If Erik Larson writes the book, I read the book. It’s one of my simple rules of life. All the more so when he writes about one of the most dramatic periods of history, the so called London Blitz of 1940 and 1941 when Great Britain withstood aerial bombardment by Nazi Germany.
Larson’s latest book is The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz, published by Crown. Larson is also the number one New York Times bestselling author of two of my most memorable reads: The Devil in the White City and also Dead Wake, among other titles. If you’re looking for an engrossing read during the coronavirus quarantine, I recommend this book.
You’ll be immersed in the life-and-death struggle of a nation and its dynamic leader in their confrontation with Nazi tyranny. I read the book before the world stopped spinning, but recent events gave me a new perspective on the timeliness of this work. And it even made me wonder about the role of religion or lack thereof in this and in that previous crisis. Where can courageous, moral leadership be found in these turbulent times? Are we even capable of mustering a common morality in this increasingly post-Christian society? It strikes me that President Trump has not featured religious leaders alongside business leaders and scientists in his press briefings. And few have even noticed their absence.
To learn more about our era by learning from the past, we’ve invited Erik Larson to join the Gospelbound podcast. Listen for Larson’s best recent read and his list of other narrative nonfiction writers he enjoys.
This episode of Gospelbound is brought to you by Southeastern Seminary. In a disenchanted world looking to themselves for answers, Southeastern’s three-year Doctor of Ministry in Faith and Culture plants graduates at the intersection of theology, culture, and church to bring the world a better story—the gospel. Learn more at sebts.edu.
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Collin Hansen: If Erik Larson writes the book, I read the book. It’s one of my simple rules of life. All the more so when he writes about one of the most dramatic periods of history, the so called London blitz of 1940 and 1941 when great Britain withstood aerial bombardment by Nazi Germany. Larson’s latest book is The Splendid in the Vile, a saga of Churchill, family and defiance during the blitz published by Crown. Larson is also the number one New York Times bestselling author of two of my most memorable reads The Devil in the White City and also Dead Wake among other titles. If you’re looking for an engrossing read during the coronavirus quarantine, I recommend this book.
Collin Hansen: You’ll be engrossed in the life and death struggle of a nation and its dynamic leader in their confrontation with Nazi tyranny. I read the book before the world stopped spinning, but recent events gave me a new perspective on the timeliness of this work and it even made me wonder about the role of religion or lack thereof in this and in that previous crisis. So that’s why I’ve invited Erik Larson to speak with me on Gospelbound. I’m glad he agreed. Thank you for joining me, Erik.
Erik Larson: Thank you for having me.
Collin Hansen: When did you decide, Erik, to undertake this project? I mean, I know there just has to be an incredible amount of time and energy that’s devoted into a book of this detail. So when did you decide to do that and what drew you to this particular place in time?
Erik Larson: Well, the conception was probably about, honestly, about five years ago now. That’s not to say I’ve been working on it solid for five whole years. And it happened when my wife and I moved from Seattle where we’d been living with our three daughters. We moved from Seattle to Manhattan. The kids had grown up and left the house and it was getting awfully quiet around there. So we decided that now we’re going to move to New York. It’s where I’d always wanted to live. And so we did so.
Erik Larson: And as soon as we arrived, I had this kind of epiphany about the nature of nine eleven. We had seen that unfold in real time on CNN from our home in Seattle, and arriving in New York, I realized how the experience of New Yorkers was an order of magnitude more vivid and wrenching than what we had experienced. Because, they could not only hear the sirens, see the smoke, drifting ash and so forth, but there was also that sense of violation of their home city.
Erik Larson: Their hometown was attacked. And I started thinking, one thought led to another. I started thinking about the Blitz, which I’ve always been intrigued by and how on earth people could have survived that. When, the first phase of the blitz, London underwent 57 consecutive nights of bombing, if you will. 57 consecutive nine elevens. Followed by six months of intensifying bombings but larger and longer intervals. And so I started thinking about that and I started thinking, wouldn’t it be interesting to try to get at that concept through a book? What was that like? Maybe at first I was thinking about maybe locating in the records, a typical London family and chronicling their experience and I thought, well, why not take a look at the quintessential London family, Churchill, his family, his advisors. How on earth did they get through this when they also had to… Churchill and his advisers, they also had to run their half of a world war.
Collin Hansen: It seems odd to say this, but we remember the Blitz fondly. I mean, when you’re imagining the death toll and the physical destruction, but in our minds it’s this incredibly heroic and civilization saving time. But what we don’t remember is what you’re describing here, the hardship. You write about the difficulty in this includes the Churchill family themselves. I was struck by how they had to be so worried about a single German bomber descending upon their home outside of the city because it was so clearly marked and everybody knew about that through intelligence and things like that. But, another thing that stood out to me was how, you write about how difficult it was to endure the bombing at night and then work during the day. What was it that just stood out with you as you read about how Londoners coped with this long-term disaster?
