Inventing Secularism: The Radical Life of George Jacob Holyoake


Jailed for atheism and disowned by his family, George Jacob Holyoake came out of an English prison at the age of 25 determined to bring an end to religion’s control over daily life. This first modern biography of the founder of Secularism describes a transformative figure whose controversial and conflict-filled life helped shape the modern world. Ever on the front lines of social reform, Holyoake was hailed for having won “the freedoms we take for granted today.” With Secularism now under siege, George Holyoake’s vision of a “virtuous society” rings today with renewed clarity.

The Paris Game: Charles de Gaulle, the Liberation of Paris, and the Gamble That Won France


Amid the ravages of a world war, three men — a general, a president, and a prime minister — are locked in a rivalry that threatens their partnership and puts the world’s most celebrated city at risk of destruction before it can be liberated. This is the setting of The Paris Game, a dramatic recounting of how an obscure French general under sentence of death by his government launches on the most enormous gamble of his life: to fight on alone after his country’s capitulation to Nazi Germany. In a game of intrigue and double-dealing, Charles de Gaulle must struggle to retain the loyalty of Winston Churchill against the unforgiving opposition of Franklin Roosevelt and the traitorous manoeuvring of a collaborationist Vichy France. How he succeeds in restoring the honour of France and securing its place as a world power is the stuff of raw history, both stirring and engrossing.

Joey Smallwood: Schemer and Dreamer


Known as the “only living Father of Confederation” in his lifetime, Joey Smallwood was an entertaining, crafty, and controversial politician in Canada for decades.Born in Gambo, Newfoundland, Joseph (“Joey”) Smallwood (1900–1991) spent his life championing the worth and potential of his native province. Although he was a successful journalist and radio personality, Smallwood is best known for his role in bringing Newfoundland into Confederation with Canada in 1949, believing that such an action would secure an average standard of living for Newfoundlanders. He was rightfully dubbed the “only living Father of Confederation” in his lifetime and was premier of the province for twenty-three years.
In Joey Smallwood: Schemer and Dreamer, Ray Argyle reexamines the life of this incredible figure in light of Newfoundland’s progress in recent years.

Scott Joplin and the Age of Ragtime


At the turn of the twentieth century, Scott Joplin struggled on the margins of society to play a pivotal role in the creation of ragtime music. His brief life and tragic death encompassed a tumultuous time of changes in modern music, culture, and technology. This biography follows Joplin’s life from the brothels and bars of St. Louis to the music mills of Tin Pan Alley as he introduced a syncopated, lively style to classical piano.

The Boy in the Picture


Edward Mallandaine was there! To prove it he thrust himself into the historic photograph of the “Last Spike” being driven to mark the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Surrounded by the railway dignitaries of the time, his young face peers out amid their frosty beards. Edward had just turned eighteen when he left his home in Victoria, British Columbia, to join the Canadian militia to fight Louis Riel in the North-West Rebellion of 1885. Hired to ride dispatches over the unfinished stretch of railway in British Columbia, he survives the lawlessness of remote towns and railway camps, rubs shoulders with Chinese labourers struggling to blast a right-of-way through the towering peaks of Eagle Pass, and makes a freezing midnight ride by railway flatcar to reach the outpost of Craigellachie just in time.

Turning Points: The Campaigns That Changed Canada

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The dramatic political events of 2011 — the election of a Conservative majority government after seven years of minority rule — sent Canadian politics hurtling in a new and unpredictable direction. The drama of one of the most exciting elections in Canadian history is captured in this revised and updated edition of Turning Points: the Campaigns That Changed Canada. The new edition retains the original chapters that dissect the pivotal campaigns that have affected Canadians since Confederation, with a new first chapter on the May 2 federal election.

Kennedy After Dallas; A Virtual History

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What if John F. Kennedy had survived Dallas on November 22, 1963? Fifty years after the assassination of the President, this book employs the technique of “virtual history” to examine the dramatically different course of events that would have followed if JFK had escaped death on that fateful day.

