BY WINSTON S. CHURCHILL
An Hour or Preparation for Each Minute or Delivery”
WHO was Winston Churchill’s speechwriter? This is a question I am frequently asked in America. Conditioned to modern day politicians who, all too often, have not just one, but a whole team of speechwriters—not to mention staffers to write Op-Ed pieces that appear under their boss’s name and ghostwriters to script their books—Americans are filled with disbelief when I reply, “Churchill did not have a speechwriter—he wrote them all himself.”
That, of course, is why his speeches were outstanding. In the case of his great wartime speeches, my grandfather would regularly devote an hour of preparation to each minute of delivery. Thus it was not unusual for him to spend thirty to forty hours preparing a single speech. What politician does that today? Perhaps that is why, even fifty years on, his speeches have the power to stir and thrill those who listen to them.
While Churchill is best known as a statesman and the leader of an embattled Britain in World War II, it was with his pen that he earned his living, having been left penniless at the age of twenty by the premature death of his father. His work as an author and historian, though less wellknown, is every bit as remarkable as his contribution in the field of politics. (See also “Winston Churchill: The Art of the Statesman-Writer,” FH 102.)
After World War I he turned his newly acquired home of Chartwell, in the rolling Kent landscape, into a literary factory where the lights would burn to a late hour every evening, most especially during the 1930s, his years in the political wilderness when he was out of office. He would employ a team of up to half a dozen “gentlemanresearchers,” for the most part Oxford graduates, who would work for him part-time, preparing material and doing research work. In addition, he had a raft of half a dozen secretaries, at least two of whom would remain on duty until he retired for the night.
Churchill was his own stern taskmaster, driving himself and all around him from morning until the early hours, churning out articles, speeches and chapters for books. My father Randolph recorded an example of this when, as a boy of 18, he accompanied his father on a journey across the United States and Canada in 1929: “I remember how on a very hot train journey in California, or perhaps further north, he shut himself up in his own small compartment and wrote the article [for The Strand Magazine] which was overdue. He had, for at least the last thirty years, had the habit of dictating everything, but he had no secretary with him. In two or three hours he wrote in his own hand an article of 2000-3000 words, which he read to us at dinner.
“He did not do this so just because he needed the money: he had a sense of guilt which he felt he must expiate. I remember complimenting him on the article when he read it to us. ‘You know,’ he replied, ‘I hate to go to bed at night feeling I have done nothing useful in the day. It is the same feeling as if you had gone to bed without brushing your teeth.'”
One of our honorary members, Miss Grace Hamblin, who is in her 90s and still living close to Chartwell in the village of Westerham, first came to my grandfather as a secretary in 1930. The hours were long. She recalls that even when my grandfather had dinner guests, which was most evenings, the guests would be encouraged to leave or go to bed by about 11 PM when the two secretaries on the “late shift” would be summoned. Work would continue until two or three in the morning. Indeed it was by burning the midnight oil that he achieved such a phenomenal output, doing his best work in the quiet hours of the night when there were no interruptions, such as visitors or the telephone, to distract him. If, in the watches of the night, any of the team showed signs of flagging, my grandfather would rally them—as would my father after him—with the following lines of verse:
“The heights achieved by men, and kept,
were not attained by sudden flight,
but they, while their companions slept,
were toiling upwards through the night!”
When, finally, he wrapped up everything for which he felt responsible and called it a day, Miss Hamblin, a girl in her early twenties, would walk home alone, half an hour’s distance along dark, unlit lanes. But even the “late shift” had to be back with everything typed up in time for the boss’s awakening at 8:30 AM!
AS A BOY of five or six years of age, in the years immediately following the Second World War, I would . spend considerable parts of my school holidays with my grandparents at Chartwell. At about 9 each morning I would make my way through my grandfather’s study on the first floor, with its high vaulted ceiling and old oak beams, his works of reference on the shelves and galley-proofs of his latest book set out on his upright desk where he would stand to make his corrections, and through to his small bedroom beyond. There, through the thick haze of cigar smoke, I would find the venerable Grandpapa. He would be propped up in bed, wearing a quilted silk bed jacket. Before him was a bed-table, cut out to accommodate the shape of his ample belly! To his right, on a narrow bookshelf would stand a weak whisky and soda, from which he would take the occasional sip. While puffing one of his Havana cigars, usually a Romeo y Julieta, he would be dictating a speech or a letter to one of the secretaries.
On my arrival, peering above his gold-rimmed, half-lens spectacles, he would break into a beaming smile and would promptly dismiss the secretary so that we could discuss our plans of the day, which would invariably include visits to the golden orfe, his large fish which lurked in the series of ponds he had built in the garden; the black swans with their scarlet bills, a gift of the Government of Australia; and, last but by no means least, his pigs in the farmyard. Frequently, if it was not raining, he would make time for an hour or two bricklaying. He was at the time engaged in completing a high wall around his large kitchen garden with the help of a couple of professional bricklayers. Well do I recall the many happy hours we would spend together. I would pass him the bricks while he would mix up his “pug,” as he called the sand and cement mixture he used to bond one course of bricks upon the next.
Though he was by then in his late seventies and still a Member of Parliament, indeed, Leader of the Opposition—and yet to return as Prime Minister for four years—the main work in hand at the time was the writing of The Second World War, recently voted by National Review the nonfiction work of the century. Later, I was there when he was working on the completion of his History of the English-Speaking Peoples, a four-volume work spanning two millennia of British history from Julius Caesar’s invasion of Britain in 55BC to the dawn of the 20th century.
Buried in among this work were some wonderful chapters on the history of America, from the voyages of discovery, through the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, right up to the middle of the 20th century. But Churchill’s writings on America remained largely unknown beyond the circle of true aficionados. This is an omission which has been repaired with the publication for the first time in its own right of his history of America, which I have entitled The Great Republic—the name he used with great fondness to refer to the United States, the land of his mother’s birth.
I feel very privileged to have been able to get to know my grandfather on such an intimate and personal basis, for I was 24 before he died. It is impossible not be awestruck by the sheer volume of his lifetime’s output. By the time of his death in 1965, at the age of 90, he had published over fifty volumes of history, biography and speeches. As a talented amateur artist he had painted over 500 canvasses, some of remarkable quality. As a builder, he had built largely with his own hands three cottages, as well as the massive wall I helped him with and, in between times, he even managed to beat the daylights out of Hitler. His was a remarkable life to which none can hold a candle.
Mr. Churchill is an honorary member of The Churchill Center and Societies and a Churchill Center Trustee and Associate. His latest book is The Great Republic, a comprehensive collection of his grandfather’s writings about America, which was reviewed Finest Hour 104.
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