Erik Larson: Well, what I was really struck by is, the fact that… Well, first important to describe a little bit about how the bombing of London evolved. The initial part of the German air campaign, 1940, 41. In 1940 was almost an aimless testing of defenses and technologies and so forth. And then more focused attacks on the British aircraft industry. But only on September 7, 1940, did the actual deliberate bombing of London began. And this began actually first by day, at tea time actually and then lasted throughout the night. During the day as it became clear that the Germans had shifted all their operations to nighttime bombing, people went about their lives in a very ordinary fashion. They commuted to work. Sometimes it took a little longer if a bomb had blown up their train station or if a bomb that landed on the tracks of their right of way, but they went to work as usual.
Erik Larson: They came with their gas mask that was a little bit different, but they brought those to work as well. And then they left work early depending on the season, so that they could get back in time for blackout. They would blackout all their windows and then hunker down however they felt it was best to do it. Some went to public shelters, some just stayed in their bedrooms or some went down to their basements, and some into their garden shelters. It is, by the way, something of a myth that… I think people tend to think that in London, everybody fled to the tube stations, the subway stations. But that proves not to be the case. A relatively small percentage of Londoners went into the subway.
Collin Hansen: What did you find in some of the memoirs of just how they held up under this? That’s why I’m wondering for our own situation, no matter how long this might last, what did you learn about human nature and our ability to be able to adjust to our circumstances?
Erik Larson: Well, they adapted pretty well. What I was leading up to was that, not only by day did they lead their ordinary lives, but even at night bars were open, restaurants were open. That’s one difference between now and then. That’s something that we’re all going to be missing, at least here in New York for a while. But bars were open, restaurants were working, clubs were open, people went dancing, they had parties and they kind of developed this fatalistic approach to life. And that is that, the bomb’s going to get you, it’s going to get you. Then if it doesn’t, you’re good to go out and dance again. So, it was a very… Londoners really adapted very well to the crisis.
Erik Larson: But I think there was a progression. Now one of my favorite characters in the book, characters as in real, non fiction characters was a young woman named Olivia Crocket who was a diarist for an organization called mass observation, which had recruited hundreds of ordinary Londoners to keep diaries even before the war. And her diary sketches a very interesting progression. She goes from terrified, after the September 7th, 1940 bombing to one day putting out an incendiary bomb, landed outside her house. Incendiary bombs were what the Germans dropped first so that they would set fire to things and these fires would then serve as beacons to the aircraft that would follow with other bombs. So she puts one of these things out. She manages to snuff it out, which is what people were asked to do if they saw an incendiary. And she was so elated at being able to do this and no longer being passive victim that she just became absolutely emboldened. Her life really changed. She became much more courageous.
Collin Hansen: Let’s go back to Churchill, and he might not have been the right leader for Great Britain in every time. I think a lot of people don’t recall that Great Britain actually voted him out of office before the war even ended. The part, at least against Japan. But certainly he was the right leader for the right time in the Blitz. What can we learn from his leadership under that kind of strain?
Erik Larson: I’ve thought quite a bit about this, and especially now actually in terms of the situation we are going through. The character that Churchill was, first of all, he was a courageous man. Fearless. And he managed to communicate that fearlessness. But above all, he had a real grasp of the power of symbolic acts. That the things that he did, how he behaved would be communicated to the world around him. Also, he’s known of course for his speeches. But when you take a look at those speeches, there’s a pattern. He was very direct. He did not try to sugarcoat things. He told things as they were, but then he would provide actual realistic grounds for optimism, not some happy talk.
Erik Larson: But just having said that, now we recognize that we’ve got this, we’ve got this and we’re working on this, trying to try to stave off invasion by the Germans and we’re going to get through this. We are going to survive this. And then he would end these speeches, after this recitation of fact and optimism. He would invariably end on an ascending note with this oratorical flourish that was, virtually set people up off their chairs and sent them out into the streets being brave once again.
Collin Hansen: I would describe it as a kind of sober hope and that really stood out to me in the book as well.
Erik Larson: Very much so. He managed to convey a sober hope. A sense of hope that was grounded in the gravity of the real situation people were in.
Collin Hansen: Have you ever come across another leader who had that particular kind of ability? You really identify that as the genius of his leadership. The ability to be able to be straightforward and truthful and at the same time be hopeful. Those are hard things to manage.
Erik Larson: Very hard things to manage. I think that… I’m not an expert on the world’s leaders, but honestly, I think that Franklin Delano Roosevelt had some of those characteristics, that famous remark of his, that we have nothing to fear but fear itself. Which is a very powerful thing. And it has, I believe it’s so applicable today. Churchill said something wonderful in one of his very early speeches saying it’d be foolish to ignore the gravity of the hour, but equally foolish to lose hope and courage.
