“Incandescent Brilliance:” Churchill and Hilaire Belloc
“To Belloc this generation owes big glimpses of the Homeric spirit. His mission was to flay alive the humbugs and hypocrites and the pedants and to chant robust folk-songs to a rousing obligato of clinking flagons….” He later concluded that Liberal reforms merely offered the “propertyless worker perpetual security…in exchange for the surrender of political freedom.”
Excerpted and condensed from “Great Contemporaries: Hilaire Belloc,” for the Hillsdale College Churchill Project. For the full article click here.
Joseph Hilaire Pierre Belloc
(1870-1953)—writer, sailor, poet, friend of Churchill—helped fuel Churchill’s passion for the survival of free government. Anti-statist, anti-collectivist and anti-establishment, he deplored the servitude of the industrial wage-earner and longed to reconcile his two great loves, “the soil of England and the Catholic faith.”
Born in France but educated at Birmingham and Oxford, he served with the French Artillery before becoming a naturalized British subject in 1902. Between 1906 and 1910 he was Churchill’s Parliamentary colleague.
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French though he was, Belloc looked more like John Bull than anyone: “He wore a stand-up collar several sizes too large for him [and] was big and stocky and red of face.” Churchill’s nephew John Spencer-Churchill described him as “plump and cherub-like…. He used to take me sailing. We would start early in the morning, chug down the narrow Sussex lanes in his vintage Ford, lustily singing shocking French songs, and board his boat at Arundel.…Belloc was a devout Catholic, and undoubtedly his intellectual approach to the Catholic religion influenced my own interpretation of it in later years.”
Although English by choice, Belloc shared Churchill’s reverence for France. A friend remembered an Oxford Union debate in 1893. The motion was “That at the present juncture the advent of a Dictator would be a blessing to the French people.” Belloc replied with “passionate eloquence…reminding us of all that France had meant to human thought and human freedom, of how treacherously she had been forced into war in 1870 and how ruthlessly dismembered. It was one of the most moving speeches I have ever heard…. Belloc’s eloquence prevailed and the motion was defeated.”
His book, The Servile State, championed “Distributism,“ a combination of apparent opposites. At the same time it involved broad land distribution, corporate organization of society and workers’ control of the means of production. It also emphasized decentralization of power, Jeffersonian democracy, and private property. Like Churchill, Belloc had traveled in America. It is odd that he never saw aspects of the USA as close to his vision.
Belloc shared Churchill’s interest in John Churchill First Duke of Marlborough. But Churchill thought Marlborough’s victories had contributed to British glory. Belloc disagreed, saying they had only entrenched the class system and rule by elites. In stimulating sessions at Chartwell they hashed over their differences. Few English writers, thought Brendan Bracken, “could hold a candle to Belloc, in his day, for wit, hard logic and felicity of phrasing.”
What a joy to have been to be present at such conversations! “Wit, charm, genius for friendship, conversational brilliance, all these are transitory qualities not easily captured,” wrote John Charmley. “Bob Boothby recalled a lunch with Alfred Duff Cooper and Belloc when ‘the food was excellent, the claret superb,’ where he would never again ‘hope to listen to talk of such incandescent brilliance.'” Belloc started to recite some of his own poems, but laughed so much that Duff had to finish them…. A unique experience, not repeated.
World War II
Churchill was a fiftyish 65 when the next German war came. Belloc was an aging 69, and in no way ready for it. Uniquely and sadly, he had lost his first son in World War I, his second in World War II. He did not like the modern world. Still less he liked the horrific, blacked-out streets of shattered London. The England of his time was far away. He flourished only there. Churchill offered him a high honor in the name of the King, in the twilight of Belloc’s life. Belloc turned him down courteously.
Old and dispirited, Belloc had become pessimistic about the future. An admirer noted lines of his (often repeated by William F. Buckley, Jr. in morose moments). They might describe everyone you met at your last cocktail party….
We sit by and watch the Barbarian, we tolerate him; in the long stretches of peace we are not afraid. We are tickled by his irreverence, his comic inversion of our old certitudes and our fixed creeds refreshes us; we laugh. But as we laugh we are watched by large and awful faces from beyond: and on these faces there is no smile.
Churchill’s Tribute to Belloc
Nearing his eighty-third birthday, Belloc was dozing before the fire in his daughter’s home when he fell into the flames. Badly burned, he died in hospital on 16 July 1953. The mourners were few. Churchill was one of them.
After the war Hatch Mansfield, Churchill’s wine merchants, bought up all the ’28 and ’34 Pol Roger champagne in France for Churchill’s exclusive consumption. In 1954, they investigated Chartwell’s cellar and pronounced it a “shambles.” Accordingly, Ralph Mansfield threw out the dross and instituted a cellar book. It was scarcely necessary. The cellar was almost all Pol Roger, vintage Hine and Johnny Walker scotch.
One set of bottles, which Mansfield pronounced “awful,” was designated for the rubbish bin, but Sir Winston intervened. They contained a white burgundy which Churchill had personally bottled with Belloc.
Don’t touch them, declared Sir Winston Churchill. Let them rest.
One thought on ““Incandescent Brilliance:” Churchill and Hilaire Belloc”
From David Lough, author of No More Champagne (bit.ly/2syqUoj) and editor of “My Darling Winston” (bit.ly/2Jqvxra): “I was going to an evening of Hilaire Belloc readings at the Garrick Club in London last night and wondered before leaving whether he and Churchill had known each other, and how well. Imagine how delighted I was to find this wonderful post about their relationship! I thought you might like to know what a delight it was. Thank you so much.”
I love Belloc. He is such an enlightened Edwardian reprobate. To paraphrase what Churchill apparently didn’t say but should have, he had none of the virtues I deplore, and all the sins that I admire. (Well, all but one.) —RML