An Act of Injustice


A bride, a groom, and a lover. One will die, another will hang, and the survivor will begin an obsessive 20-year odyssey to discover the truth. Three people caught up in the harsh class differences and religious and racial prejudices of Victorian Canada, where a vast new territory—the “Queen’s Bush”—is being opened to settlement in Ontario’s Georgian Bay country. Inspired by the true lives of Rosannah Leppard and Cook Teets, An Act of Injustice follows disgruntled newspaperman Leonard Babington in a combination courtroom drama, murder mystery, and meditation on the moral malaise of Victorian Canada. His obsession plunges him into the labyrinth world of Ottawa power politics, the salons of a smug “Toronto the Good,” and the licentiousness of the city’s Insane Asylum. With literary distinction and storytelling mastery, this historical novel brings the urgency of today’s headlines to the struggle for romance, justice, and equality in a young, 20th century Canada.

The Time of My Life


In The Time of My Life, Ray Argyle makes a series of trips around Canada in a search to rediscover his roots and take the measure of a changing country. Handicapped only by a wonky knee that “makes it hard to chase streetcars or fend off pit bulls,” Argyle leads his daughters Sharon, Brenda, and Roanne on explorations into a life lived on the edge. The result is a memoir that is funny, poignant, and reflective, spanning Canada’s nation-building years of the twentieth century to the present. He writes of the literature, personalities, and political events he’s encountered and speculates on a future where unrestrained manipulation of public opinion will deepen the chasm between a fearful rich and an anguished poor.


INVENTING SECULARISM: The Radical Life of George Jacob Holyoake

McFarland & Co. (USA),  2021

Go to YouTube to see the online launch of Inventing Secularism, organized by the National Secular Society and Conway Hall, London.

EXTRA: “It’s Not Too Late to Fulfill George Holyoake’s Secularist Vision.” Essay by Ray Argyle for National Secular Society. Read it Here.

Jailed for atheism, disowned by his family, George Jacob Holyoake came out of an English prison at the age of 25 determined to bring an end to religion’s control over daily life. In this first modern biography of the founder of Secularism – Holyoake invented the term in 1851 and set the principles that guide it to this day – Ray Argyle reveals the largely untold story of a transformative figure whose controversial and conflict-filled life helped shape the modern world. Holyoake was in the forefront of every movement for social reform and was hailed on his death in 1906 for having won “the freedoms we take for granted today.” With Secularism under siege from religious forces ranging from Christian Evangelism to Islamic Fundamentalism, George Holyoake’s vision of a “virtuous society” rings today with renewed clarity,

                Final Cover Continue reading

Coronavirus and the end of history

We are “sheltering in place” – staying home, working on my next book, keeping in touch by phone and email — and wondering what’s coming next. We awoke to bad news: a retirement home in one of our favorite cottage country towns, Bobcaygeon, Ontario, reporting nine deaths of elderly patients. Amid concern about a shortage of ventilator units, a  sober reminder from the doctor attending them: For even those who survive on a ventilator, “their quality of life will be abysmal.” Then word that the infection rate for Covid-19 in Canada and the U.S. might be ten times what’s been reported, due to lack of testing. President Trump, in another irrelevant diatribe, says he expects the U.S. to be out of danger by June 1. This after having said he thought the country would reopen by Easter.

So goes our ”annus horribilis,” this horrible year of 2020 that started with the great brush fires in Australia and the shooting down of the Ukrainian Airlines plane in Iran. If we thought things would get better we were soon dissuaded of that illusion. To those who considered Covid-19 just another flu-like virus, and that everyone was overreacting, even the skeptics should realize by this week — said to be a critical one for North America – that the danger is very real and very present.

It is hard to foretell the future. One who tried – and failed – was Dr. Francis Fukuyama, a U.S. State Department planner who in 1992 published The End of History. He argued that liberal democracy would sweep the world in the wake of the collapse of Communism. “A true global culture has emerged, centering around technologically driven economic growth.”  We faced nothing but progress, with all things getting better for all – a flatline for history; an era of abundance, peace, security.

We know things haven’t worked out quite that way. History has a way of tricking us – like the Gulf War, 9/11, the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. The 2008 financial crash.


