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Winnie was a rogue

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VANCOUVER -- I'm not as young as I look. So readers will be surprised to learn that I well recall, as a boy, the astonishment in Canada when British voters quickly dumped Prime Minister Winston Churchill in July 1945, before the Pacific War ended, 67 years ago this week.

Inexplicable ingratitude toward the man voted the greatest Englishman ever, the leader who rallied Britain in the darkest days of 1940, even cast as saviour of Western civilization? Anglo-Canadians couldn't believe it.

But as recent historians have argued, under the mythology of Britons' valiant wartime unity, the working class despised Tory privilege, and the war only delayed political expression of their hostility. As soon as voters had the opportunity to dump Churchill, they dumped.

It would seem Churchill has been biography-ed to the max. What more is there to say? But a recent tome, surely soon to come to a library near you, takes the original tack of opening up Churchill's personal finances. It is not a pretty sight.

 

It seems Churchill had an alarmingly dodgy side, "sinuously" escaped paying taxes he'd instituted himself as chancellor of the exchequer and flatly diddled some publishers out of their copyright holdings -- possibly elevating him to Saint Getting One Back among authors, apparently a sizable throng, who despise their publishers.

Churchill was a sort of one-man Ponzi scheme in which he was both con man and victim. His habit was "mortgaging the future to provide cash flow in the present" for his colossal extravagance, historian Peter Clarke writes in Mr. Churchill's Profession: Statesman, Orator, Writer, reviewed by Geoffrey Wheatcroft in the Times Literary Supplement last month.

Churchill's "regrettable" son Randolph jested he had been born of "poor but honest parents." The "poor" was ridiculous, but "even 'honest' is debatable," Wheatcroft concludes.

Overshadowed by his "very well, alone" triumph over Hitler, "The thing you have to remember is that he was a journalist," Churchill's last surviving child, Lady Soames, remarked. And amazingly fat-fee'd. Aged 24, he covered the Boer War for London's Morning Post for 250 pounds a month, today equivalent to £10,000, more than $15,000.

Churchill suffered not from writer's block, rather writer's diarrhea. He churned out pieces for which he got £333, largely done by an underling whom he paid £25.

Canada was an exceptional lure for Churchill. Historian David Dilks, in The Great Dominion: Winston Churchill in Canada 1900-1954, notes he never went to Australia, New Zealand or other British-linked lands, nor to South Africa after 1900 or India after 1899 -- but nine times to Canada.

In his extensive 1929 visit, he doubtless encountered Canada's real Two Founding Races -- the blackfly and the mosquito. He was exposed to a booklet produced by Winnipeg's Anti-Mosquito Campaign (a work still in progress, if my Winnipeg kin are to be believed). He met "a Mr. Richardson" -- James A. -- "who is the leading grain merchant." He cited the take at the opera house, a formidable $1,150, for a speech in which "I called the town 'Great Britain's Breadshop'; at which they purred." In Vancouver, he imperialistically declared "British Columbia is a wonderful possession," and was an unlikely green: "They cut the great trees, 200 or 300 feet high... The devastation of these beautiful trees was sad to see."

The deep green of the money sort came with his A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, of 20-year gestation. A fair portion of the proceeds went to pay for his legendary drinking. Mike Pearson (Lester B. to stuffy historians) wrote U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson concerning Churchill's 1952 Ottawa visit: "The Old Gentleman was in good form here, but takes, as you no doubt found out, some time and some champagne to reach that form." Champagne commonly was his mid-morning tipple.

Only human after all, naturally he exploited gratitude. He played off publishers "with evasions and prevarications that came close to sharp practice or even deception," Wheatcroft declares.

One publisher, Harrap, had an option on his future work; Churchill sold off film rights to which he had no entitlement. Anyone else -- legal action, for sure. But Harrap surrendered: "It is distasteful to us, whether we are in the right or not, to litigate the matter with a man to whom every one of us is so much indebted."

The acerbic Wheatcroft, author of a tome slamming Labourite Tony Blair, concedes Churchill was a "lovable rogue." This account disturbingly emphasizes the noun.

 

Trevor Lautens lives in West Vancouver, B.C.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 18, 2012 J1

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