A Profitable Pen

Winston Churchill’s other career

When the British Houses of Parliament honoured Winston Churchill on his 80th birthday in 1954, he told the lords and members of Parliament that “if I found the right words, you must remember that I have always earned my living by my pen and by my tongue.” In Mr. Churchill’s Profession: The Statesman as Author and the Book That Defined the “Special Relationship,” Peter Clarke, a distinguished historian of modern Britain, proves beyond doubt that Churchill teetered on the edge of bankruptcy for most of his life and only found prosperity in old age because of his fluent pen and remarkable tongue. His late financial success came from the commercial triumph of his history of “the English-speaking peoples,” a concept that he discovered only late in life and a work that was far from what was promised to publishers and, according to his sympathetic biographer Roy Jenkins’s analysis, by no stretch of the imagination the best of Churchill’s books.

Celebratory mists swirl around the books and the memory of Churchill in the English-speaking world today, not least in Toronto where its beleaguered anglophile ascendancy occasionally leaves its Rosedale redoubts and Bay Street warrens to cluster together in the largest Churchill Society in the world. Churchill’s image is unavoidable. He appears in films where he does not belong, as in The King’s Speech; and his books are still avidly collected, if rarely read. Churchill anecdotes provide spice for dreary speeches, and his image remains ubiquitous in Britain and what used to be called the overseas dominions.

Churchill still sells well. A 2002 BBC poll declared him the “Greatest Briton,” ahead of Princess Diana, who finished third, and John Lennon, who came in eighth. Publishers respond to the public’s taste with some clever light concoctions, and the title and even the subject of Mr. Churchill’s Profession might suggest it belongs to the frothier group. Fortunately it does not: its elegant prose, detailed examination of Churchill’s financial records and thoughtful reflections upon the relationship between Churchill’s literary work and his political vocation provide a new understanding not only of Churchill but also of the relationships among literature, journalism and politics in the 20th century.

Churchill, like his parents, customarily lived far beyond his relatively limited means. Born in Blenheim Palace, which a grateful nation gave to his ancestor John Churchill, a brilliant early 18th-century general, Churchill shared the tastes but not the resources of his eminent lineage. Politics and war fascinated him from his earliest years, and his father’s meteoric rise but ultimate eclipse in late 19th-century British politics haunted him. From the beginning, his writing reflected his political ambitions and served them, not least because it provided the financial resources that sustained him.

Churchill was an autodidact, a voracious reader with an elephantine memory and a close student of war, a topic that thrilled turn-of-the-century Britain. His first writings drew upon his experiences travelling in and fighting for the British Empire. Meeting the splendidly named General Blindon Blood at a country house party, the 23-year-old soldier in the 4th Hussars asked to join Blood’s expedition to the Swat Valley, northeast of Peshawar on the border of modern Pakistan and Afghanistan. Through his mother Jenny’s considerable wiles, he obtained a contract to write dispatches for the Daily Telegraph. He grumbled about the anonymity his officer status required, particularly since his ambitions were to gain publicity for a political career. In 1898, however, he published the dispatches as a book, The Story of the Malakand Field Force in his own name. His mother had secured an advance of £50 and generous royalty rates, which managed to earn him £600, twice his officer’s yearly pay.

Within a year he was off to Khartoum to witness Lord Kitchener brutally smash the dervishes at Omdurman, which he reported to the Morning Post in short reports for which he was paid well. He even found time to write a novel, which Clarke correctly describes as a romantic tale that lacks romance. But, as his grandmother, Duchess Fanny, told him, its faults were those of youth and inexperience and “£250 is not to be despised.” Indeed, a reprint of the novel earned him £225 in 1908, about £17,000 at today’s prices.

Writing was a means to a political end, one he initially failed to reach when he was defeated in a Lancashire by-election in 1899. Fortune then turned when fighting broke out in South Africa, where he went as correspondent for the Morning Post at £250 per month. In South Africa and, for that matter, for the remainder of his life, Churchill became an author and an actor, swelling the advance for his book London to Ladysmith via Pretoria by escaping from the Boers. It appeared just before the relief of Mafeking, sold more than 14,000 copies and made Churchill the perfect political candidate for a jingoistic moment. As Clarke wryly notes, “his exploits were well reported, not least by himself.” He became a Conservative MP in October 1900, which he followed immediately with a one-month British lecture tour that earned him £4,000 and another to Canada and the United States whose returns were about $8,000. He wrote to his mother: “I am very proud of the fact that there is not one person in a million who at my age could have earned £10,000 without any capital in less than two years.” That is more than $1,000,000 in today’s funds.

Earlier, Benjamin Disraeli had written novels to fashion and finance his political career. A century and a half later, Barack Obama would imaginatively reconstruct his own past to capture political support and earn much greater sums than the meagre pay for social work in Chicago slums. Although fundamentally different in origin, style and substance, Churchill and Obama share considerable intellectual and literary gifts and the knowledge that their words could make them money and gain them the access and celebrity their political careers demanded.

