As I Knew Him: Churchill in the Wilderness Churchill Society International Convention

By Dr Maurice Ashley CBE

Proceedings of the International Churchill Societies 1988-89

London, England, 19 August 1989

NEXT year it will be twenty-five years since Sir Winston Churchill died. The British Broadcasting Corporation is preparing a three-part documentary to be shown on television to commemorate his wonderful life. I remember paying my respects at his lying in state. With the help of a member of the Government I did not have to join the queue of 300,000 people who entered Westminster Hall to circulate around the catafalque. His funeral was a deeply moving ceremony. But it is now sixty years since I first met him and worked for him. I must he one of the very few people still alive who knew him’ intimately at that time, which is sometimes described as his days in the wilderness. Baroness Soames was then a child- all I can remember of her then was that she was having riding lessons.

I was twenty-two years old at the time. I had just taken a first-class degree in modern history and won several prizes and was anxious to become financially independent of my parents. I had managed to obtain two or three research grants, but they were not enough to live on. During the summer I received a letter from Keith Feiling, who was a Student, that is to say Fellow of Christ Church, telling me that Winston Churchill was looking for a part-time research assistant for a book he was planning to write about his ancestor, the first Duke of Marlborough.

I was then a keen young socialist and had been both secretary and chairman of the Oxford University Labour Club. The name of Churchill was an anathema to me because we young socialists believed that Churchill was chiefly responsible for crushing the General Strike of 1926, called on behalf of the coal miners. As a matter of fact, as we now know, Churchill was sympathetic to the claims of the miners, who were then paid a pitiful wage, and he did not care for the coal-owners. He would have liked minimum wages to be guaranteed-to the miners and a limitation imposed on the profits of the owners, but he was overruled by the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin.

At any rate, after thinking the matter over, I changed my mind: after all Churchill was a famous man – and I needed some money. I was invited to meet Churchill at a luncheon in the rooms of Professor Lindemann, later Lord Cherwell, a close friend of Churchill. There was no interview. Churchill sat by me on a sofa and said: “I hear you are going to work for me.” Lindemann asked Churchill if he would like Champagne for his lunch. Churchill replied, “I always have beer for lunch.”

Soon I was invited to stay at Chartwell, Churchill’s country home. It was a revelation for me as a middle-class youth to move into this semi-aristocratic atmosphere. Churchill said to me: “I always dress for dinner.” This was not strictly true – he certainly did not do so when he was in Africa. However, there it was. A valet laid out my clothes. Before dinner we had sherry, then Champagne, brandy and port. During the night I was violently sick. On the following evening at dinner I refused the port. “Ah!,” said Churchill, “I have some excellent Madeira.” Afterwards, whenever I dined at Chartwell, Churchill would say: “Ashley likes Madeira.”

Another instance of his consideration related to tobacco. He did not like the smoking of Virginian cigarettes or pipes about his house, although when a very distinguished guest insisted on smoking a pipe he had to put up with it. Boxes of Turkish or Egyptian cigarettes lay about the place and of course there were boxes of cigars, usually Corona Coronas. He told me- “Help yourself to a cigar whenever you feel like it.” I did not often do so, but once when I did, it went out and I started to relight it in his presence. He said firmly, “Never relight a cigar, take another one.”

Much has been written about Churchill’s own drinking habits. When I used to visit him in the morning at a flat he had in Morpeth Mansions near Victoria, he always greeted me with a glass of sherry. He could not stand cocktails. For lunch there was beer, at tea he had whisky. But his whiskys and sodas were pretty mild. In Martin Gilbert’s biography I think there is only one reference to his having been intoxicated, for of course he had an excellent head. He is reputed once to have said, “I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.”

A typical day when Churchill was working at Chartwell began with his taking breakfast in bed. There he read his newspapers and letters and would dictate answers and directions to one of his secretaries (two were usually on duty during the day). Then he went into the garden to engage in building and other activities. He came in around twelve o’clock and I was called in to help with work on his book on Marlborough. Usually this consisted in my showing him letters I had copied out at Blenheim Palace, and giving him passages I had marked in books I had bought for him at a shop he had long patronized near Charing Cross. After lunch he returned to the garden again. Later he worked until he bathed and changed for dinner.

