Title page of the National Churchill Museum manuscript
Finest Hour 176, Spring 2017
An eleven-page essay by Winston Churchill entitled “Are We Alone in the Universe?” in the archives of the National Churchill Museum has developed into an international news story that revealed Churchill was clearly open to the possibility of extra-terrestrial life on other planets.
Churchill drafted his first version of the essay in 1939 and then revised the text slightly in the 1950s. The manuscript of the revised version was among four boxes of materials that were donated to the museum some thirty years ago by Wendy Reves, widow of Churchill literary agent Emery Reves. There it sat unnoticed until its rediscovery last year.
Seeking insights about the validity or the accuracy of Churchill’s astronomical perspective, Timothy Riley, Sandra L. and Monroe E. Trout Director and Chief Curator of the National Churchill Museum, provided the essay to Westminster science faculty as well as renowned astrophysicist Mario Livio, during his Hancock Symposium lecture at Westminster College last fall.
Excitement grew when Livio and the Westminster science faculty expressed great amazement over Churchill’s faith in science and his belief in potential alien life on other planets. Riley gave support to Livio, who wrote an extensive article about the essay for the 16 February 2017 issue of Nature, the prestigious science journal.
The article touched off an avalanche of news stories in the New York Times, USA Today, Washington Post, The Huffington Post, U.S. News and World Report, The Guardian, the South China Morning Post, the Times of Israel, El Universio, and El Diario and was carried by the newsagencies Reuters, Agence France-Press (AFP), AFP Japan, and Xinhua, the official news agency of the People’s Republic of China. And the story continued to grow.
Newsweek, Smithsonian, the Christian Science Monitor, The Independent, The Times of London, and hundreds of other publications began using the news story, followed by regional, national, and international broadcast outlets from NBC and Fox News to NPR and the BBC, as well as Yahoo and dozens of major online news portals worldwide. Read More >
Churchill had an incredibly quick mind, a sharp tongue and a very large vocabulary. He loved playing with words – creating new ones, adapting old ones – and using words to his advantage, quite often at the expense of others (although sometimes at his own, too!) Many of his speeches – and quotes from those speeches – are very well known, but his witticisms, bon mots, jokes and puns are perhaps less well recorded (or often misattributed). Churchill had a mischievous sense of wit. This couldn’t really be called ‘humour’; he wasn’t usually trying to be funny or make people laugh; nor did he tell bawdy or ribald jokes; this wasn’t in his nature. But he did enjoy the neatness and cleverness of a well-placed and carefully judged retort. He didn’t hesitate to use his particular talent with words on others. He had certain ‘sparring partners’ (as Richard Langworth puts it) who prompted him to fire off a quick riposte. Although these might have seemed off the cuff and spontaneous, they were generally carefully rehearsed, words carefully selected for punning potential, stored in his prodigious memory and then released on their unsuspecting recipient at the right moment. In 2013, he topped a poll of ‘history’s funniest insults’. Read more – and see the full list – here. In the Dictionary of Humorous Political Quotations, there’s a Churchill quote on nearly every page. As this journalist said, he’s the last word in political wit.
Churchill wasn’t only interested in writing history, biography and autobiography (with the odd dabbling in fiction and counterfactual fantasy). During his ‘wilderness years’, in the 1930s, Churchill took on the profitable (for him) role as screenwriter and adviser to the Hungarian-born film director Alexander Korda in Hollywood. He even acted as adviser and coach to a potential actor in what was a doomed early film adaptation of T. E. Lawrence’s Revolt in the Desert (Korda had bought the film rights to both this and Seven Pillars of Wisdom, later selling the film rights to Sam Spiegel and the director David Lean who went on to make the award-winning Lawrence of Arabia). Throughout his life, Churchill always read the latest fiction and non-fiction – and not just history. He counted among his friends and acquaintances literary figures of the day such as Somerset Maugham, Gertrude Bell and T. E. Lawrence (‘Lawrence of Arabia’). He’d worked closely with the latter in a professional capacity, while Colonial Secretary in the 1920s – he was just the sort of adventurer that appealed to Churchill – but he also admired his writing. While Churchill shared an interest in the science fiction – although not necessarily the politics – of H. G. Wells, Aldous Huxley and Jules Verne, he didn’t tend to hold back on expressing his opinions of other writers of the day, particularly if their politics didn’t accord with his.
