A Few Bookish Questions With Josh Ireland
I’m knee-deep into William Manchester’s big trilogy on Churchill, so I was thrilled be to able to ask Josh Ireland some questions about Churchillian books, among other things. Ireland’s Churchill & Son was recently published and provides a superb and unique portrait on Winston as son and father himself. The questions below are a fun window into Josh’s reading life and the books that have influenced him over the years.
1. There's obviously a lot of literature on Churchill. Do you have a personal favorite?
I think maybe the William Manchester trilogy. The single-volume biographies, like Roy Jenkins and Andrew Roberts books are amazing feats of compression — but inevitably one loses a certain amount in the process. Manchester can give his subject more space, and that allows a more complete portrait of him to emerge. I think he was also very good at situating Churchill in time and place — showing how this creature of the high Victorian age who was still alive when the Beatles took over the world, changed and was changed by external events.
2. Any recommendations for an under-the-radar Churchill book that might appeal to the masses?
Lord Moran’s diaries are controversial. The family were horrified by the mere fact of their publication, and even more enraged by their contents. And there’s uncertainty about what within them was recorded at the time, and what was recreated from memory (not to mention the self-aggrandising role he gives himself). But they also offer a visceral sense of what Churchill was really like. You get a feel for how he spoke and acted away from the podium — the odd rhythms of his sentences. And they convey the warping magnetism of his charisma. It’s also a heartbreaking account of his slow, agonising decline.
3. I'm well-versed in American history and in fact recently wrapped up a personal project of reading a biography of every president. (You can see my list here!) I'm a bit lacking in my UK history, though. Do you have any recommendations for a particularly well-done bio of a PM or for general British history?
I’m not sure we have quite the same tradition of political biography as you do in the United States. There’s no equivalent of Robert Caro (perhaps because we have no equivalent of Robert Moses or LBJ). I think generally the most revealing and interesting books about the last fifty-odd years of British politics and history are ones that seem to come at the subject a bit elliptically. Something like A Very British Scandal, by John Preston, which is about the Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe’s involvement in a plot to murder his homosexual lover, actually tells you a great deal about the seediness and decay that was so much a part of British culture in the late seventies. Ben Macintyre’s Kim Philby book, A Spy Amongst Friends, is a great atmospheric guide to the beginning of the end of the establishment’s grip on British civil life. And for something more contemporary, Andrew Rawnsley (Servants of the People, The End of the Party) and Tim Shipman (All Out War, Fall Out) have written revelatory, gossipy accounts of, respectively, New Labour and Brexit. They’re good guides to where Britain is now, and why.
In terms of more traditional accounts that have come out recently, Citizen Clem, John Bew’s biography of the Labour leader Clement Attlee, is very good. Attlee was unassuming, modest and quiet, yet he beat Churchill in the 1945 election and then led perhaps the most transformative government of the last hundred years.
4. I imagine that the large majority of your reading is non-fiction — histories, biographies, papers, letters, etc. What do you read in your "off" hours for fun/entertainment? Do you read much fiction?
I used to read a lot more fiction, but I think a combination of the pandemic and having a child has left me too tired for anything too challenging. Most literature demands more from me than I’m currently capable of giving, so I’m more likely to turn to detective stories or something like Jilly Cooper (I have no idea if she’s at all famous in America. She’s almost impossible to explain). Also P.G. Wodehouse. I am however re-reading Nancy Mitford’s novels at the moment, and remembering how prodigious a talent she was. And I loved Jenny Ofill’s Weather. I think her experiments with form are so perfect, and so moving.
5. Are there particular history books or authors that have shaped your own writing style and approach to narrative?
I’d say that reading books like Orlando Figes’ A People’s Tragedy, Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar and Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad when I was in my late teens/early twenties had a very significant impact on me. It showed me that (unlike the textbooks we were given at school) history writing could be more than a delivery mechanism for facts. It could have the same emotional and narrative heft as the best novels.
6. What are you reading and enjoying right now? What's next on your list?
I’m reading Patrick Raden Keefe’s Empire of Pain for pleasure (if you can call it that) and Yuri Slezkine’s House of Government, for a mixture of business and pleasure (my next book is partly about Russia after the revolution, and this gives an incredible portrait of the men and women who ran the Soviet Union). I’m really looking forward to starting Black Spartacus, Sudhir Hazareesingh’s biography of Toussaint Louverture.
7. Do you have any all-time favorite books that have especially stuck with you and/or shaped your thinking over the years? Books that you think about a lot? Fiction, non-fiction, whatever it is.
I’m reasonably wary of the idea that literature should have a moral function, but I do think it can enlarge one’s capacity for empathy. George Eliot’s Middlemarch did that for me. As did Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier. All of W.G. Sebald’s work has changed the way I understand our relationship with the past, but The Emigrants had an almost shattering emotional impact on me the first time I read it.