After dinner, which usually lasted two hours from 8:30 to 10:30, he would join the ladies, who had long since left the table. Over the port and cigars the conversation generally consisted of a monologue. I was once there when a son of President Roosevelt was a guest. For his benefit Churchill gave us an explanation of the working of the American Constitution, a feat that amused me. Sometimes he quoted poetry that he had learned at Harrow school, or even sang a little. But he was never a bore, invariably witty and entertaining. Some writers have claimed that he had wit but not humour. However, he could certainly see a joke against himself.

After dinner Churchill regularly played two games of backgammon with his wife. Then about ten o’clock at night we mounted the stairs to his bedroom and so far as I was concerned the day’s work really began. We were accompanied by Mrs. Violet Pearman, his chief secretary. Churchill would march up and down dictating part of a chapter of his book on Marlborough. He loved to get something down on paper. In fact he dictated what were to be the first pages of the book before he knew hardly anything about Marlborough at all. They were soon torn up. My job was to supply him with facts, or to correct the facts he included in his narrative. But he did not care for criticisms of the opinions he delivered as he strode about the room. He did listen to them, and usually next day he would scrap what he dictated if he realized it would not hold water.

At about two in the morning Mrs. Pearman was allowed to go home after Churchill himself had telephoned for a hired car to take her there. Then we would settle down to more talk about Marlborough and his times. With luck I was allowed to go to bed about 3 A.M. I noticed in Arthur Bryant’s book on Sir Alan Brooke, who was chairman of the Chiefs of Staff committee during the second world war, that he got irritated by Churchill’s habit of keeping him up until three in the morning, expatiating on ideas about strategy, which he would usually abandon on the following day.

After I left him Churchill would read in bed, contenting himself with only about four hours steep. At the end of a day he would say typically, “I laid about 200 bricks and have written 2,000 words.” Actually since he regularly dictated newspaper or magazine articles – sometimes while he was being driven up to Westminster in his car – he could produce even more words than that in the course of a day.

Churchill in fact made vast sums of money by writing. In those days he would be paid about £400 for an article. Indeed he claimed that he earned £20,000 a year by writing. I suppose you could multiply that at least ten times for a modern equivalent. He needed to earn that much because of the cost of educating and helping his children and keeping up Chartwell, which was costly. During 1929 he lost a lot of money owing to the crash of the New York stock market. He received an advance of £20,000 for Marlborough. In the four years I was with him he produced three other books besides the first volume of Marlborough: The Aftermath, My Early Life and The Eastern Front. Shortly afterwards he put together a book of articles entitled Great Contemporaries.

Thus he was making a good deal of money by writing in the years before the war when he had ceased to be a Cabinet Minister, but he was of course absorbed at the same time upon his campaigns against giving India full Dominion status and for rearmament in view of the rise of Hitler – so his output was astonishing. But for a time he was seriously in debt. So urgent was his need for money that he managed to draft the entire manuscript of a book for which he had signed a contract with the firm of Cassell on the history of the English-speaking peoples, and was to be paid £15,000 on completion.

After the war he was able to scrap this draft and start all over again: For by then his world fame enabled him to sell everything he wrote at a high price, and he acquired an agent who made a fortune for him. But when I worked for him he needed the patronage of newspaper proprietors like Lord Beaverbrook and Lord Rothermere; and the intervention of Brendan Bracken, another newspaper proprietor, to accumulate the income he needed for his lavish style of life.

During the years I worked for Churchill he broke with the Conservative party over the Government’s policy on India. Mind you, he was absolutely right in forecasting that the price of independence would be the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of lives. But after the war he admitted that he had been otherwise wrong over India. He was also strongly opposed during the 1930s to the introduction of a protective tariff on imports, especially if this involved taxing food or raw materials. So in January 1930 he resigned from the Shadow Cabinet and was virtually ostracized by most leaders of the Conservative party. When I was at Chartwell only Robert Boothby and one other Member of Parliament visited him there.