Whatever happens now, our own version of an end of history will be written over the next year or two. Those who expect the economy to come “roaring back” after the virus is quelled are unlikely to see their optimism fulfilled. Despite the government aid that’s been promised, the purchasing power of workers and consumers – and their ability to borrow – is likely to be as abysmal as the outlook for patients on ventilators by the time we’re finished with this.

What about social norms? We cannot go through the trauma of this global pandemic without it affecting us permanently, in ways we cannot yet imagine. Will our travails draw us together, making us a more compassionate society?

Will our reliance on government turn into full-out Socialism? The government guaranteeing employment and income for all? Do we really need monumental department stores now that we can fill almost all our needs online? Will we continue to demand the luxury and ostentation of high end shops and cafes? Book tickets for ocean cruises? Learn again how to greet, to hug, and to embrace with a kiss? Will there be any longer a need for huge office towers now that people have learned to work from home?

Will the pandemic pave the way for real action on climate change? Or make it unnecessary? Already, air pollution is down by half over the industrialized regions of the world.

In all of this, books will surely retain their importance. Online sales are up, way up, a hopeful sign that people are returning to their old reading habits. We writers hope they’ll keep it up.

One who could foretell the future was Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian communications theorist (“the medium is the message.”) After I got to know him in the 1980s, I liked to play a video clip for clients of him on why people come to the office. “It’s because of the files,” he said. “They’re all in the office, that’s why people jam the roads to get to work. But they don’t need to – it could all be accessible on broadband at home.” Those prophetic words were spoken a full decade before we’d heard of the internet.

We need a Marshall McLuhan now to tell us where we’re likely to go in these troubling times.

Continue reading “Coronavirus and the end of history”

Two Socialists Vie for the White House – a Century Apart

The prospect of a self-declared Socialist winning the White House — an idea always considered a non-starter– has emerged as a practical possibility in the wake of the first place finish by Sen. Bernie Sanders in the New Hampshire primary. The latest Quinnipiac poll has him leading nationally with 25 % support to 17% for Joe Biden.

Not since the 1920 U.S. presidential election, held under circumstances surprisingly similar to those prevailing 100 years later, has a viable Socialist candidate challenged Democratic and Republican occupancy of the country’s highest office.


Two years after the end of the First World War and three years after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, a strong America First sentiment ran through the American electorate. It found expression in opposition to the U.S. joining the League of Nations, and exploited fear of domestic violence from Communists and anarchists.

Today, President Trump questions American participation in NATO and other international bodies. He is building a wall intended to prevent illegal migration across the U.S.-Mexico border, has banned entry of people from mostly Muslim countries, and has fanned fears of Islamic inspired terrorism.

In 1920, the Republican party ran Sen. Warren G. Harding in a campaign promising a “return to normalcy” after the sacrifices and shortages of the war. That theme has found an echo in Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again, and his boast that he has led a great American comeback.

In 1920, a tired and ill Democratic president, Woodrow Wilson, had served two terms and hoped for a third, but Democratic Party leaders, recognizing that several strokes had rendered him incapable of governing, sought a fresh face,

In 1920, it took 44 ballots to nominate Ohio Governor James M. Cox, a newspaper owner. His vice presidential running mate was Franklin D. Roosevelt, Secretary of the Navy. This year, the first ballot votes of delegates to the Democratic Party convention will be split among several candidates, based on their performance in the primaries.

In the first decades of the twentieth century, a well-established Socialist party drew significant strength from a coalition of trade unionists, populist farmers, immigrants, and remnants of the progressive movement that had made Theodore Roosevelt a powerful influence even after his failure as a third party candidate running against Republican President Taft and Democratic challenger Wilson in 1912.

By 1920, the Socialist party had elected two members to the House of Representatives along with dozens of state legislators and more than one hundred mayors in cities across the country.

Today, the Democratic Party finds itself energized by the victories of left-leaning female candidates in the off-year elections of 2018. They have helped spark the rise of the party’s progressive wing that is credited with enabling the strong performance of Bernie Sanders.

