A very large stumbling-block kept tripping up author Roger Hermiston when he began writing the story of Winston Churchill’s wartime government ... Winston himself.
He was such a powerful presence it was hard not to focus on him instead of the people who ran the country while their leader concentrated on defeating the enemy.
“I’d send my editor a couple of chapters and he would write on the side ‘too much Winston!’” said Roger.
“There was this colossus who obscured everyone else around him. People almost assume Churchill won the war single-handed.
“Everyone is in thrall to him and I was quoting things from his speeches.
“Once I had fixed that fault I got the confidence to illuminate the other characters.”
But his struggle to see past the commanding figure at the helm reflected what actually happened. Churchill’s towering reputation has eclipsed the people in his cabinet whose roles were equally vital to the war effort.
All Behind You, Winston, which turns the spotlight onto the men and women of the 1940-45 coalition government, aims to redress the balance.
It is Roger’s third book, and his first in which politicians take centre stage – although in his last job as assistant editor of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme he encountered plenty of the modern day variety.
He left Today to write Clough and Revie, the story of the long-running feud between two of the country’s football legends.
His second book, The Greatest Traitor, was about the notorious Cold War spy George Blake.
The idea for All Behind You, Winston came from his editor who felt there was a gap in political history that needed filling. “I immediately recognised this idea as one I wanted to do,” said Roger.
“A massive amount of research was involved. It was like piecing together an enormous jigsaw puzzle.
“I want people to feel they are being taken into the corridors of Whitehall, and into the clubs of St James, but also include stories of ordinary people to illuminate it.
People like the secretary in the Ministry of Labour asked to draw the numbers in a ballot to decide which men would be sent down the mines as so-called Bevin Boys.
“I found out who she was – she was called Betty Eileen Nunn – and apparently she felt very, very guilty for many years afterwards.”
Churchill’s Cabinet had to find ways to feed, fund, shelter, mobilise, evacuate, arm and ultimately heal, Britain.
They included Labour leader Clement Attlee, newspaper magnate Lord Beaverbrook, and union boss Ernest Bevin. The one Roger probably admires most is Lord Woolton, now remembered chiefly as the champion of the Woolton pie – a recipe avoiding scarce ingredients like meat, and using those that were not, like swede and parsnip.
But he was brilliant at getting his messages across. “I’d make the case that Woolton, known as Uncle Fred, was the greatest political communicator of the 20th century,” he says. He was also specially keen to include the only two women in Churchill’s War Ministry, Ellen Wilkinson and Florence Horsbrugh.
“There were 84 people and only two of them were women, and they were not in the Cabinet.”
Roger will talk about All Behind You, Winston at Clare Library on Thursday June 2 at 7pm. Tickets from Harris & Harris bookshop, High Street, Clare.