Magdalen College Record 1993
In 1961 I was elected a Junior Research Fellow at Merton College, Oxford, which became my academic home and research base for almost twenty years. A year after my election – in tandem with my Oxford position – Churchill’s son Randolph asked me to join his research team on the life of his father, which he had just begun to write. I began work the junior on a team of five. For the next six years I would live at Oxford, and teach and write at Merton College, but be prepared to travel across country to work in the Churchill archive whenever Randolph summoned me.
I had seen Randolph once, at the bar of the eponymous hotel. He was shouting and seemed to be drunk. So I imagined that working for him would last for only two or three months, assuming I survived the first two or three weeks, or even hours. Despite my misgivings I drove over to see him in Suffolk, enjoyed a lively historical argument over dinner, and came to an arrangement whereby I worked three days at his house and three days at Merton, mostly teaching. The seventh day was devoted to driving across country.
A few months turned into five years. Working for Randolph taught me a great deal about how to find out the most obscure historical points. He turned me into a master of reference books! He also told me that he was not interested in defending his father (whom he adored) but in telling the true story.
In 1968 Randolph died and I was asked to take on his work. The government had recently abandoned the fifty-year rule for closed documents, and replaced it with thirty-year rule, so a mass of new material suddenly became available, and the original four volume plan was extended to eight volumes. In addition, Randolph had taken as his methodological theme the nineteenth century concept of Walter Scott’s biographer (Lockhart), ‘he shall be his own biographer’. I replaced this by the more twentieth – century concept of letting the voices of family, friends, colleagues, critics, and opponents, and their diverse arguments, also be heard. Churchill’s wife was a particularly acute critic; her method of setting down her points in writing, for him to see at the breakfast table (he always breakfasted alone) was a boon to the historian.
I delved in the archives for twenty years. My work took me as far east as Clacutta, as far south as Port Elizabeth, and as far west as San Francisco. One kind commentator suggested that by the time my task was done I should have lost my eyesight and become permanently stooped, but when I finished the eighth volume in 1988 I could still see, and am still fairly upright in posture.
My current task is to complete a multi-volume document set covering every aspect of Churchill’s life: political, personal, and literary. The idea of these document volumes came from Randolph,who realised just how many golden nuggets would have to be excluded within the (relatively) confined space of the narrative volumes. He published five volumes of documents (the last three posthumously). I then produced a further eight of these volumes, taking Churchill’s story up to the outbreak of war in 1939. Part of my method was to make use of the recollections of his contemporaries, including secretaries, chauffeurs, and literary assistants: among the latter was Alan Bullock, later Master of St Catherine’s, who provided Churchill with notes on the early history of Australia and New Zealand.
Although Churchill had not been at Oxford, or at any other university, he constantly turned to Oxford men for help. I have published some of his correspondence with, among others, Keith Feiling, GM Young, and Isaiah Berlin. His chief literary helper over three decades was Bill Deakin, later Warden of St Antony’s. Maurice Shock, later Rector of Lincoln, was also enlisted to help. So, despite having to live in London to work in the archives (mostly the Public Record Office at Kew) I never felt totally cut off from Oxford. Merton, which has kept me on as a Fellow since 1962, is remarkably tolerant of so often absent a colleague.
This year I embarked on the last lap of my Churchill task: a seven-volume set of his wartime papers. The first of these volumes came out in June, entitled “At the Admiralty”. The second volume, “Never Surrender”, is going to the printer as I write these words. The third volume, “The Ever- Widening War”, is on my desk being edited now. My aim is to have it all done by the end of the century.