An anti-Communist hysteria spread through the U.S. in the years immediately after the First World War. Today, President Trump has branded Sen. Sanders a Communist. Trump can be expected to intensify this line of attack by digging into the Senator’s background for evidence of Communist sympathies.

The Socialist party was strongly pacifist and had opposed U.S. entry into the war. Its presidential candidate, Eugene V. Debs, campaigned from prison, having been convicted of counselling opposition to the military draft, and sentenced to ten years imprisonment. He received 913.613 votes, or 3.4 per cent of the 26,700,000 votes cast.

Republican Warren Harding won in a landslide, carrying every state except eleven of the Democratic “Solid South.” It was the first time women voted in a presidential election. Harding ordered Debs’s release from prison in 1921.

The parallels between the elections of 1920 and 2020 are striking but both are unique to their times. They are reminders that confrontation and divisiveness do not spring up suddenly, but are rooted in what has gone before.

Ray Argyle is author of Turning Points: The Campaigns that Changed Canada.



CEOs do not always make the world a better place

There’s a television commercial depicting beautiful scenes of wildlife in Florida that includes the admonition, “Leave the world a better place than you found it.”

I’ve been reflecting on this while considering news reports of recent corporate disasters that have caused great loss of life and resulted in great cost to investors and consumers. I wonder how the CEOs involved in these misfortunes measure their actions against that standard.


There’s been so many cases of corporate irresponsibility it would take many blogs to recount them all. I’ve selected just six to illustrate what can happen when governments fail in their oversight of corporate behavior, and corporations and their leaders pursue profit at the expense of the public good and corporate reputation.

  • Pacific Gas & Electric, the California utility that failed to properly maintain its deteriorating transmission lines, has been responsible for 1,961 fires since 2014. On Nov. 8 2018, a live wire broke, falling onto tinder-dry bushes. The resulting fire wiped out the town of Paradise, killing 85 people. Shareholders were financial victims – the company’s market value dropped from US$25 billion to US$3 billion, and Pacific Gas declared bankruptcy. Does CEO Geisha Williams feel that she made the world a better place?
  • In the past fifteen years, 400,000 people have died in the United States from opioid overdoses. The count in Canada is also in the thousands. A major reason for this crisis has been bribing by drug companies of doctors – via direct payments and other benefits – to prescribe massively more doses than their patients needed. One CEO, John Kapoor of Insys Therapeutics, has been found guilty of racketeering and sentenced to 5 ½ years in prison. Did he make the world a better place?
  • The Canadian engineering firm SNC-Lavalin won contracts around the globe, sometimes by bribing authorities. The son of the ex-Libyan dictator enjoyed boats and planes furnished by the company.  On January 9, 2020 former company executive Sami Bebawi was sentenced to 8 ½ years in a Canadian jail on fraud and corruption charges. Did he make the world a better place?
  • In England, the architect, builders and fire engineers who refurbished the Grenfell Towers apartment building in London installed cladding that they knew would fail in the event of a fire. Seventy-two people died in the June, 2017 blaze that destroyed the structure. “Metal cladding always burns and falls off,” an architect emailed a fire engineer two years before the disaster. An official inquiry is now underway. Will it determine whether these executives have made the world a better place?
  • In Alberta, Canada, oil and gas companies have abandoned 3,406 inactive wells, leaving them to send toxic leaks onto farmers’ fields. The companies escaped responsibility by declaring bankruptcy. A government agency that was supposed to oversee an industry fund to cover the costs failed to do its job. An official inquiry has begun. Have the executives who ran the oil companies, or the bureaucrats who failed to properly regulate them, made the world a better place?
  • Perhaps most famously, the CEO of the Boeing Company, builders of the MAX-737, two of which crashed after it had failed to inform or train pilots in the use of its software, was fired but left the company with US$62 million in compensation. Does Dennis Muilenburg feel he has made the world a better place?

I am sorry to have to single out individuals by name, but one of the problems of corporate capitalism is that it allows its management class to avoid, ignore, or otherwise evade responsibility for actions they know – or should know – invite social or financial disaster.