Churchill’s friends were nearly all extraordinary – I might even say eccentric – characters. They included Lord Birkenhead, who died in 193O; David Lloyd George; Lord Beaverbrook; T.E. Lawrence; Professor Lindemann, later Lord Cherwell; and Brendan Bracken, M.P. I think Beaverbrook (who once entertained me to lunch in his penthouse above St James’s Park and repeated everything I said to him into a dictaphone) treated Churchill extremely badly – especially during the war when he kept on threatening to resign from his Government. He once wrongly said before the war that Churchill was “a busted flush” – a ludicrous forecast.

Lindemann, when he was appointed to his professorship at Oxford, was expected to be an outstanding experimental physicist like Rutherford. I found him both a bore and a toady. He fed himself on whites of egg and stewed apple, which was tiresome for his hosts and hostesses; otherwise there was nothing he was not prepared to do to ingratiate himself with British society leaders of his time. A German by birth with inherited wealth, he was the only don in my time who possessed a smart motor car and a chauffeur.

Brendan Bracken, who was certainly not Churchill’s son as had been imagined was, I thought, conceited and ill-mannered. T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) was of course an incredible character. I was breakfasting by myself at Chartwell one morning when what appeared to be a youngish airman came into the room and said to my astonishment, “Where’s Winston?” Afterwards he stayed the night and discussed the rise of Socialism in Germany with Churchill into the small hours. Lloyd George, who was already an old man, nevertheless took the trouble to climb up the stairs in the nursing home where Churchill was confined following the accident he had in New York. Despite their political Differences they were always close friends.

Of Churchill’s other friends at the time the one I met and liked best was Robert Boothby, then a stockbroker. I remember asking him how far politics entered into stockbrokering, and he answered about 90 percent. It was sad that Churchill had to break with him. I spoke to Boothby once or twice before he died. His belief was that Churchill’s overwhelming interest had been warfare and therefore – after the invention of the atomic bomb, which made future warfare in Europe horrific and unthinkable – his death marked the end of an era. Boothby also considered that Churchill had stayed in office too long. But when he was young, Boothby was devoted to him.

Churchill believed that his private life and those of others ought to be scrupulously respected. I remember that when I discovered letters that the first Duke of Marlborough had written to his wife, Sarah, before the battle of Blenheim, in which he rejected her accusations that he had been unfaithful to her, Churchill was at first extremely reluctant print them, though in fact he did so.

When Churchill completed his book on his early life, extracts from it were bought by the News-Chronicle, a newspaper now defunct, for serialization. Tom Clarke, then the editor of the News-Chronicle, came to Chartwell and brought with him his son (uninvited). I was present when a conversation took place before lunch. Afterwards Churchill, who naturally assumed that the conversation was private, was furious to find a version of it, not entirely accurate, published on the front page of the paper on the following morning. In his private life Churchill was always straightforward about everything. When he conversed with me he took it for granted – rightly – that I would not reveal anything he said to me in confidence. I never did so until after his death. I notice that Sir John Colville, who knew him extremely well, wrote that discretion did not enter into his conversation.

In my book, Churchill as Historian, which I wrote during the year after hedied, I aired my opinions about his writing. I have not changed them since. His skill in describing military events and disentangling politics was outstanding. So were the sketches he wrote about the characters of people he had once met. His Marlborough turned out to be a powerful book. He always aimed to be readable, which is not a characteristic of most academic historians, who usually write to be read by each other. He once said to me: “I aim to give the reader a good ride.” But of course that is the journalistic approach. He never had the time – except when he wrote the life of his father – to master, analyze and compare all the sources himself. On the whole, he was what one may call a narrative historian rather than an analytical historian. Although in his Marlborough he launched a fierce attack on Lord Macaulay for his view of the Duke in Macaulay’s History of England, in fact he himself followed Macaulay too closely in his account of the English political scene during the period about which he was writing.

