James Walton reviews Jonathan Smith's historical novel KBO: The Churchill Secret that is soon to be heading for the small screen.

The synopsis

Nineteen-fifty-three is synonymous in the British memory with the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on 2 June. But less well known is what happened in 10 Downing Street on 23 June. With Anthony Eden vying for power, the elderly Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, must maintain the confidence of his government, the press and the public. But after a diplomatic dinner in which he is on typically sparkling form, Churchill's Italian dining companions are rushed out of the building and his doctor called. The Prime Minister has had a stroke.

Churchill is bedbound throughout the summer, and while secrecy agreements have been struck with leading newspaper barons, the potential impact of his health on public life is never far from the minds of his inner circle. With the help of a devoted young nurse and his indomitable wife, Clementine, Churchill gradually recoups his health. But will he be fit enough to represent Britain on the world stage?

KBO: The Churchill Secret by Jonathan Smith

(Abacus, £6.74; ebook, £4.49)

In the summer of 1953, all seemed well in Britain. Everest had been conquered, the Queen crowned and the Ashes regained. What few people realised, however, was that the country was effectively leaderless. In June, prime minister Winston Churchill had suffered a stroke that left him unable to walk or talk. Among those who did know, his wife Clementine was desperately hoping that Churchill would now take the hint and retire— and so, for different reasons, was his anointed successor Anthony Eden.

But not for nothing was Churchill’s motto KBO, or Keep Buggering On. By the autumn, he was delighting the party conference with a barnstorming declaration of his determination to continue in office. This is clearly a great story (already snapped up for a “major drama”) and Jonathan Smith tells it with the right blend of imagination and research. Admittedly, his writing is solid rather than scintillating, and while he’s aware that Churchill’s courage was closely tied to his egocentricity, his admiration for the great man sometimes becomesa little too obvious. Even so, this is both a fascinating slice of history and a stirring read.

James writes and presents the BBC Radio 4 literary quiz The Write Stuff

Read more articles by James Walton here

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