Does this mean we should abandon corporate capitalism? No, but it does mean there’s an urgent need for tighter, more disciplined, more firmly enforced regulation. Unfortunately, governments in Europe and the United States have been moving in the opposite direction, throwing out or watering down regulatory regimes. The Trump administration is dedicated to eliminating or reducing pubic oversight, especially of the environment. Based on the examples above, we can expect further and more frequent assaults on the public interest, leading to even more horrendous consequences than we’ve seen in the past.


Jody’s ‘truth’ leads back to Ottawa

In holding her Vancouver-Granville seat in Monday’s federal election, Jody Wilson-Reybould proved you can, if your cause is just, “talk truth to power” and win.

“The people are always right” was a mantra of a former Canadian prime minister, John Turner. They were right when his Liberals lost the great trade battle of 1988, and they were right this week when they returned Justin Trudeau to power, albeit with a minority government.

Former Liberal justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould walks to Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Canadians voted as they did because they saw no viable alternative to Justin Trudeau, despite some serious policy failures and a slew of personal gaffes — dressing up in blackface, donning native costume in India, and firing Wilson-Reybould, the Attorney General and Minister of Justice, who insisted on doing her duty in prosecuting SNC-Lavalin, after it was caught afoul of anti-corruption laws.

Conservative leader Andrew Scheer lacked both the force of personality and the clarity of policy to challenge Trudeau. His spunkiest speech of the campaign came in defeat Monday night, promising the Conservatives would be ready, and would win, when the government falls. More than anything, it was Sheer’s strident attacks on the Liberal carbon tax that left his party, absent a meaningful climate change policy, blowing in the wind.

Jagmeet Singh struggled valiantly to hold an NDP bastion in the House of Commons but his ethnicity, — although few will admit this — and his honest criticism of Quebec’s secularism law, cost the party half of its seats. There’ll never be another Orange wave in Quebec. The Bloc Quebecois, back with more than 30 seats, remains the blunt tool of Quebec voters, a handy cudgel to beat more concessions from the federal government.

Now Justin Trudeau, short 14 seats of a majority but with by far the largest number of MPS — 156 at election night count compared to 122 Conservatives, has a clear field to push ahead with the Trans-Mountain pipeline, national pharmacare, increases to old age pensions, and over the next four years, raises in the “price on pollution,” — the carbon tax.

Trudeau need not rely on any one of the Opposition parties to win passage of his legislation, whether it be more deficit budgets or costly new programs that woo the left and infuriate the right, The Conservatives will support him on Trans-Mountain. The ND P, Greens and the Bloc will back his carbon tax strategy, and whatever plan he brings forward on pharmacare.

Proportional representation to dump the first past the post system? Not a chance. Trudeau won’t offer it, and the the three Opposition parties that would benefit from it have no leverage to bring it about.

Andrew Scheer made a brave speech in conceding defeat on election night. The party, if it is ever to seriously challenge the Liberals, has to break out of its narrow base of just one-third of the electorate. Without policies to win support from more than one in three voters, and as long as it remains blind to the urgency of climate change, Conservatives are doomed to languish on the Opposition benches for a long time to come.

Re-elected as an Independent in Vancouver Granville, Wilson-Reybould’s future depends on whether she takes up the leadership of the Green Party. She can have it for the asking. Elizabeth May, tired after four federal elections, has wanted Jody as her successor ever since Reybould-Wilson stepped down from cabinet. May would like to set aside the leadership burden, but before now there’s been no one qualified to take it on. Now there is.

As an Independent MP in Ottawa, Jody will have a lonely time. No colleagues, no research resources, no influence on the government. If she instead takes up the cause of the Greens, she’ll have three  other MPs supporting her and the knowledge that more than a million Canadians — double the previous high — voted Green in 2019. She would add to the environmental mission of the Greens the courage of a woman of proven talent, together a powerful combination for electoral success. 

Add to this mix the emerging climate change majority among Canadians under 45, and the clout of a mobilized Indigenous vote. Together, they’d represent a powerful new force in Canadian politics.. Bring on the election!