In the 1950s, Churchill devoted more and more time to reading the classics of literature. In 1953, he had been reading Trollope, the Brontes, Hardy and Scot, when he heard in October that he was to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. This wasn’t, as some assume, for his work on The Second World War (the final and sixth volume was to be published in November 1953)but in recognition of his life-long commitment to – and mastery of – the written and spoken word. He was disappointed that it was not the Peace Prize. He was in Bermuda when the prizes were to be presented by the King of Sweden in Stockholm – there was no question which event took precedence – and Clementine accepted the award on his behalf.
Much of his writing was done at Chartwell, the country house he bought in 1922 and then gradually, and at great expense, renovated. You too can see the same desk – and study, library, drawing room – at Chartwell. Downstairs at Chartwell, there’s a room with maps on the wall and a telephone exchange; this is where all his researchers – junior (and less junior) academics from Oxford, research fellows – worked away, day after day, searching out nuggets of information and documents, looking for material for Churchill to weave into his books. Over sixty thousand books to supplement their research were housed in the Library, its towering shelves laden with volumes. Churchill used a special table – an upright desk – built to his design, for checking his drafts, for making all those changes that enhanced his writing and his speech-making; polishing them, incorporating all his favourite words and phrases, always with an eye – and an ear – for the most powerful and emotive emphasis and effect. See Boris Johnson’s The Churchill Factor, particularly Chapter 6, ‘The Great Dictator’, where he points out that Churchill produced not only more words than Charles Dickens, or more words than Shakespeare – but more than both of them put together!
Shortly after his return from Fulton in 1946, Churchill began to write his war memoirs. With a team of researchers beavering away on his behalf, he had a very ordered (if somewhat laborious) approach to drafting and editing. He would pull together all his documents (or get his researchers to pull them together) – minutes, telegrams, letters – and then would track down material from other sources, too. Churchill would then begin to draft the text which would link all the documents together, dictating to a team of secretaries, often late into the night. Just as he did with all his speeches, he’d check drafts, check proofs, marking them up at each stage with copious corrections, determined to get the right word, the right phrase. Despite such a laborious process (or perhaps because of it), The Second World War appeared relatively quickly, in six volumes, between 1948 and 1954. Churchill never claimed the memoirs were ‘history’; they were rather a contribution to history. Although their very breadth and coverage gave the impression that they were a definitive account, there were omissions, of course. The Second World War was Churchill’s interpretation of the events, the work of a man seeking to place his role in the war – and in history. The books sold well, with a combined first printing of over 800,000 copies.
He took on paid lecture tours, writing books and popular newspaper articles (he had, after all, been one of the highest paid war correspondents in the world to supplement his income and to ensure he could still buy plenty of Pol Roger Champagne.
He even turned his ‘New York Misadventure’ – when he was seriously injured while in New York in December 1931 – into a story. Having been knocked down by a car when stepping off a pavement to cross busy Fifth Avenue, he then dictated a thousand words from his hospital bed for two newspaper articles under the headings ‘I was conscious through it all’ and ‘My New York Misadventure’.
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Churchill was now firmly established as a successful journalist and writer. He was commissioned, in 1903, to write a biography of his father, Lord Randolph, with an advance of £8000 – a very healthy sum. With remarkable speed, he produced two volumes and they were published in 1906. Most reviews were positive, admiring the style and Churchill’s unbiased approach but some weren’t impressed. Over the next few decades, he wrote another biography (of Marlborough, his illustrious ancestor, in four volumes), two volumes of autobiography (My African Journey, My Early Life) and three massive histories (The World Crisis, The Second World War, and A History of the English-Speaking Peoples). My African Journey (1908): a hunting expedition to east Africa in the autumn of 1907 turned into an enquiry into colonial affairs and resulted in a series of articles for the Pall Mall Gazette, which were later turned into his only travelogue (1908). The World Crisis (1923–31): Churchill’s memoirs covering the years 1911–1928. In October 1922, when Churchill was out of Parliament for the first time in twenty-two years (apart from a few weeks in 1908), he took up writing again and embarked on his mammoth history of the First World War (and the pre- and post-war years), The World Crisis. It was published in 5 parts or volumes (in six books; confusingly, one ‘volume’ was spread over two books) over the years 1923 to 1931.
