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ClassicsOnline Home » CHURCHILL, W.: Island Race (The) (Abridged)
Here is a history of Britain by one of its finest statesmen, a man who had himself crucially shaped events during perhaps the greatest crisis of modern times. Churchill’s resonant prose brings to vivid and compelling life the political, constitutional and military landmarks of our history his purpose, to show that a sense of how man may live decently and democratically grew from the heritage of these islands.
Sir Winston Churchill
The Island Race
The Island Race is an adaptation of Sir Winston Churchill’s
A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. Churchill worked
on this superbly intelligent and resonant history during the years immediately
preceding World War II; politically, he was then a voice crying in the
wilderness, warning repeatedly of the dangers of appeasement and the need for
rearmament. Some sense of the darkening world stage comes through in these
pages: repeatedly he champions the cause of freedom, whether he is speaking of
King Arthur (who ‘set decent folk an example for all time’) or of Magna Carta
(...’here is a law which is above the King and which even he must not break’).
Chapters were sent at the outbreak of war to his friend President Roosevelt,
who must have been moved by Churchill’s largeness of spirit and deep love of
the liberal values which the United States would also, in a few years, be
called upon to defend.
When Churchill went to the Admiralty on September 3, 1939,
‘all this was set aside. During nearly six years of war, and an even longer
period in which I was occupied with my war memoirs, the book slumbered
peacefully’. Eventually, in April 1956, the first volume was published.
Churchill’s purpose was to show how, over the centuries, a
language, and a sense of how man might live decently and
democratically, sprang from the heritage of these islands. In the full text,
his material extends to colonies, Empire and Commonwealth: for this version I
have concentrated on his account of the history of Britain and (largely) of
Not surprisingly, Churchill has a marvelous knack of
capturing the great moments of British history in passages of vivid power — he
was not only a serious writer but also an experienced journalist — but his
accounts of complex movements and periods are remarkable for their clarity and
acuteness. One has the sense always of a man who himself knew what power meant
— the responsibility, the triumphs and disasters, the intricate interconnection
of matters political, constitutional and military.
Isaiah Berlin has characterized Churchill’s historical
imagination as ‘so strong, so comprehensive, as to encase the whole of the
present and the whole of the future in a framework of a rich and multi-colored
past...a desire to find fixed moral and intellectual bearings, to give shape
and character, color and direction and coherence, to the stream of events’.
This is a kind of historicism no longer fashionable amongst intellectuals.
Churchill places strong emphasis on the role of great individuals in shaping
events, but he also has a powerful sense of what we might call ‘destiny’, of
the characteristics of a place, a people and a culture, and how they help to
determine the course of history. This is essentially a romantic view: yet few
historians can tell a story so clearly, and with such remarkable factual and
The style is at one with the approach: Churchill’s own, but
owing much to classical rhetoric and to the rhythm of Dr. Johnson’s prose. It
is akin to what we find in Churchill’s great wartime speeches — it has
something of the color, the grandeur and the poetry of those extraordinary
expressions of national will.
Churchill takes the listener from Caesar’s invasion of 55 BC
to the close of Victoria’s reign. He writes as persuasively on military as on
constitutional history — his account of Crècy may be more stirring than his
analysis of Magna Carta, but both share a sense of the excitement of events as
well as a desire to find shape and meaning. Anyone seeking to gain a swift
grasp of not only the main facts but also (and perhaps more importantly) the
underlying spirit of British history will find here an ideal guide.
Winston Churchill was born at Blenheim Palace in 1874.
Before entering Parliament in 1900 as a Conservative, he had worked as a war
correspondent covering the Boer War. He joined the Liberals after a policy
disagreement and helped to pioneer the introduction of National Insurance.
Churchill took responsibility for the disaster of Gallipoli in 1915; after the
war he helped to establish the Irish Free State. As Chancellor of the Exchequer
he was active in defeating the General Strike. In the 1930s Churchill was out
of office, and at odds with Conservative appeasement policy. He was appointed
First Lord of the Admiralty on the outbreak of war in 1939, and succeeded
Chamberlain as Prime Minister in May 1940. He led Britain through the war years
to victory in 1945, only to be defeated in the General Election of 1945. He was
returned as Prime Minister in 1951, resigning in 1955. His last years were
lived out at Chartwell in Kent, the family home. He died in 1965.
Notes by Perry Keenlyside
About the Readers
A frequent reader on Naxos AudioBooks, EDWARD DE SOUZA is a
familiar figure on the London stage, being one of the country’s leading
classical actors. His film credits include The Thirty Nine Steps and The Spy
Who Loved Me.
SIR EDWARD HEATH was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
from 1970-74 and Leader of the Conservative Party from 1965-75. He is currently
“Father of the House of Commons”, the longest serving member of Parliament. In
1992 the Queen appointed him a Knight Companion of the Most Noble Order of the
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