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Working With Randolph Memories of an Assistant on Official Churchill Biography


Martin Mauthner in the early 1960s helped Randolph Churchill write the official biography of his father Sir Winston Churchill. In this account written for the International Churchill Society, Mauthner recalls a typical “shift” at Stour, Randolph’s country home in East Bergholt, Suffolk.

Because I had grown up in South Africa, Randolph Churchill thought I was qualified to research an exciting chapter in Sir Winston’s early life: his capture by guerrillas and his subsequent daring escape during the Boer War. Randolph also wanted my help in writing about his father’s spell as a junior minister at the Colonial Office, when London negotiated a union intended to reconcile Boer and Briton. We had earlier worked together successfully: I had spent a year under his roof, drafting chapters of his life of Anthony Eden.

In his early fifties at the time and already in declining health, Randolph realised there was no longer any hope of his enjoying an illustrious political career. Being commissioned by the Churchill Trustees to write the official life of his father was for him a much sought after consolation prize; he hoped it would ensure him at least some of the immortality he believed he deserved. He went to considerable trouble to recruit staff, construct a specially built strong room for the precious documents the trustees had placed at his disposal, and work out the book’s structure. The underlying philosophy of the work was to let the documents speak for themselves. Randolph’s “literary assistants” or “young gentlemen” came for a few days every week or so. It was an unusual post-university “gap-year” experience. The most famous of our number, Martin Gilbert, on the other hand, was already an up-and-coming Oxford historian when he joined the team towards the end of 1962.

Randolph had moved to Suffolk to avoid London’s unending distractions, but he found it hard to tear himself away from the goings-on at Westminster and in Fleet Street. He still had contracts to write newspaper articles, and he methodically scanned most of the London dailies and political weeklies. He never stopped phoning his political chums to get the latest gossip (his excellent contacts enabled him to “scoop” Fleet Street and disclose that Harold Macmillan, not R. A. Butler, would succeed Eden). He remained a gadfly who could not resist the slightest opportunity of goading politicians, and taunting press lords, especially the “pornographers royal,” who ruled over the “gutter press.”

It was a restless Randolph who would occasionally ask us to read aloud our drafts for the Great Work or pages from relevant books. More often than not, however, he would divert us from our labours to a gamut of other duties. From his command post in the library he would buzz me just as I was unraveling the background to a letter to his father from, say, Jan Smuts or Mahatma Gandhi (in his early days, a lawyer in South Africa). Could I kindly come downstairs for a moment, was his polite summons; he had something to discuss. He would show what seemed a perfunctory interest in my latest research results and then divert me to a completely different task.

What turned out to be a typical shift for me began towards the end of August 1962, when my colleague Michael Molian met me at Manningtree station and drove me to East Bergholt. Randolph called Michael the “duke” after learning that he had taught English to the Italian navy in Otranto. Randolph associated the port with the Duke of Otranto, the title Napoleon bestowed on his brutal police chief, Joseph Fouché. Michael, by contrast, was a gentle Christ Church classics scholar and gifted pianist who found it hard to endure his employer’s black moods and volcanic bursts of ill-temper.

In fact, Michael on that occasion looked more shaken and miserable than usual. His shift had started badly when, carrying out Randolph’s instructions, he had brought on approval three pairs of shoes he had selected from Austin Reed’s in London. I found them as plain and tasteful as one could wish, but RSC thought otherwise and hurled the shoes, and abusive remarks, at Michael.

Randolph’s daughter Arabella, with a school-friend, was visiting her father that week. She already exhibited a strong temperament. “I wonder where she gets her bossiness from,” Randolph would mischievously remark. In the mornings, she had to sit for Warwick Hutton, who had recently completed a portrait of Sir Winston. With her ruddy complexion, full face (and figure) and piercing blue eyes, Arabella was an attractive girl; she nonetheless did not seem entirely satisfied with herself, and posed reluctantly. “I’d much rather be painted in a few years’ time, when I’ve grown more beautiful,” she confided to me. She was twelve years old at the time.

Arabella was in charge of one of the stands at a fête that a neighbour was hosting in aid of the Cheshire Homes. So one afternoon we—researchers, secretaries, and domestic staff—had to file across the road into the neighbour’s garden and fulfill our obligations to the charity. I bought a wastepaper basket and a cloth from Arabella, patronised one or two other stands and took tickets in the raffle. Later, we all trundled across to Stour, where Randolph opened his collection of Sir Winston’s paintings to the public at one shilling a head. Finally, the villagers gathered on the terrace, where Randolph, by now master of ceremonies, supervised the drawing of the winning raffle tickets.

The “duke,” meanwhile, had played truant during the fête, slipping off to rehearse a Hindemith duet for a forthcoming private concert in the village. Randolph, in his capacity as East Bergholt’s patron of the arts, had undertaken to sit through the first item—by Schumann. One sensed that it was a reluctant gesture. He was fond of quoting his godfather, F. E. Smith (Lord Birkenhead), on many topics, and classical music was one of them: “I would much rather pay fifty pounds than go to a concert.”

