It was lockdown, and I was short of a book to read. One night I picked up the fat paperback volume of letters that I had ordered from Amazon (yes, I know, but where else could I buy a 1999 paperback in twenty-four hours in the panicky first weeks of the pandemic?). The book was Speaking for Themselves: The Personal Letters of Winston and Clementine Churchill; I thought it might be useful research for my biography of King George V. To my surprise, I was gripped. During those early weeks of London lockdown, I clung to the certainty of routine: long walks through the haunted, empty streets of Mayfair or Westminster, sneaking in two walks a day because of my dog, the weekly socially distanced supermarket queue and, at the end of those strange housebound days, looking forward to my bedtime ration of Churchill letters.
Churchill was a stunningly prolific writer. An article such as I am writing now of 1,800 words, which is long by our standards, he would toss off in a couple of hours. According to an American website, he wrote an estimated 20 million words in his lifetime. A very large proportion of the words he wrote are about himself, even the books purporting to be historical. Of The World Crisis, Churchill’s history of the First World War, A. J. Balfour observed that it was ‘Winston’s brilliant autobiography, disguised as a history of the universe’. The eight volumes of the official Churchill biography by Martin Gilbert total 3 million words, and these volumes of biography were accompanied by twenty-three companion volumes of printed documents and letters, which add another 12 million words.
The effect of all these millions of published words is to bury Churchill, making him less accessible rather than more so. No one today is going to plough through all eight volumes of
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