Fathers and Sons

Ever since Homer wrote in The Odyssey of the misery of Laertes, the father of Odysseus, over his son’s twenty-year absence following the Trojan War, thinkers have sought to dissect the dynamics of father-son relationships. Marco Polo’s father Niccolo, absent during the first fifteen years of the boy’s life, tried to assuage their long separation by taking him to the court of Kublai Khan, a trip that set the stage for an equally enthralling literary epic. In a later age, Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev wrote of the generation gap in Fathers and Sons and Vincent van Gogh struggled to gain approval of a brooding and melancholy father who punished him severely and often. More infamously, Adolph Hitler in Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”) remembers only a mean and unforgiving father who applied his authority relentlessly and “forbade me to nourish the slightest hope of ever being allowed to study art.”

It is the lives of famous sons of famous fathers that attract the closest scrutiny, particularly when they occupy significant public positions. In Canada, the most notable example is of course that of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, son of Pierre Elliott Trudeau. British Columbia produced father and son premiers in William Bennett who followed an ebullient parent, W.A.C. Bennett, into office. Justin Trudeau, dealing with new issues a generation on from his father, exhibits the same activist government philosophy of his parent. The younger Bennett, driven by a fierce free enterprise ethic learned from his father, presided over the greatest period ever of B.C. economic expansion.

In a longer history, the United States has had two father-son presidential successions: George W. Bush, 43rd president and son of George H.W. Bush, the 41st; and John Quincy Adams, 6th president and son of John Adams, the country’s 2nd president. You can see some parallels in their careers. The younger Bush, misled by faulty intelligence that led him to make war on Iraq, appears to have been motivated to “finish the job” begun by his father in the 1990-91 Gulf War. The sorrowful outcome, one is wont to think, is probably more regretted by the father than by the son.

Two of the foremost pariah states of the twenty-first century, Syria and North Korea, are led by family progeny. Bashar al-Assad, president of Syria since 2000, is the son of Hafez al-Assad who held power from 1971 to 2000. Kim Jong Un, chair of the Workers’ Party of Korea, represents an even more entrenched dynasty: his father and grandfather had since 1948 controlled the destiny of twenty-five million North Korean countrymen.

In every case of father to son succession, it might be asked if it was the fathers who set the sons on their course toward political power, or might they have achieved such destiny without parental example? In thousands of papers and hundreds of books, psychiatrists and psychologists have put forth a dizzying variety of findings on the influence of fathers on their sons’ choices in life.

These experts agree on many aspects of parenting and they are the most in agreement when it comes to down to earth, common sense conclusions. More than one study has found that love is the most important thing a father can offer a son, or a daughter, for that matter. Other most often mentioned qualities of a strong father-son relationship are the fathers’ availability when they’re needed, their involvement in their childrens’ day-to-day lives, their success as a provider, and their position as a role model.

All of these qualities seem timeless, but are embedded in deeply held social attitudes that change over the generations. Throughout, we’ve lived with the “good dad/bad dad” dichotomy while realizing there’s probably a bit of both in most fathers. Almost the worst thing a father can do, even worse than being drunk or a poor provider, is to be absent, according to some experts. On the other hand, how about he negative qualities that some fathers impart to their children? There’s a song for this: Cat’s in the Cradle, by Harry Chapin.

My child arrived just the other day

He came to the world in the usual way

But there were planes to catch and bills to pay

He learned to walk while I was away.

As the boy grows, he insists “I’m gonna be like you, dad.” And when dad is retired and wants to spend time with his son, he finds he is too busy to see him. “He’d grown up just like me.”

There can be more serious consequences of fatherly misdirection that mere emulation of busyness. Many studies have shown how self-centered, competitive and arrogant fathers can damage their sons’ personalities. These men are perfectionists who see their children as extensions of themselves. Their sons, especially, grow up insecure.

Ronald F, Levant, past president of the American Psychological Association, would agree. “Fathers were expected to model, encourage, and even to demand masculinity in their sons,” he has written. The results, according to studies by Levant, were too often low self-esteem and excessive use of alcohol by sons who felt they had failed to measure up to their dads’ demanding standards.

