Evelyn Waugh, Winston Churchill and Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson, ex-Mayor of London and gadfly without portfolio of the Conservative Party, has written a book about his hero Winston Churchill. Entitled The Churchill Factor, this was published to much acclaim in 2014 and was excerpted in the Daily Telegraph. In the book, Johnson mentions several times Evelyn Waugh’s enmity toward Churchill. Your correspondent, alas, missed this discussion when the book was published, even though a portion of it was included in the Telegraph’s excerpt. But it is mentioned in a recent weblog posting. creating a new opportunity for our consideration. Here is Johnson’s basic position:

There are some people…who may be tempted to dismiss or downplay the virtuosity of Churchill as a writer …. Indeed, he has always had his detractors. Evelyn Waugh, that inveterate Churchill-basher, said he was a “master of sham-Augustan prose”, with “no specific literary talent but a gift of lucid self-expression”. After reading Churchill’s Life of his father Randolph, Waugh dismissed it as a “shifty barrister’s case, not a work of literature”…

Why did Waugh sneer at Churchill’s writings? Notice that he–Waugh–had actually tried to emulate Churchill in the 1930s and got himself sent out to cover a war in Abyssinia. He produced Scoop of course, one of the great stylistic landmarks of the twentieth century. But his reporting had nothing like the same journalistic impact as Churchill’s. Is it that Waugh was just a teensy bit jealous? I think so; and it was not just because Churchill had become so much more famous than Waugh had been, by the time he was twenty five, but that he had made such stupendous sums from writing. And that for most journalists, alas, is the truly sensitive point for comparison

Johnson calls up Waugh’s criticism again to compare his reporting to Churchill’s reports from Malakand and the Sudan:

The reason Churchill has lasted, and the reason his phrases are still on people’s lips, is that he could employ so many styles, not just the pseudo Gibbonian periods [attacked by Waugh], but Anglo-Saxon pith. Some chicken, some neck. We will fight them on the beaches. Blood, toil, tears and sweat, etc. 

Finally, Johnson refers to Waugh’s dismissal of Churchill’s ability to rally the nation:

Here is our old friend Evelyn Waugh taking the opportunity of [Churchill’s] death in 1965 to put the boot in again. ‘Rallied the nation indeed! I was a serving soldier in 1940. How we deplored his orations.’ Churchill was a ‘radio personality’ who had outlived his prime, said Waugh.

Although not mentioned by Johnson, there is an element of ingratitude in Waugh’s positions since Churchill was among those instrumental in securing Waugh a commission in the Royal Marines at a time when the service establishment was inclined to reject him because of his age, if nothing else. And Churchill was at least indirectly responsible for lifting him out of bureaucratic limbo in 1944 by backing Fitzroy McLean’s decision to support the Partisans in Yugoslavia and posting his son Randolph there on a liaison mission, where Waugh joined his staff. A more detailed and balanced account of Waugh’s attitude may be found in the essay by John Howard Wilson on the subject in the 2005 collection edited by Carlos Villar Flor and Robert Murray Davis, Waugh without End. 

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