What more can possibly be said about Churchill?
Each publishing season, another shelf of books appears examining the political career of the great statesman. Churchill stared down the Nazi hordes, rallied the free world with his wartime rhetoric, and warned about an Iron Curtain descending across Europe. He also claimed a Nobel Prize to cap his life’s work.
One can be forgiven for assuming the Nobel honours the parliamentarian’s statesmanship, although he received the prize in 1953 for literature.
He had to his credit by then a novel, an autobiography, books of war reportage, a biography of his father, a four-volume biography of his ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough, a five-volume history of the Great War, and, what would be a six-volume memoir of the Second World War, among other works.
Still to come would be A History of the English-Speaking Peoples in four volumes, a massive bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1950s.
The British prime minister’s writing career and the story behind the publication of those four volumes is the focus of Mr. Churchill’s Profession (Bloomsbury), an engaging new book by Peter Clarke, an eminent historian of modern Britain who lives in British Columbia.
Churchill’s political career overshadowed his literary one. Mr. Clarke considers him “the most famous unknown author of the 20th century.”
Churchill began his writing life as a war correspondent and adventurer before gaining a favourable reputation as a biographer and memoirist. He depended on huge advances from his publishers to support a lavish lifestyle, including a daily bottle of vintage champagne that cost but a fraction of his total alcohol order. Churchill spent more on wine than he earned as a backbencher.
Although he began composing in longhand, he soon took up dictation to secretaries, a technique likely adopted after he became accustomed to the luxury of doing so in his hectic life as a cabinet minister. He then would have his dictated words set in type before literally cutting and pasting his way to a completed manuscript, living, in his memorable phrase, “from mouth to hand.” Much of this labour took place at his family home, Chartwell, in the upstairs study he called his word factory.
“He was a busy, working author. Anybody who has tried to write a book will know it is damned hard work,” Mr. Clarke said.
He was in New York city for Black Thursday in 1929, the Wall Street Crash wiping out many of his investments and leaving his finances in a perilous state. It was while attending a football game in the city on the same trip that Churchill expressed to his American publisher the idea about a writing a history of the shared experience of the English-speaking nations.
He began writing the work in the late 1930s, although publication would be delayed for more than a decade by the outbreak of war.
Mr. Clarke wanted to know how much had been completed before war intervened. The microfilm was unhelpful. “I couldn’t pick up the different colours of ink on the proof corrections, or stuff that was done in pencil, probably late at night by Churchill scribbling away,” he said. The professor got permission from the director of Churchill Archives at Churchill College, Cambridge, to handle the actual manuscript.
“I got a real thrill, a real sense of looking over the great man’s shoulder as he was writing this thing.”
He noted the quality of the first drafts, although Churchill worked tirelessly to improve the text, “sometimes junking whole passages, sometimes rewriting what he dictated in his overenthusiastic moments late at night, redrafting it in the margins.”
In the text, written many years before publication, he read words echoed in Churchill’s famous wartime addresses.
“There is so much in the wartime speeches that appeals to the common heritage of the English-speaking peoples,” he said, “and how they had to stick together and fight together in common opposition to tyranny.”
Churchill came to the notion of the “special relationship” between the British Commonwealth and the United States several years before he expressed it in the Iron Curtain speech of 1946.
A decade before the outbreak of war, Churchill visited British Columbia as part of a continental speaking tour (during which he also met Charlie Chaplin). In Victoria, he visited the naval base, laid a stone at Christ Church Cathedral and planted a hawthorn tree in Beacon Hill Park.
Mr. Clarke, 69, a retired professor of modern British history and former master of Trinity Hall College, Cambridge, only the 42nd man to hold the title in a succession that traces back to 1350, had another close encounter with Churchill while doing research. He came across a passage in a letter Churchill wrote home in 1929, noting he sailed from Vancouver to Victoria through a “charming archipelago of islands.” One of those would have been Pender Island, on which Mr. Clarke composed his delightful, informative, and worthy addition to the groaning shelf of Churchill biography.
Special to The Globe and Mail