Churchill travelled to India with his regiment to fight against Pathan and Afghan tribesmen on the North-West frontier, armed with a contract as a war correspondent for the Daily Telegraph. The campaign became the topic of Churchill’s first book, published in March 1898 – The Story of the Malakand Field Force. Then in 1895, Churchill managed to obtain a temporary commission as a Lieutenant with the 21st Lancers to the Sudan, while again also serving as a war correspondent, this time for the Morning Post. He later turned his news reports into a surprisingly sympathetic two-volume account in The River War (1899). In 1899, after a brief return to England and having left the army, the Boer War broke out and Churchill headed off again, with another assignment from the Morning Post.
Churchill had a great gift with words. His speeches clearly demonstrate that. But he was also a prolific writer of books and articles; in his lifetime, he published more than forty books in sixty volumes, as well as hundreds of articles. The total now stands at fifty-one individual works (eleven posthumous) in eighty volumes (twenty-one posthumous). During his lifetime, he was a celebrated – and very well-paid – journalist and a very successful author. In 1953 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for his contribution to the written and spoken word. How did someone who purportedly wasn’t much of a student at school, manage to become so well known, so widely read and so highly regarded as a writer? For ‘trivia’ about Churchill’s literary life, see this article in Finest Hour. For a full list of all Churchill’s books, and a brief description of each, see the same site here. A comprehensive selection of Churchill’s books – first editions, quality second-hand – as well as books about Churchill, visit Chartwell Booksellers, the independent bookstore in New York, the only physical bookshop devoted to his writings.
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The largest collection of Churchill’s speeches – made in the House of Commons between 1901 and 1955 – are to be found in Hansard (the verbatim record of all debates in Parliament). Many of Churchill’s speeches were collected together and published in book form either shortly after he gave them – he was always keen to capitalise on his writing through publishing – or over the subsequent years.
Shortly after his return from Fulton, Churchill began to write his war memoirs. With a team of researchers working on his behalf, and a very ordered (if somewhat laborious) approach to drafting and editing, he soon had the first volume finished. appeared in six volumes between 1948 and 1954.
Churchill never claimed the memoirs were ‘history’; they were rather a contribution to history. Although their very breadth and coverage gave the impression that they were a definitive account, there were omissions, of course. was Churchill’s interpretation of the events, the work of a man seeking to place his role in the war – and in history. The books sold well, with a combined first printing of over 800,000 copies.
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By his twenty-fifth birthday, in November 1899, Churchill had published two books based on his newspaper assignments (The Story of the Malakand Field Force and The River War), had a novel appearing in serial form (Savrola, in Macmillan’s Magazine between May and December 1899) and had become the highest paid journalist in the world. By the end of 1900, with Savrola, his first (and only) novel, London to Ladysmith and Ian Hamilton’s March all publishing in that year, his total of published books was five.
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The American novelist was, in fact, famous earlier and much better known that his British counterpart; his novel Richard Carvel (1899) sold around two million copies. Later novels, The Crisis (1901) and The Crossing (1904) were also very popular. The two are still occasionally confused, mostly by sellers of second-hand books (having ‘Churchill’ as the author of books with similar titles – The Crisis and The World Crisis – doesn’t help).
Interestingly, both Churchills shared a lot in common; both had political careers, both were noted amateur painters, both attended military colleges and served (during the same period) as officers in the armed forces (the American Churchill was in the navy).
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I have consistently urged my friends to abstain from reading it.
Churchill, My Early Life, writing about his only novel Savrola
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