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Mr Churchillís Profession

Statesman, Orator, Writer

 

Peter Clarke

 

London: Bloomsbury, 2012

Hardback. xix+348 p. ISBN 978-1408818879. £20.00

 

Reviewed by Allen Packwood

Churchill Archives Centre, Churchill College, Cambridge

 

 

You might think that there is little left to be learned about Winston Churchill in the 1930s. It is a period that has been covered in books, plays, films and television dramas and documentaries. Yet the supreme achievement of this new book by Peter Clarke is to put the pen back into Churchillís hand.

Professor Clarke shows how prolific Churchill was as a writer in this decade, juggling two major multi-volume contracts for his biography of the First Duke of Marlborough and his History of the English Speaking-Peoples, while also somehow managing to squeeze in the shorter works of My Early Life, Thoughts and Adventures, and Great Contemporaries, as well as published volumes of his speeches and newspaper articles. Through his forensic examination of Churchillís personal finances, Clarke demonstrates the extent to which Churchill was dependent upon delivering with his pen, revealing in full for the first time how the arrangement of Churchillís tax affairs led him to collect contracts, using advances to sustain his lifestyle in the short term, while accruing deadlines and delivery schedules that became increasingly difficult to deliver. It was this financial pressure which drove Churchill to further develop and sustain an incredible literary machine, with secretaries, researchers, assistants and publishers working round the clock to feed, record, edit and typeset the torrent of words that poured forth from his dictation. This system underpinned his political career in the wilderness years, but also facilitated the production of his wartime oratory; for in 1940 he arrived in Downing Street with a mass of historical material to inform his speeches and broadcasts, and with years of practice of producing words to order.

This book was originally intended as an examination of Churchillís History of the English-Speaking Peoples, a work which many have glossed over as a product of the 1950s, and thus of a time when Churchill was beyond his prime, and which has therefore often been dismissed as a money earner, largely ghost written by others, and as an unimportant codicil to the Churchill canon. Professor Clarkeís second great service to Churchill scholarship then is to revisit the origins and first typescript of this work and to show that it dominated incredible amounts of Churchillís time in the key period of 1938-39. In fact, the theme had been conceived and the contract signed even earlier, work having been delayed by his other literary commitments, and Churchill now found himself in a race against a publisherís deadline, trying to produce a comprehensive history of the emergence of the English-speaking world at the very time that the values of that world were coming under a new threat from fascism. Seen in this light, a direct line can be drawn from the narrative and language that informed his History to the calls for Anglo-American unity that infused his wartime rhetoric.

Clarkeís book is not, and was never, intended as an overview of Churchillís writing career. It deliberately avoids the ground that has already been so expertly covered in David Reynoldsí In Command of History, which opened up this vein of Churchill studies with its excellent analysis of how Churchill came to write his history, The Second World War. Nor does it attempt to examine in detail the text of Churchillís other multi-volume history of the First World War, The World Crisis. Peter Clarke, the professional historian, is interested in Churchillís approach to writing a work of history, as opposed to a defence of his father, his family or his own actions, though of course Churchill approached his History of the English-Speaking Peoples with preconceived notions of the primacy of shared Anglo-American liberties and values. This has led Clarke to include an interesting discourse on the tradition in which this new work stood, and on the emergence of Anglo-Americanism in the nineteenth century. The reason for Churchillís own choice of this project may have been simpler. Yet it was not purely monetary, and must be linked to the reflections arising from his long American lecture tour of 1929. He had observed the economic power and potential of the United States at first hand and in his political essays and speeches had already started to contrast it with the weakness and instability of Europe. By the time he came to start his serious work on the History in 1938, the declining international situation gave the book an added subtext that was clearly not lost on the author.

Mr Churchillís Profession is not primarily about Churchillís writings. It is about Churchill as a writer and an historian. It shows how he developed his dual system as a man of action and a man of words, how he used his pen to sustain his political career, and how in the 1930s writing of necessity became his main profession, but also how this profession was an integral part and parcel of the man, and how it informed the orator and helped the politician to become a statesman.

 

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