To my horror Michael had told me he was returning home that night, instead of the following day. I drove him to the station and later that evening tried to take home the cook and her assistant, but the petrol tank was empty. We had to order a taxi to bring over a canister of petrol. It was an early night for me; I truthfully told Randolph I had a headache and managed to go to bed shortly before midnight.

The next morning I fetched the cook, had breakfast and was not buzzed till 11:30. Randolph wanted to discuss a New Statesman article in which, I seem to recall, the left-wing sociologist Richard Titmuss denounced the fiscal finagling allegedly practised by the rich. Randolph thought it an excellent piece; he would advise his friends to study it as a useful do-it-yourself guide to avoiding tax.

By now Randolph’s close companion, Natalie Bevan, had dropped in on her way from London to her home in Boxted, near Colchester. She presented him with two brace of grouse she had bought at Harrod’s; they had cost only fifteen shillings each, compared with twenty-five the previous week, she told him proudly. Mrs. Bevan was, as always, very sweet and stayed for an agreeable lunch, she cooking the omelette. I then went upstairs to try to do some work, but Randolph buzzed me an hour later.

He was now alone, and it was ominously calm. After lunch a man had arrived to take measurements for new curtains, Randolph and Natalie had disagreed on some point, a furious row had ensued, and she had driven off in a huff. It was a familiar pattern of events, generally involving family (especially his sister Sarah, who had recently been found knocking at a neighbour’s door at four in the morning), close friends, and staff. Randolph’s live-in secretary, Eileen Harryman, suffered more than most from a fulminating Randolph. She would sit on a kitchen chair and tell me how her hair had turned completely grey since her arrival at Stour. Natalie Bevan would also listen sympathetically to Miss. Harryman’s complaints, acknowledging that she at least was fortunate enough to be able to escape in her car.

Before I could fetch the cook to prepare our dinner, I had to help Randolph with what appeared to be the major task of the week: how to reply to Evelyn Waugh’s latest letter. Randolph was collecting his works and had asked him if he had a first edition of Scoop. In his reply Waugh, as was his wont, had directed a few poisoned barbs at his former comrade-in-arms. Randolph liked to consider himself a master of the English tongue and what now especially annoyed him, as it was intended to do, was Waugh’s criticism of Randolph’s style, in a letter he had sent The Times about an editorial on freedom of speech. RSC had written that “perplexities will be quenched.” Waugh haughtily pointed out that perplexities shall be resolved, fires quenched.

After dinner (could it have been another omelette?) I had to remain downstairs to consider with Randolph a further issue troubling him: The Times had that day carried a two-line letter asking why the railways should be made to pay their way when no such obligation was placed on the roads. That proposition was the biggest rot, he insisted; of course, the roads paid for themselves. The revenue from licenses and taxation on petrol was surely higher than what was spent on roads. He summarily ordered: “Make a note to get the relevant statistics going back to 1920 from the Royal Automobile Club. I could write a good piece for the News of the Woggins.”

He then began to speculate on the origin of the name of the letter-writer, John Mavrogordato, concluding that it belonged to a family of Greek Jews. There would be at least six in Who’s Who, would I look them up. There were in fact two Mavrogordato entries—did The Times know that beforehand, Randolph wondered. He asked me to read aloud both entries, which we found moderately amusing. John George lived in Wiltshire and had the previous year retired as senior legal counsel in the Sudanese ministry of justice. He was an ornithologist who had been president of the British Falconers’ Club. John Nicolas lived near Harrods and had retired in 1947 as Oxford’s professor of modern Greek literature. His publications included The Erotokritos, and he gave his recreations as “anything except theology or mathematics.”

The sight of the red-covered reference work, alas, enraged Randolph as a red cloth would a bull. It invariably led him to expostulate in the most vehement manner about the quite disgraceful case of Lance Sieveking, Natalie’s first husband. This fellow, he asserted, occupied nearly as much space in Who’s Who as Sir Winston himself (less than half, in fact), by the simple device of listing every radio play he had written. And each year his entry grew because he had written more plays. It was absurd the way they let you put in anything and never cut a submission.

Inevitably, we moved on to Randolph’s favourite entry—his own. He asked me to read it aloud and measure it with a ruler. Suddenly he shouted out: “We haven’t included What I Said About the Press (a slender volume containing the transcript of the successful libel action he brought against The People for calling him a ‘hack’). Make a note to revise our entry.”

When Randolph came down to the library the next morning, a Saturday, we discussed a biography of Harold Macmillan by Emrys Hughes that he had been asked to review. He had closely scrutinised every paragraph for errors of fact, grammar, and interpretation, and had asked me to read it too for my impressions. I then had to supervise the preparations for lunch. A major and his daughter, a friend of Arabella’s, were expected, and we were to have omelette, followed by Natalie’s grouse. I brought fresh supplies of gin, whisky, soda, tonic, and ginger ale to the liquor trolley and opened a bottle of our best claret. RSC set the rotisserie in motion.

