Six Minutes in May: How Churchill Unexpectedly Became Prime Minister by Nicholas Shakespeare – review

An engaging blow-by-blow account of the negotiations over Britain’s wartime leadership

The six minutes in May that give Nicholas Shakespeare his title are those in 1940 during which the House of Commons voted on the debate following Britain’s disastrous failure in the brief Norway campaign. The prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, was not defeated in the division, but his usual majority was slashed as discontented Conservative MPs abstained or voted against him. The idea of these minutes as critical is nonetheless misleading. As Shakespeare makes clear in this lively and well-informed rerun of how Winston Churchill became prime minister, there were many other hurdles to overcome before the change was complete, and other moments when a few minutes counted for more than the outcome of the debate.

The story Shakespeare tells is at once a familiar one. Churchill seemed an unlikely candidate to succeed. His reputation as a maverick politician, an ...

Six Minutes in May: How Churchill Unexpectedly Became Prime Minister – review

Nicholas Shakespeare’s flair as a novelist makes a gripping story of Churchill’s unlikely rise to power in 1940

Hitler died amid the flames of Berlin in April 1945. The most reckless criminal in modern history was no more. So long as “good” Germans are at the helm of Germany today, a Fourth Reich seems unimaginable. Yet Nazism really did happen, and it came close to engulfing Britain. The BBC sitcom Dad’s Army poked fun at the feared German invasion. In one episode, Private Godfrey’s sisters are seen to prepare their Regency cottage for the most charming of guests. “The Germans are coming, Miss Godfrey,” Lance Corporal Jones warns. “Yes, I know, so many people to tea. I think I’d better make some more.”

The second world war continues to fascinate young and old alike: how to make a familiar subject new? Several large, one-volume histories have appeared in recent years. ...

Anthony Sattin’s best history books of 2017

How the Victorians acquainted us with our bodies, landmark studies of Stalin and the holocaust, and traitors laid bare

History books should give us insight and information, surprise and entertainment, and allow us to see the world, an incident or a character differently. Nicholas Shakespeare’s Six Minutes in May (Harvill Secker £20) delivers in abundance. It revolves around the prime minister Neville Chamberlain’s announcement to parliament, on 7 May 1940, of the British military defeat by German forces in Norway: 4,396 men had died. Few people expected Chamberlain to lose his post; fewer still thought that Churchill, architect of the Norway fiasco, could replace him. The machinations that led Churchill to power make for a great story; the wider context and its effect on the war give the story significance. Shakespeare shapes all with an historian’s thoroughness and a novelist’s flair.

The gory world of Victorian surgery is the subject ...

School of hard knocks: the dark underside to boarding school books

Violence, cruelty and sexual confusion are as much a part of boarding school literature as japes and cricket. Alex Renton surveys a troubled genre from Kipling to Rowling “Michael was ordered to take down his trousers and kneel on the headmaster’s sofa with the top half of his body hanging over one end of the sofa. The great man then gave him one terrific crack. After that there was a pause. The cane was put down and the headmaster began filling his pipe from a tin of tobacco. He also started to lecture the kneeling boy about sin and wrongdoing. Soon, the cane was picked up again and a second tremendous crack was administered upon the trembling buttocks. Then the pipe-filling business and the lecture went on for maybe 30 seconds. Then came the third crack of the cane ... At the end of it all, a basin, a sponge and a small clean ...

From Churchill to Obama, the defining moments of a life aren’t always the public ones

For a biographer, the moments of private struggle can be far more illuminating How do you understand a human being? Since life is a linear affair, the most obvious approach to biography is to move from birth to death, covering everything in between. At its best, the result is not only exhaustive, but soaring and insightful – from Boswell on Samuel Johnson to Sir Martin Gilbert on Winston Churchill to Joseph Frank on Dostoevsky. All moments in a life, however, are not equal. There are turning points, dramatic events that can be not only important, but transformative. As Barack Obama left the White House for the last time as president of the United States, it was impossible not to be reminded of the electrifying speech that first brought him to wide public attention 13 years earlier. He was just a young man then, in his words, “a skinny kid with ...

The Riviera Set by Mary S Lovell review – Churchill by the pool

The wartime PM joins other celebrities in the story of a French chateau that became a playground for the rich and famousThe Riviera Set follows the lives, loves, and larks of the American actor Maxine Elliott, who infiltrated the British upper classes and from there the creme de la Eurotrash. She built the Château de l’Horizon on the French Riviera, where such people as Winston Churchill, Noël Coward and the former Edward VIII hung out. Following Elliott’s death in 1940, the focus of Lovell’s story shifts to the next owner of the house, Aly Khan, the playboy son of the Aga Khan, whose womanising and partying led his father to disinherit him by leaving his title to Aly’s son Karim. (Khan did inherit his father’s wealth.) The house itself, a pile of art deco sugar cubes that manages to be at once Romanesque and Moorish, was ...

The 100 best nonfiction books: No 43 – My Early Life: A Roving Commission by Winston Churchill (1930)

Churchill delights with candid tales of childhood and boy’s own adventures in the Boer war that made him a tabloid heroWinston Churchill is renowned as an archetypal Great Briton (statesman, war leader, speechmaker and political maverick), with all the good and bad associations of such a description. He was also a prolific, occasionally inspired, writer who was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1953. That honour was principally to do with his fight against Hitler and the Nazis, and the citation saluted both his mastery of historical and biographical description, and his brilliant defence of “exalted human values”. But the award was not misplaced. Churchill was one of the finest prose stylists of the last century, steeped in the works of Shakespeare, Gibbon and Macaulay. My Early Life, a precocious autobiography, is his masterpiece. As usual with Churchill, it’s a zesty cocktail of mixed ingredients, including rehashed ...