“Incandescent Brilliance:” Churchill and Hilaire Belloc

“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.

* * *

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.”

Incandescent Brilliance

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

  1. 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

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