Collin Hansen: Now, Churchill was certainly an active figure there. But most people were really passive. They didn’t have an ability to necessarily shape world events the way that Churchill did and be able to muster all of that courage. And one of the things you see, at least with a pattern, if we broaden out from the blitz a little bit, is this situation where Britain prepares for another war that they did not want. Then you have a year of this phony war where there aren’t attacks even though they’re expected. Then you get, of course, the sudden fall of France, the unexpected fall of France. Then the air raids, of course, on top of the air raids, you have the possibility of invasion by paratroopers at any point in time. I just can’t imagine the fear and anxiety that they must’ve experienced with that sense of foreboding, just not knowing the future. Did you find anything in diaries or memoirs or observations at that time, that gave you an understanding of how people prepare when they just don’t know what’s going to happen?
Erik Larson: Yeah. Again, I think things followed something of a progression for people. First came terror and a lot of people actually simply left London. And then actually many came back. But first there was terror. There’s also this fear of the unknown. What was really going to happen? Was there going to be this invasion by Germany. But, over time, and I’m not really quite sure what the dynamic is. Maybe it’s simply people get worn down by fear and it’s like, no, forget about it. I’m just going to just going to lead my life and whatever comes, come. Because it was a truism that at the time that, when the German bombing campaign was at its most intense over London, it was the case that, no one person, you could not point to any one person on the street and say that person is going to die tonight.
Erik Larson: But you knew beyond doubt that someone in London was going to die that night. And there’s something at first terrifying, but also something liberating in that idea that you have no control. You have no ability to determine whether you’re going to get blown up by this bomb or not. It’s a very frightening thing that parallels today. You’ve got this virus that we can’t see and we don’t know who’s bringing it into our homes, who’s got it in the store. So in that respect there’s a certain similarity to the idea of a bomb falling from nowhere.
Erik Larson: But it gets a lot trickier now, because we’re talking about not a visible entity across the channel that we’re able to confront, but it’s this invisible pathogen which really adds to the anxiety. But I think we’re going to follow a similar pattern. I think people are going to realize as the situation stabilizes, it’s part of the problem now. The situation is not stable. Every day there’s some new thing, we’re like, well what’s going to happen next? Nobody knows. So once things clarify, I think that people will be able to stick their courage to a sticking place and rise up.
Collin Hansen: Yeah. I think even if we found out that we’re going to be in this for eight weeks or we’re going to be in this for three months or something like that, at least the certainty or the timeline would be helpful there. But again, the smartest people aren’t able to figure that out yet. And we pray and we urge them on, in that process of learning. Your books are dealing with so many different points of crises and how people react in that crisis. And I would imagine with all of your immersion in writing about this and narrating this and researching and studying, you must identify some characteristics of human nature that span the different books that you’ve written. So can you identify any of those threads about who we are as human beings, that transcend the different crises that we face?
Erik Larson: Well, I think fundamentally courage and intelligence trumps all. If you have the capacity to look at the world in a rational way and to convey that sense of the world to others, I think that’s a very powerful thing. I think honestly one thing that’s very much missing today with regard to the COVID 19, is that we haven’t had that. We haven’t had that Churchillian leadership yet.
Collin Hansen: No, I agree. And it’s something that I keep waiting to emerge and perhaps we’re in sort of the 1939 phase here where we have Chamberlain leadership. And by the way, I’m not speaking necessarily about just identifying on one individual as a President. I’m speaking just very broadly in terms of our society’s leadership there. And for people who are listening to this podcast especially and are following the gospel coalition website, they’re looking at that from a religious perspective and a Christian perspective in particular. And Churchill, he was not a devout man. Interestingly, he is a pretty constant fascination of many Christians. But again was not himself devout or practicing. And religion is not a major theme of your book either. By contrast, AmErikan leaders at least have typically pretended to be religious even if they aren’t. But one of the things I’ve noticed in this current situation is that when President Trump brings people to give comfort and assurance, he brings business leaders and he brings scientists, and I’m not against that.
Collin Hansen: I just think it’s interesting that he hasn’t really brought religious leaders forward, and I’m not even sure many people have noticed that he hasn’t brought religious leaders forward, and that’s also a pretty significant contrast to earlier periods of history, nine eleven being an example of that. But I’m wondering, as you were reading about the blitz, whether it was Churchill or others, did you discern any particular religious themes or religious messages in response? Or was it likewise, somewhat devoid of that sort of transcendent perspective?
Erik Larson: Well first of all, let me just address that in terms of Churchill. Yeah he was definitely not devout. He was not a religious man. The church near the Prime ministerial country retreat, Chequers, he attended one time in his premiership. But the thing you remember about Churchill is that while he was not a devout man, not a religious man per se. He did have a moral core. He was a deeply moral, caring, thoughtful man. And that’s a fundamental element. Now among the populace, there was of course a good deal of trying to find solace in churches. Trying to find solace from religious leaders, national day of prayer and so forth. But that was not Churchill. Although he did invoke God in his speeches, but Churchill was the rational statesman with this tremendously diverse range of traits among them. This rich moral core that allowed him to see the world and to feel for all the people who are hurting in that world.