So now we get to the big questions: In an age of same-sex marriage, are fathers really necessary – other than biologically? And are the negative qualities of some fathers so profound that their children would be better off with them absent from their lives? Arguably yes, to both. Adolph Hitler or Stephen Paddock, the Las Vegas shooter, might never have turned out as they did but for their fathers’ impact on their personalities. (Paddock’s father was an escaped bank robber described by the FBI as a “psychopath” who should be treated as “armed and very dangerous.”) These men, like all of us, yearned for fatherly approval. Circumstance as well as genetics shaped their personalities.

I have only daughters and from them I have learned much about the often-fraught relationship between the generations. My father had many good qualities but when I needed him most, in my teen-age years, he was an aged veteran of the First World War – a shell of what he had been as a younger man – with little left to give. Wounds from shrapnel he’d taken at Vimy Ridge ran as open sores on his right calf. When my stepmother insisted he strap me for having landed a dirt-encrusted snowball on a bed sheet fluttering on the clothesline, he took me to the garage, razor strop in hand. “When I slap the bench,” he told me, “I want you to holler.” It was his way of saying he loved me.

How Winston Churchill beat the writing game

If you want to want to get rich don’t try to do it as a writer, any wise parent would advise their offspring. Unless, perhaps, by writing for corporations or big-time politicians. Winston Church did all three – became a tax-avoiding corporation, was a gifted and highly-paid author, and a brilliant statesman who led Britain and the West through World War II.

What would he think of the pressure on today’s emerging writers to write for free – for news blogs, commercial publishers, and for the general public?

Not much, according to an insifghtful biography of the great statesman. In Mr. Churchill’s Profession: Statesman, Orator, Writer, Peter Clarke examines how the wartime leader conned publishers, beat the tax man, and crafted great literary works while staying just a dodge ahead of his creditors.


Churchill secured his position in history as a statesman, but Clarke makes it clear that “writing was his profession.” His country home of Chartwell became a “word factory” And through most of his life, his earnings from writing made up the bulk of his income.

How did Churchill do this? Born to a distinguished line of nobility, Churchill had friends at every level of high society and all of them – from his American-born other to prime minsters – helped him in his literary career even while they sometimes opposed his political ambitions.

Churchill made a name for himself as a newspaper correspondent at the time of the Spanish-American war and the South Africa, or Boer war. He was clever enough to turn his dispatches for the Daily Post from the Sudan – having earlier served in the 4th Hussars in India – into a best-selling book, The Story of the Malakand Field Force. His participation in a British expedition up the Nile led to a another success, The River War, published in two volumes.

Churchill didn’t have to look far for his earliest inspiration. He achieved early success with a book on his father. Lord Randolph Churchill became his great defence of his father, a key figure in British politics until his early death from syphilis. The book, together with proceeds from My African Journal and a novel, Savrola, earned Churchill over three thousand pounds in 1908-09 – half as much again as his salary as a government MP.

While Peter Clarke is meticulous in detailing Winston Churchill’s hereditary and personal life, it is when he digs into Churchill’s management of his literary income that he is most fascinating.

Throughout his life, Churchill was up against a wall of debt, built primarily from his exorbitant spending on personal pleasures such as wine and whisky. His 1935 accounts show four hundred pounds for wines and spirits supplied to his country home of Chartwell (another extravagance Churchill could hardly afford.)

In 1930, Churchill published an autobiography, My Early Life, and began work on what would be his greatest literary project, his History of the English Speaking Peoples. For the next decade, he stalled and delayed, promising but failing to deliver a completed manuscript of 400,000 words by 1937. He sucked up advances, and cleverly arranged for his publisher, Cassells, to buy the copyright to the work rather pay a royalty. In this way, the income became a capital gain and was free of tax under the laws of that time.

Churchill would not finish his monumental History until the 1950s. World War II got in the way. But the war did give rise to another great literary work, the Second World War.

Together, they stamped Churchill as one of the great figures f English literary, as well as of statesmanship.

Peter Clarke shrewdly observes that “The cash-strapped literary drudge who turned immediately from one big book to the next nevertheless lived in mouth-watering, eye-popping luxury.” And why not? In his own defence, Churchill often quoted Samuel Johnson: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.”