It was almost half-past two when I picked up the phone. It was the major. He sounded like someone who had just grasped a raft after a shipwreck. As the good weather had brought out the trippers, it had taken the major ninety minutes to drive nine miles on the A12, the main road from London to Colchester and Ipswich at the time. The major thought he and his daughter would arrive in time for tea.

I ordered an elaborate tea for the children, and Randolph started cooking the grouse. The major’s delay had set Randolph’s mind spinning. He failed to understand why the upper classes drove during the weekend; if he were going for an excursion, he would go mid-week. The trouble was all the trippers who went on coach rides, and the working classes who used their cars only during the summer. It would be interesting to know how many cars were insured for the summer months only. The RAC would know that, and what about those other statistics he had earlier asked me to get from the automobile club? I said I had left a note for the RAC’s secretary and doubted whether their press office would be open on a Saturday afternoon.

Mildly incensed, he insisted that their press office was always open. I quickly realised that he was becoming irritable and that probably nothing was now going to soothe him. He began to nag. How could he reply to the letter in The Times if he didn’t have the facts, and what was the point of replying to a correspondent, if it weren’t done promptly? Would I phone the RAC after lunch?

Randolph was further exasperated because I had allowed the cook to use all the eggs, although I knew that the major and his daughter would not be with us. Why was I so extravagant? Why had I not put some of the egg mixture in a cup for another occasion? Arabella and another friend were gobbling up the omelette when the major and his daughter arrived, before teatime. The major, handsome in an Anthony Eden way, explained that, as they had eaten sausage rolls in Colchester, they were not really hungry. In that case, Randolph decided, it would be a waste to tackle the grouse, which was now ready; the girls had surely had enough. The girls, however, insisted that they were still ravenous. An adamant Randolph failed to fob them off with cheese and was forced to compromise by offering them cold pork.

During this time the major was beginning to look extremely ill at ease. His arms tensely tugged one another behind his back, he wound his legs around the front legs of his chair, as if he were clinging to it, and he spoke in a peculiar stutter. Suddenly he rose and asked where he could wash his hands. He returned after fifteen minutes, smelling of scented soap.

I managed to disappear upstairs to work on the Macmillan review when Randolph put a call from the RAC through to me. Their press office was indeed open on Saturdays, and I began to note the road-revenue data. At this point Randolph entered, supposedly to show the major the editorial office. He also wanted to berate me because I had told the RAC to reverse the charges. Why was I so unnecessarily extravagant? Would I ask the RAC to post the figures and then put down the receiver?

Still in the major’s presence, an irate Randolph began to complain about my untidy work habits. Why were books lying open on the desk, and why were papers strewn over it? I ignored him and went on preparing the RAC information for him. They left the room, and when Randolph buzzed me later to come down, the major and his daughter had departed. But both my failings were still gnawing at him. Why shouldn’t the RAC pay for the call; why couldn’t they type out the figures, take them to Liverpool Street station and put them on a train? That telephone call, he estimated, had probably cost him in the region of twenty-five shillings. And why was the desk so untidy?

Randolph explained that the major (Randolph suspected that stress and the sausage roll lay behind the major’s earlier discomfort) was an expert who showed firms how to save money by making their production processes more efficient. Randolph had hoped to impress him with “our little book factory,” but I had let the side down. With a look of utter despondency he sighed and uttered, “Well, I shan’t go on about it.”

He switched from andante to allegro and began to tell me, with great relish, about the major’s domestic problems. Randolph was clearly exultant that, within a couple of hours, a man he had never met before should reveal intimate details of his unhappy second marriage. He recounted how the major’s wedding night itself had been a catastrophe: the major, his spouse—a girl from the East End—and his best man—a military-intelligence officer who was the major’s closest friend—were staying in a hotel. The major was in the couple’s room awaiting his bride only to learn subsequently that she had first jumped into bed with the best man.

Randolph embroidered the story so exquisitely that we almost forgot that he was due to take me to the station. Randolph’s transport philosophy was that it was only fair to give the train a chance to leave you behind, but allowing ourselves seven minutes to reach Manningtree was overgenerous to Dr. Richard Beeching, at the time the supremo charged by the government with making the railways profitable. In front of us was a long procession of cars, travelling at 20 mph and forming a Toc H convoy to a nearby village. On each blind curve Randolph overtook one or two. As we crossed the Stour river, we could see the train pulling into the station about a mile away. Randolph aggressively hooted his way past the unloved trippers.

He then began hooting the Al-gé-rie fran-çaise rhythm—his PIN code, so to speak, that the stationmaster recognised as heralding the approaching charge of the Bergholt brigade. Whether it was the stationmaster’s benevolence, or perhaps the fact that on this occasion a young mother was having some difficulty lifting her pram into the carriage, I did manage to get back to Hampstead that Saturday evening.

On the train I realised that those final minutes in the car had been so tense that I never answered the question Randolph had put to me: “Well, what progress did you make with the book this week?”

Martin Mauthner is a self-described “Eurocrat,” who worked for most of his career as an official of the Commission of the European Union in Brussels with postings in Canada, Latin America, and Germany. He has written books about German writers in French exile before the Second World War and French writers who flirted with fascism.

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