Last updated: May 26, 2012 12:12 am

A mighty pen

Peter Clarke reminds us of Churchill’s literary gifts, but takes issue with his greatest work

Mr Churchill’s Profession: The Statesman as Author and the Book that Defined the ‘Special Relationship’, by Peter Clarke, Bloomsbury, RRP$30, 352 pages

 

I am a member of your profession,” Winston Churchill wrote to a newspaper editor in 1945. “I have never had any money except what my pen has brought me.” It was true; his dabbling in the stock market was usually disastrous and his speaking fees were lucrative but relatively rare. Churchill’s profession was that of a journalist, biographer, autobiographer and historian, and in those trades he did very well indeed.

Peter Clarke has thus tapped into a rich seam with this engaging study of Churchill the writer. The specific focus is on Churchill’s four-volume A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, published between 1956 and 1958, by which time he had won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Clarke, a former professor of modern British history at Cambridge University, estimates that Churchill’s parliamentary salary only accounted for 2.5 per cent of his income before the second world war, with the lion’s share coming from his literary endeavours.

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Churchill’s collected works cover no fewer than 34 volumes, including a poorly received novel, Savrola – which is excellent, by the way – as well as 12 volumes of memoirs and several books of journalism. The sheer output of wordage is impressive, even by modern standards where the electronic keyboard encourages loquacity. The great fact about Churchill was that he was constitutionally incapable of saying or writing a boring sentence. He was largely self-educated, somehow fitting the reading of Gibbon and Macaulay in between polo chukkas while a subaltern on India’s north-west frontier. His style has been criticised as orotund, full of subordinate clauses, but when he needed it to hit hard – as in 1940-41 – he could shorten his sentences incredibly effectively.

Clarke isn’t much of a fan of the Anglo-American special relationship but Mr Churchill’s Profession is, nonetheless, a good book about the literary work that provides its most powerful emotional underpinning. He agrees that Churchill’s A History of the English-Speaking Peoples “passes the test of telling its story with admirable lucidity and unforced brio”. That is probably why it has remained in print for more than half a century and still bears re-reading today, even though it stops at 1900, which is when the intertwining stories of Britain, America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand really started to have an impact on the rest of the globe, almost always to positive effect.

Although Churchill’s profession was literature, Clarke points out that his vocation was always in politics, so the political constantly infused and informed whatever he was writing about. His biography of his dead father, Lord Randolph Churchill, was an attempt to resuscitate the Tory Democracy concept in which he himself believed, at least at the time he wrote the book. His account of the first world war was a thinly veiled defence of his own controversial role as First Lord of the Admiralty during that conflict. “Winston has written a book about himself,” quipped Arthur Balfour, “and has called it The World Crisis.”

Similarly, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, a work that had to be broken off between 1939 and 1945 for obvious reasons, was a paean to the nations that Churchill believed by the time of its publication in the mid-1950s to be the last, best hope of mankind. Clarke is highly critical of the way that Churchill “unthinkingly talked up the extent to which a common ancestry was actually the experience of a large proportion of American citizens”, underplaying the huge role played by non-Wasp immigrants in American life. He sees Churchill’s view of Anglo-American amity, let alone unity, as a “sentimental vision”, while the Americans based their views of Britain on a harder calculus of national self-interest.

I find this explanation somewhat unfair; for of course Churchill, who had been prime minister while the Americans overtook Britain in war materiel production in the early 1940s and also when the British empire started to unravel in the early 1950s, knew that the US was hard-nosed in its great power calculations, just as the British empire had been towards America for the previous century and a half. Yet he rightly used his book to emphasise the common ancestry of their ideas, rather than merely the racial background of their populations. In that, Churchill succeeded triumphantly.

“The Declaration of Independence is not only an American document,” Churchill told an Anglo-American rally at the Albert Hall on US Independence Day 1918, “it follows the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights as the third great title-deed on which the liberties of the English-speaking people are founded.” What A History of the English-Speaking Peoples therefore did – and, indeed, still does to this day – was to justify that brave and inspiring claim, which itself explains why, for reasons totally unconnected with racial heritage, the special relationship is still alive and well.

Andrew Roberts is author of ‘A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900’ (Weidenfeld)

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