While Churchill dictated all his books himself and wrote and rewrote everything in proof, the terrific speed at which he worked meant that he did not always have the time to give the fullest consideration to all the relevant factors and all the latest academic arguments. His books in fact represent a marriage between his gift for oratory and his organizing genius. What I think is most likely to survive is the autobiographical matter in his books. Anyone who in the future writes about the two world wars, as Martin Gilbert has recently done, will need to take this into the fullest account.

Clementine Churchill once remarked to Lord Moran about her husband: “You probably don’t realize, Charles, that he knows nothing of the life of ordinary people. He’s never been in a bus and only once on the underground.” Taking this as their text, some commentators on Churchill have suggested that he was indifferent to the lot of ordinary people, even those who worked for him. A.J.P. Taylor has written that he was an “atrocious” employer. A reviewer of William Manchester’s book, The Lion Caged, deduced that he treated his research assistants and secretaries badly and underpaid them. That was certainly not my own experience nor my own impression. He paid me £300 a year on a half-time basis and later raised my salary to £400 a year. When I was with him I applied for a lectureship in history at Reading University: the pay offered was £250 a year and there were a hundred applicants for the post. Later when I joined the Manchester Guardian as a lead-writer I was paid £5 a week.

He always treated me with the utmost consideration, almost as an equal. He admired scholars with a university education and always regretted that he had not been to a university himself. In fact, he confessed that the only reason he did not do so when he returned from Africa was because it meant his having to master Latin.

His secretaries, when I was with him, adored him. They knew he was temperamental and could be annoying, but they recognized that he valued their work and could show consideration. Violet Pearman, then his chief secretary, was devoted to him. When she was taken ill he gave her work to do at home and he gave her daughter money after she died. Other secretaries received paintings, which they were able to sell at a high price, which gave them comfort when they retired. When I was with him his chauffeur had a wife who was dying of tuberculosis; so Churchill never expected him to work in the evenings.

My own impression is that Churchill was perfectly well aware of the difficulties of ordinary people. That was why he was sympathetic to the coal miners – who in my young days were grossly under paid – and to the unemployed. He was, as I have said already, strongly opposed to taxes on imported food as a burden upon the poor.

With Lloyd George Churchill had been one of the pioneers of the Welfare State. He was an admirer of Sir William Beveridge, later Lord Beveridge. In 1943 he read Beveridge’s celebrated report on social insurance (Beveridge himself repudiated the phrase “Welfare State,” but we are stuck with it) and noted that the approach to social security constituted “an essential part of any postwar scheme of social betterment.” Admittedly he was doubtful – rightly, I think – about its ultimate cost; and also he was anxious that the war should be won first before engaging on so radical a commitment of large dimensions. Moreover. it should be remembered that it was Churchill who discovered Beveridge in the first place – or at any rate persuaded him to take an active part in public administration.

This relationship goes back a long way. When, in 1908, Churchill was President of the Board of Trade, he was responsible for the introduction of labour exchanges and trade boards, later to be known as wage councils. The first were aimed at reducing unemployment and the second at raising wages in the poorest paid industries. He also envisaged a scheme of unemployment insurance which Lloyd George was to initiate in 1911. Churchill appointed Beveridge Director of Labour Exchanges after they were first established.

I used to play bridge at the Reform Club with Lord Beveridge. He was an extremely conceited man, not easy to get on with. I think he was one of those eccentric characters whom Churchill admired, like Lord Cherwell and Lord Beaverbrook. My father, who was a civil servant at the Board of Trade at the time, always maintained that of all the Presidents for whom he worked, Churchill was the best. The French historian Halvy described him as a “great social reformer” and Beatrice Webb, who was the wife of a future President of the Board of Trade in a Labour Government, hailed him as a great radical leader.

I stress this point because I retain a clear impression, even as a young Socialist when I knew Churchill, that although he did not travel in buses or underground trains he was entirely sympathetic to, and eager to assist, the needs of ordinary people.

