompeii in the future.”

What was marvelous about the 2012 Olympics was its focus in the opening ceremony on the English language (and correspondingly the closing ceremony’s focus on music – particularly British rock and roll). The Last Lion drives the narrative along with the use of quotes from others. As these gems show, the British are masters of the literary craft.

  • C.P. Snow commenting on Winston’s famous drinking habits: “Churchill cannot be an alcoholic because no alcoholic could drink that much.”
  • His wife Clementine commenting on his habitual lateness for trains: “Winston is a sporting man. He likes to give the train a chance to get away.”
  • After the fall of France, news vendors chalked on their display boards: “We’re in the final – to be played on home ground.”
  • Wellington describing the Battle of Waterloo: “a close-run thing.”

More to come…