To us, Churchill and Orwell are towering figures, and rightly so. It’s easy to think that this was always the case. We see (and hear) them almost entirely in black and white – photographs, words printed on paper, tinny recordings from another century. The legends loom large, but the men behind them remained elusive – until now. With Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom, Thomas E. Ricks brings into focus both their humanity and the shared source of their greatness. These men, of utterly different beliefs, upbringings and lives, found a purpose in focusing on the necessity of freedom. For John Donne, no man was an island. For Churchill and Orwell, every man was an unconquered continent, individual at an atomic level of freedom.
Against a 21st-century backdrop intense interconnectedness, Churchill and Orwell is a toe-tapping tale of terror. Ricks razors away everything that is not salient to his vision of these very different men, finding powerful storytelling through-lines to weave the most pertinent times of their lives together. Churchill and Orwell is a masterpiece of economy, immersing us in perfectly detailed descriptions that bring to life these very different men who nonetheless had their eye on the import, no,, the necessity of human freedom.
Ricks weaves back and forth between the two men. We get perfectly cropped portraits of their childhoods – every detail contributes to an understanding of how these men became the guardians of the intangible. Part and parcel of the power of this book is that these are both deeply flawed men, and Ricks is wisely (and compellingly) candid on this. Churchill starts out seeming like a demagogue in the making, and Orwell does not deal well with women. Their flaws are combined with – not compensated by – a powerful vision of individual freedom, which, in both cases, changes the world.
Ricks goes easy on the editorializing and leans hard on the storytelling, and in the process creates a tense narrative filled with memorable, often cinematically described scenes. Churchill is a mass of contradictions, and while our memory is understandably filled with his greatest speech sound-bytes (perfected years before the phrase would come into being), Ricks remembers his years on the wrong side of popular. It’s sobering because Churchill was on the skids for the very views that make him a towering figure in our time. As for details – few will ever see the great man, or even hear him again, without remembering his requirement for pale pink silk underwear. A man ahead of his time indeed!
With Orwell in Spain, Ricks also excels, crating scenes of war and paranoia that would be perfectly at home in a Hitchcock movie. Alas, during his life, Orwell was pretty much unknown, overshadowed by the bestselling novelists of his time. He made a living – and managed to make it out of Spain alive, despite getting shot in the throat. But his own understanding of freedom was not itself so well understood until well after he died.
However, with Churchill and Orwell, Ricks does much more than give us a carefully-crafted dual biography. He understands the essence and necessity of storytelling, and that even as he has told us the stories of these two men, he has also been carefully crafting the story of an idea. He knows that no reader can experience these two men and the fixation on freedom without thinking about today’s world.
To this end, Ricks finishes the book with a concise and powerful Afterword. “We should remember that most of us, most of the time, do not welcome the voices of people like Orwell and Churchill appearing in our midst,” he writes. Indeed, this is true. It is generally only in hindsight that what actually matters becomes noticeable, let alone obvious. With Churchill and Orwell, Thomas E. Ricks offers readers an engaging, crystal-clear vision of the past that works equally well in the all-too-opaque present.
The humor and verve that Thomas E. Ricks brings to his writing are immediately apparent when you are fortunate enough to hear him speak. For me, it seemed as if he might have thought that writing a book about these two men would be a bit of a break from a world that is too much with us. He is, after all, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2003 to 2005. But, the more he wrote about Churchill and Orwell, the more the world came around until his publishers were clamoring for the book yesterday. I can guarantee you that you will be heading over to your usual online vendor (say Ziesing Books) to get this one even before you finish listening to the file you can download from this link, or by asserting your individuality and listening loud and proud in your cubicle or car (queue it up before you start the vehicle) to the file below.