The fact is – it is obvious enough when you come to think about it – that Churchill, although he in the end became the elected leader of the Conservative party, was never really a party man. He began his political career as a Conservative; in 19O4 he became a Liberal. After the First World War when a Labour Government took office for the first time, he stood as an Independent anti-Socialist; next in 1924 he called himself a Constitutionalist. Then, after being appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer by Stanley Baldwin; he became an official Conservative again. Yet he had broken with the Conservative Party, as I have said, before the Second World War began. Indeed he invariably adopted an independent point of view on many questions, and was never a slave to party. When he helped to lay the foundations of a Welfare State he served a Prime Minister – Asquith – who had little enthusiasm for it. I certainly learned from my association with Churchill that he held what I might call liberal views – liberal with a small ‘I’ – except over India.

Even with regard to India he may have been ambivalent. After I ceased working for him I joined the staff of the newspaper then known as the Manchester Guardian. During the course of his Indian campaign Churchill came up to Manchester and gave a luncheon party at the Midland Hotel, to which he invited me. He sat me next to him and talked to me quite a lot. I received the distinct impression that he did not much care for the cotton magnates who were his other guests, as they were only interested in India as a market for their wares.

We all know that Churchill was a splendid orator and a courageous and inspiring war leader. In general I think his dominant characteristics were these: his genius as an administrator, his capacity for hard work and his magnanimity of mind.

The art of administration is often misunderstood and is certainly difficult to master; yet Churchill had it at his finger-tips. Chiefly it consists of remembering to do the right things at the right time. Of course Churchill had a remarkable memory. When I worked for him he often repeated things that I had said to him earlier which I had completely forgotten; naturally I found that extremely embarrassing! One small instance of his administrative ability I may mention. He realized that the letters published in The Times newspaper in those days were one of the most useful forms of publicity, but they were generally less interesting on a Monday than on other days of the week. That was because there was no Sunday postal delivery – or only one; I forget which – and of course the editorial staff did not work on Saturdays and came in late on Sundays. So they were delighted to discover anything written by a well-known figure to head the correspondence column. Therefore when Churchill wanted to get a letter printed prominently in The Times, he would send it up to be delivered by hand at the newspaper’s offices on a Sunday afternoon. This practice was always a success!

Churchill’s capacity for hard and fast work was fantastic. As I have already mentioned, when I was with him he would spend as much as five hours a day in the garden at Chartwell building wall after wall, occasionally painting, feeding the ducks, walking around the estate, supervising the work done there. Then he would spend two hours over dinner, ceaselessly talking. Yet each day he got through an enormous amount of work, reading and dictating. All his correspondence was scrupulously filed: that made the labour of his biographers much easier than it might otherwise have been.

I am sure anyone who has studied Churchill’s life carefully will agree that magnanimity was his most honourable characteristic. He did not seem to me to have any violent likes or dislikes, though naturally he had his preferences. I once asked him what he thought of Aneurin Bevan as a Labour Party leader; he told me he thought that Sir Stafford Cripps was a much more dangerous opponent. He invited Cripps, like the trade union leader Ernest Bevin, to join his administration during the Second World War. But it was astonishing, when you come to think of it, that he invited Neville Chamberlain, whose foreign policy and failure to rearm early enough he had strongly criticized, to be a member of his War Cabinet. And he found employment for others like Lord Halifax and Sir Samuel Hoare, whose political conduct he did not much admire. I find it hard to imagine Mrs. Thatcher displaying such magnanimity.

Looking back, I do not think I served him particularly well except in conscientiously copying out in longhand the unpublished letters of the first Duke of Marlborough, which I found in Blenheim Palace. But I am sure he would have gone on employing me if I had not had the urge to find a steadier job. In all his political career and all his writing Churchill invariably took a magnanimous view. That was demonstrated in his attitude to the Boers, to the Treaty of Versailles, even to the ordinary German people after the end of the Second World War. He possessed a generosity of mind and spirit I have experienced in no other man. I am proud once to have known him.


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