Collin Hansen: Yeah. I think that’s a good point there. And I’m wondering if we’re able to even muster that kind of moral core now and because Churchill was, well not a devout man himself, he was very much shaped… And I know my timeline’s a little bit off here, but he’s very much shaped by Victorian England. A time of very public religiosity in many ways, or at least I should say it was a very highly moral time. Even across theological differences.
Collin Hansen: It was still very much concerned with that kind of moral core and you’re right, that comes through very clear and it gave Churchill that ability to be able to identify before many others had, those essential evils of Nazi-ism. But I do wonder of what that looks like today at a time when morality has been subsumed, and I’m not just talking about amorality, I’m saying it’s not really the category that we use so much anymore. We’re we’re thinking in terms of, well, I saw somebody joke that if we know that the aliens are coming, the first thing we’re going to do is lower the interest rates. That’s our instinct, is to turn economic. And I would even think about nine eleven, the response there, which is part of why this is so disorienting is because the response to nine eleven was get out there and shop.
Collin Hansen: Get out there and spend your money. And so, I’m not trying to make a narrow point here, but a broader one about what are the shared moral values that we could muster at a time like this. And I guess we’re still going to have to wait to see how that emerges. Go ahead.
Erik Larson: Well, I think, first of all, one has to be careful with the word morality because it means so much to us today that it didn’t necessarily mean back in Churchill’s day. But again, I just have to come back to the fact that, Churchill was this tremendous blend of skilled orator, rational thinker, who also had deep compassion for his fellow man. And he was able to marshal all that into his approach to this terrible, chaotic situation. I would love to see somebody step forward now who could do the same thing in AmErika. It definitely hasn’t happened. Certainly not from the White House, but maybe give it time depending on how things evolve.
Collin Hansen: Right. Absolutely. I had a chance to meet you once, you swung through Birmingham at one of these book events, and I really appreciated a moment just to be able to talk with you about some of your favorite authors. And I think that can be helpful when you’re talking to somebody who is accomplished as you are, writers are also readers. So I’m just wondering what authors do you especially respect or if they’re producing something you want to go out there and read that? I’m thinking especially narrative nonfiction, but really I’m looking for anything that people could read during this unusual time of quarantine.
Erik Larson: Yeah well, whatever I told you back when we chatted in Birmingham, it’s probably 100% different now. I mean, my favorite writers vary by hour by day. But, addressing first the idea of narrative nonfiction. I think that’s an interesting realm which to perhaps lose oneself in a time of trouble. Things I’d recommended like Candice Millard who wrote a tremendous book, actually about Churchill, a young Churchill called “Hero of the Empire”. I think that David McCullough is a terrific writer of narrative nonfiction, and his book, “Mornings on Horseback” about the young Teddy Roosevelt would be, I think, a terrific one for anybody interested in narrative nonfiction to read during this particular time.
Collin Hansen: Roosevelt reminds me a lot of Churchill there as well. I think in some ways about as close as we get in AmErika though, without having been through major. [crosstalk 00:25:57] Yeah. Teddy Roosevelt. Yeah. I mean of course FDR and Winston Churchill worked well together, but I think in terms of similarity, I would go with the cousin Teddy in terms of a similarity to Winston there. And especially with that essential moral core right there, both of them similar in that regard. Okay. So last question I have on this podcast, I like to ask people for their snap reaction. What’s the last great book you read?
Erik Larson: A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles.
Collin Hansen: Okay. Tell us a little bit about that.
Erik Larson: It’s a great book because, and actually a good book, I think for this time, truly. The book is about a count, count Rostov who is sentenced by Soviet authorities to spend the rest of his life incarcerated in a hotel in Moscow. Very interesting setup. And far from falling into despair, the man goes on to craft this very compelling life surrounded by compelling and quirky characters who enter from all corners of the hotel and city. It’s really a very charming thing. And what happens in that book that I think is so spectacular. It’s something that every writer strives for, very few of us ever achieve, and that is that the resulting work achieves a level of magic beyond the individual words on the page. And that’s what happens with a Gentleman in Moscow. You are transported and you don’t really want to come back until that focus is done.
Collin Hansen: That does sound like just the book that we need in this time. My guest on gospel bound has been Erik Larson. The book we’ve been discussing is The Splendid and the Vile, a Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz. It is currently number one on The New York Times hardcover nonfiction bestseller list. Congratulations on that, Erik. And again, thank you for joining me on Gospelbound.
Erik Larson: Thank you for having me, delighted.