Churchill’s aristocratic tastes for country homes, champagne, fine claret and servants of all sorts became more difficult to sustain as Britain slid toward penury between the Battle of the Somme and its “finest hour” in June 1940, when Churchill rallied its people while simultaneously begging the Americans and the dominions to keep the munitions flowing on credit. Like his nation, Churchill became increasingly accustomed to living on loans and gifts. As a young man, he had written NSF cheques for his beloved polo horses, correctly expecting that his fashionable London banker, Cox, would honour them because he was a Churchill. Later, he employed accountants and lawyers to convince the tax authorities he was or was not an author, depending on the advantages. But in the later 1930s, his luck ran out.

He had bought Chartwell, his country estate, without telling his wife, Clementine, which she rightly regarded as the deepest offence of their splendid marriage. It was a financial sinkhole with its lawns, servants and aristocratic ways, and in 1937 it became unsustainable. In desperation, he thought of selling it. The estate was rescued by an advance from News of the World of all places, but then his high American income was affected by a tax change and a steep fall on Wall Street that reduced his holdings by two thirds. When Churchill faced a demand for payment from his New York broker, Chartwell went on the market for a meagre £20,000.

It was saved when Churchill’s close friend Brendan Bracken suggested he have lunch with financier Sir Henry Strakosch, who had played an important role in South African goldfields and in sorting out the South African and Indian currencies. Strakosch took over Churchill’s New York debts, paid him £800 for the privilege and then left him £20,000 when he died in 1943, which in effect forgave the debt. The controversial David Irving used this evidence to suggest that Strakosch, a Jew, gave funds to reward Churchill’s well-known rants against the Nazis. That may have been the reward—Clarke agrees that the donation was apparently motivated by Strakosch’s “fervent belief in the importance of his hero’s anti-Nazi stand.” However, that Churchill “stand” and others on India, gold and South Africa long preceded the meeting with Strakosch, who was not recognized in Britain as Jewish. Nevertheless, for Churchill, the course was risky, imprudent, but, alas, not at all unusual for politicians of the day. Or, for that matter, politicians of a later day in our own country1.

Churchill’s problems arose mainly from his lavish spending, with annual costs for alcohol alone often exceeding a working person’s yearly wage, and the stable of assistants he maintained to keep up the flow of publications. By the later 1930s he had fallen dreadfully behind on what promised to be his most lucrative project, the proposed history of the English-speaking peoples. It had languished since he signed the contract in 1932, with its large £20,000 advance being deemed a “loan” and thus not subject to taxes. In 1938, Churchill lined up new secretarial help and hired new research assistants, such as G.M. Young, William Deakin and Alan Bullock, who later became among the greatest historians in post-war Britain. Churchill’s working methods were extraordinary. As the historians produced drafts, which he read along with source materials of his own choosing, he would churn out directions and
random thoughts, and then, between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., dictate large swaths of prose to his secretary while fuelled by whisky and soda.

Clarke’s book does not discuss in any detail Churchill’s history of the Second World War, although David Reynolds studied it exhaustively in his book In Command of History. Clarke instead concentrates upon Churchill’s English-Speaking Peoples. As any writer knows, the subject shapes not only the book but also the author. In turning to the commercially attractive history of the English-speaking peoples, Churchill was forced to consider the relationship among the dominions, Britain and the United States. Churchill, Clarke demonstrates, had been a sentimental imperialist who spent little time, intellectually or politically, with schemes of imperial federation. His empire principally meant South Africa and India, with the rage and rants about Gandhi and Indian nationalism being a principal reason for his absence from ministerial office in the 1930s. He never visited Australia, had travelled briefly to Canada on his way to the United States and, despite his mother’s American background, often shared the British aristocrat’s disdain for its errant ways. Churchill, incidentally, thought that Canada did not fit his grand design for the book and it is placed on the sidelines.

Yet as he pieced together his book, he developed a fascination with the American experiment, especially the Civil War, and a growing sense of the imaginative power of the concept. By the later 1930s his style, with its roots in Gibbon, Johnson, Macaulay, Shakespeare, Kipling and Dickens, had attained a full-blooded maturity and astonishing rhetorical power. As he spewed forth paragraphs late into the night, an image of a people going forth from the blessed island to bear the consciousness and conscience of a free people facing a darkened world began to emerge.

Churchill did not finish English-Speaking Peoples because in 1939 the English-speaking peoples faced their greatest challenge, and he was called upon to serve. He brought an impressive historical range and imagination together to confront a powerful dark force also with deep roots in western tradition—good versus evil, the individual against the collective, Athens battling Sparta, Drake defeating the Armada. As Isaiah Berlin recalled, “so hypnotic was the force of his words, so strong his faith, that by the sheer intensity of his eloquence he bound his spell upon them until it seemed to them that he was indeed speaking what was in their hearts.” Romantic, anachronistic and a departure from the spare prose and modernist style of pre-war days, the effect lasted only moments, but they were the critical ones.

In September 2012, New York’s Morgan Library and Museum, founded by anglophile J.P. Morgan whose financial house bled the British during World War One, advertised a major exhibit: “Churchill: The Power of Words,” with Yousuf Karsh’s portrait of the glowering Churchill extending down a full New York Times page. Churchill would be amused, much as he was when he learned he had won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Reflecting the habits of a lifetime, he wrote to Clementine: “£12,000 free of tax. Not so bad!”

 


  1. The Strakosch affair was dealt with in Martin Gilbert’s official biography of Churchill and continues to attract attention on internet blogs of dubious reputation. Clarke’s account of the finances differs from other sources, but the major argument—Churchill was in financial trouble—remains the same.