Brit Books: Mr. Churchill’s Profession by Peter Clarke

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The story of Winston Churchill is generally well-known – the courageous leader that led Britain through the dark days of World War II to victory. But what many people don’t realize is that this was but a blip in his life and in actually he considered himself a professional writer for most of his life.

That’s the subject of Mr. Churchill’s Profession by historian Peter Clarke. Churchill started writing very young and when it became a viable income source for him – his adventures abroad as a soldier made him famous – he dedicated himself to becoming a writer. He found that it was the one thing that could support his desire for ‘the good life.’ Being a soldier cost him money but it was his first source of material for his first few books.

Throughout Churchill’s life, he had two vocations, writing and politics. Occasionally the two conflicted – but when he was young he would spend his days working in government and his evenings writing giant works of literature (like his account of World War I). He had a varied career in writing and wrote on the subjects of Africa, Indian, World War I, his forbear the Duke of Marlborough, to a history of the English-Speaking Peoples and his personal account of World War II. It’s quite a portfolio of works.

Much of the book is dedicated to his composition of Marlborough: His Life and Times, which was his tribute to the first Churchill to make a name for himself (most notably at the Battle of Blenheim). This work consumed him and he spent most of the 1930’s (and continually pushing back delivery of the work) composing it – to the point where it exceeded 1 million words.

Peter Clarke goes into detail about the nitty-gritty of how Churchill got all of this work done. He talks about Churchill’s writing habits as well as how Churchill managed his various income streams. One thing is clear – he was a machine in his prime, churning out work after work – because he had to in order to keep the lights on.

There are some interesting lines of inquiry in the book at well. Churchill’s battles with the tax authorities are surprisingly interesting as he sought to maximize his earning and keep most of it out of the government’s hands. At one point Churchill had to officially retire from writing in order to avoid most of his earnings from the profession being seized by the taxman. His tax troubles improved after World War II when he got a bit of a pass and moved all his literary assets into a trust (which then paid him an income like a traditional company). When it came to dealing with publishers, it was a case of Churchill always over promising and over delivering – leading to multiple publishers pulling their hair out and wondering if they would ever get their contracted books.

Another interesting aspect of his work is actually how much of Churchill’s works he actually didn’t write. When writing most of his later works, he was aided by a staff of secretaries, historians and experts. Many would outline the works for him and he’d simply dictate into his own style. One of his final works, The History of the English Speaking Peoples, was mostly written before World War II but was not finished until nearly 20 years later, when he was too old to finish it properly and it had to be completed by this staff. It’s interesting to think that Churchill was one of the first major literary brands.

The book does get a bit tedious at times – there’s a very large section of the book dedicated to defining the ‘English Speaking Peoples’ and its history and how it came to Churchill’s tongue. While mildly interesting, it was a bit distracting. There’s also a major omission – the author doesn’t really cover the composition of Churchill’s WWII memoirs because this was already done in another book (which I’d now like to read).

The central argument of the book is that Churchill could not have been the leader that he was if it had not been for his career in writing. He had a way with words and that was necessary for his famous WWII speeches. Churchill often said that if he was only remembered as a writer, he’d be happy. It’s really rather inspirational and really makes me want to improve my own writing. I really enjoyed this different aspect of Churchill’s life, framed in the major events of the 20th century and I highly recommend it for the Churchill enthusiasts.