Friday, 5 August 2011

Black dog days

It's not a subject that people like to discuss that much - depression that is. we have instead developed a variety of euphemisms by which to express the feeling. In my opinion, Winston Churchill used the best one - terming it as being visited by the black dog, which absolutely manages to conjure up the bleak feelings one is subject to, whilst simultaneously allowing for the levity of spirit that can still be obtained when a bout of depression hits.
As I was wandering through Gatwick recently, on my way to France (on which more in a later post) I felt compelled to browse the airport bookshop and was drawn to a book with a silhouette of a large dog resplendent in top hat and cigar on its front cover.
'Mr Chartwell' by Rebecca Hunt is about the black dog that so torments Churchill. Alternating between scenes with the great man (about to retire - at 89 no less) and a young woman - Esther - whose husband killed himself two years before and whose life is about to become intertwined with Churchill's, the novel is a stark and poetic look at the subtlety with which depression can impress itself and the force of will that is required to overcome.
Mr Chartwell is, at the root of all, a dog. A very large Labrador, he trails in his wake all the chaos and destruction for which that breed is known. Esther may think she is just having to cope with the mess her canine 'lodger' creates, but in actual fact Mr Chartwell is slowly tapping away at her resolve, hoping to create a chink by which he can ingratiate himself and bring her into his depressive fold.
When Esther is called to be Churchill's secretary for the day, to help him write his retirement speech, the two sides of the story are drawn together and the battle to save Esther from Mr Chartwell's clutches begins in earnest. Churchill is portrayed brilliantly in this little gem. It is so easy to caricature the man that everyone is so familiar with; to reduce him to a cigar and profound words. In a way, this is what happens, but you get such a sense of who he is and what he has struggled with throughout his life that his essence shines through.
It's an uplifting book, for all its somber subject, and is well worth spending a few quiet hours with. For all I keep saying I don't need and more books, I'm very glad I succumbed this time!

More on the Churchill trail:
I've always thought him interesting and now, I think, would be the time to delve into his life. Heaven only knows that I have enough to keep me occupied - the massive biography by Martin Gilbert notwithstanding, I've got biographies of his parents and wife, as well as his letters to Clemmie. Perhaps I should start there .... there's the Cabinet war rooms to visit too, and Chartwell itself. Lucky I've got some holiday coming up, eh?!

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