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Churchill wrote for cash, politics

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SAMUEL Johnson, the 18th-century English author and critic, famously noted that "no man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money." It was an observation Winston Churchill frequently shared.

As Canadian historian Peter Clarke ably demonstrates in this fascinating look at the British wartime prime minister's long career as a author, Churchill wrote for money, a lot of it, beginning with his days as a young lieutenant in the British army.

But he also wrote to enhance his political fortunes and to polish up the family narrative.

The Winston Churchill Society credits him with a total of 43 book-length works in 72 volumes. British-born Clarke, who divides his time between Pender Island, B.C., and the U.K., argues that Churchill's profession was "in an important sense, in literature. His vocation, however, was in politics," and the vision that informed his writing was "essentially political."

By the mid-1930s, Churchill was planning what would become his major work, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, although it would be two decades before it was published.

Churchill's broad vision of the topic gave shape to the "special relationship" that united English-speaking peoples.

The ideological tones of History were sharpened as Hitler came to power, and as Churchill saw them, its emerging themes dealt with the growth of freedom and law, the rights of the individual and the subordination of the state to the fundamental and moral conceptions of the community.

For the British aristocracy of the late 19th century, including Churchill, the term English-speaking peoples was "a populist, radical, plebeian language pitched against the values of Victorian England," Clarke argues.

However, when language was understood as the bearer of customs and culture, it "made the concept of the English-speaking peoples deeper than simply a linguistic category."

It could be applied across racial lines and the narrative could be told "in terms of the institutions and laws that were seen as critical in shaping a community."

In that light, Churchill came around to the concept, and was talking about it by the end of the First World War.

Churchill, who received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1953, was proud of his success as an author. "I have always earned my living by my pen and my tongue," he told a joint session of the British Houses of Parliament on his 80th birthday.

Books, columns and speaking tours were driven by Churchill's urgent need for money to support his opulent lifestyle, and his financial system "depended on mortgaging the future to provide cash flow in the present."

Lord Randolph Churchill, a two-volume filial biography, was Winston Churchill's first major work, and it was the last for which he would do all his own research. The book chronicles life and politics in Britain's upper crust, but filial piety, Clarke says, blinded Winston to the crucial limitations of his father.

Marlborough: His Life and Times was a major biography of John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough. His military genius was widely acknowledged, but Clarke notes he was portrayed by historians as "an unscrupulous opportunist, ready to betray king and country in serving his own career." It was this stain on his family's honour which Churchill sought to extirpate.

Later, Churchill drew the major themes of his Second World War rhetoric -- unity through alliance and death to continental tyrants -- from Marlborough.

Writing about British history is clearly in Clarke's comfort zone. His previous works include The Last Thousand Days of the British Empire, two books on famed economist John Maynard Keynes and his theories, and the acclaimed Hope and Glory, Britain 1900-2000.

His approach to Mr. Churchill's Profession is that of a storyteller with a high regard for history. The book is sprinkled with, but not burdened by, salacious nuggets, well-turned phrases and of course, memorable quotes from Churchill himself. There is enough here to satisfy both the lay reader and historian.

Gordon Arnold recently retired as a Free Press copy editor.

Mr. Churchill's Profession

The Statesman as Author and the Book That Defined the 'Special Relationship'

By Peter Clarke

Bloomsbury, 352 pages, $34.50

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 23, 2012 J8

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