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My Early Life: 1874-1904 (1930)

de Winston S. Churchill

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Packed with adventure and incidents, Winston Churchill's first 25 years were spent working as a soldier and a war correspondent in India, South Africa and Cuba. Churchill evokes a so-called golden age before 1914 in his autobiography.
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I was concerned when Churchill started this biography with his own birth and ruminations, "When does one first begin to remember? When do the waving lights and shadows of dawning consciousness cast their print upon the mind of a child?" Inspired by Gibbon, I suppose (he does say later that he loved Gibbon's "Memoirs of My Life")—nonetheless I kept reading. Glad I did, it is a great story! In fact, some of the best parts—the funniest parts, at least–are from Churchill's childhood. His escape from the Boers also makes for a riveting story.

On math:

> We turned aside, not indeed to the uplands of the Delectable Mountains, but into a strange corridor of things like anagrams and acrostics called Sines, Cosines and Tangents. Apparently they were very important, especially when multiplied by each other, or by themselves! They had also this merit – you could learn many of their evolutions off by heart. There was a question in my third and last Examination about these Cosines and Tangents in a highly squarerooted condition which must have been decisive upon the whole of my after life. It was a problem. But luckily I had seen its ugly face only a few days before and recognised it at first sight. I have never met any of these creatures since.

> I had a feeling once about Mathematics, that I saw it all—Depth beyond depth was revealed to me—the Byss and the Abyss. I saw, as one might see the transit of Venus—or even the Lord Mayor's Show, a quantity passing through infinity and changing its sign from plus to minus. I saw exactly how it happened and why the tergiversation was inevitable: and how the one step involved all the others. It was like politics. But it was after dinner and I let it go!

> To plunge or not to plunge, that was the question! In a second I had plunged, throwing out my arms to embrace the summit of the fir tree. The argument was correct; the data were absolutely wrong. It was three days before I regained consciousness and more than three months before I crawled from my bed. The measured fall was 29 feet on to hard ground. But no doubt the branches helped.

On his father:

> Had he lived another four or five years, he could not have done without me. But there were no four or five years! Just as friendly relations were ripening into an Entente, and an alliance or at least a military agreement seemed to my mind not beyond the bounds of reasonable endeavour, he vanished for ever.

On religion:

> I accumulated in those years so fine a surplus in the Bank of Observance that I have been drawing confidently upon it ever since. Weddings, christenings and funerals have brought in a steady annual income, and I have never made too close enquiries about the state of my account.

> As it was I passed through a violent and aggressive anti-religious phase which, had it lasted, might easily have made me a nuisance. My poise was restored during the next few years by frequent contact with danger. I found that whatever I might think and argue, I did not hesitate to ask for special protection when about to come under the fire of the enemy: nor to feel sincerely grateful when I got home safe to tea. I even asked for lesser things than not to be killed too soon, and nearly always in these years, and indeed throughout my life, I got what I wanted. This practice seemed perfectly natural, and just as strong and real as the reasoning process which contradicted it so sharply. Moreover the practice was comforting and the reasoning led nowhere. I therefore acted in accordance with my feelings without troubling to square such conduct with the conclusions of thought.

> I therefore adopted quite early in life a system of believing whatever I wanted to believe, while at the same time leaving reason to pursue unfettered whatever paths she was capable of treading.

A letter from the American author, Winston Churchill:

> Mr Winston Churchill is extremely grateful to Mr Winston Churchill for bringing forward a subject which has given Mr Winston Churchill much anxiety. Mr Winston Churchill appreciates the courtesy of Mr Winston Churchill in adopting the name of ‘Winston Spencer Churchill’ in his books, articles etc. ( )
  breic | Jul 21, 2019 |
("A Roving Commission" is the American title for what was published in the UK as "My Early Life.") A classic of autobiography; not only is it informative about certain military events that Churchill witnessed as a war correspondent and as a soldier (sometimes, both at the same time), but it is very funny with some arch, self-deprecating humour. Easily one of the most readable of Churchill's books, and very highly recommended. ( )
  EricCostello | Aug 5, 2018 |
Took time to get into it and needed to alternate with lighter books. Was loving it by the end though. Fascinating and funny and detailed. Will read more of his books now. :) ( )
  lydiasbooks | Jan 17, 2018 |
This is a brilliantly written memoir by Churchill of his first 26 or so years, until the turn of the 20th century. It was published in 1930, so with the hindsight of Churchill having reached almost the highest political offices in both Liberal and Conservative governments, but still before his most famous period of wartime leadership. He writes beautifully about his childhood and his famously miserable schooldays, where he hated Latin and maths, but loved English and history. Not going to university, he says that he "would far rather have been apprenticed as a bricklayer’s mate, or run errands as a messengerboy, or helped my father to dress the front windows of a grocer’s shop".

His time in the army after attending Sandhurst took him to Cuba, India and Egypt. It is here and later in the many chapters of the book dealing with the Boer War that his attitudes are most jarring to the modern reader, though of course Churchill was naturally a man of his own time, with the generally held attitudes of his time and class: the oft mentioned view that going to war was a jolly jape that all young men should undertake and thoroughly enjoy; an unquestioning acceptance of the morally civilising mission of British imperial power - "We certainly felt as we dropped off to sleep the keenest realisation of the great work which England was doing in India and of her high mission to rule these primitive but agreeable races for their welfare and our own"; and, when speaking of the settlements of hostile tribes euphemistically that "These could all be destroyed and the tribesmen together with their women and children driven up to the higher mountains in the depth of winter, where they would certainly be very uncomfortable". His hindsight leads to him draw comparisons between these comparatively minor wars and the worldwide conflagration to strike little over a decade after the end of this book's narrative: "It was not like the Great War. Nobody expected to be killed. Here and there in every regiment or battalion, half a dozen, a score, at the worst thirty or forty, would pay the forfeit; but to the great mass of those who took part in the little wars of Britain in those vanished light-hearted days, this was only a sporting element in a splendid game". His capture and heroic escape from captivity by the Boers are thrillingly described (though much of the details of military manoeuvres left me cold). His early attempt and success in entering Parliament as a member for Oldham are also well described, and in his very early appearances in the House as a Conservative MP he was already out of step with his party in a number of respects and "I drifted towards the left", moving towards the Liberal Party.

This is a beautifully written memoir - Churchill was certainly a superb writer, in addition to his other virtues and faults. ( )
  john257hopper | Jul 22, 2016 |
This is one of the wittiest, and most poignant, books I have ever read. One laughs and cries throughout the reading; it is very difficult to put the book down. Written about 1930 during a time when Churchill was not very popular, his self-deprecating humor reveals a depth of character that only became clear to most people when he became Prime Minister during the darkest days of World War II. ( )
1 vota AlanEJohnson | Aug 27, 2014 |
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This book was written by the British Prime Minister, not by the American author Winston Churchill, though it has been listed under the American author on LibraryThing before.
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Packed with adventure and incidents, Winston Churchill's first 25 years were spent working as a soldier and a war correspondent in India, South Africa and Cuba. Churchill evokes a so-called golden age before 1914 in his autobiography.

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