Paul Courtenay 1934-2020: No Better Definition of a Pro

Paul Courtenay 1934-2020: No Better Definition of a Pro

It’s a shop­worn phrase, but Paul Courte­nay was a walk­ing ency­clo­pe­dia on Win­ston Churchill. We worked togeth­er on con­fer­ences, sem­i­nars, books and arti­cles for thir­ty years. He was a major con­trib­u­tor to Finest Hour, the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project, to books and biogra­phies. Paul was indis­pens­able. And irreplaceable.

As edi­tor over those years, I was con­stant­ly grate­ful that he was there. I had only to press his Her­aldry but­ton, his Smuts but­ton, his Mil­i­tary but­ton, his For­eign Affairs but­ton, his Book Review but­ton, for exact­ly what I need­ed. I nev­er dis­cov­ered how many such but­tons he had. But it was always cer­tain that what we’d get back would be inter­est­ing, metic­u­lous­ly accu­rate, and exact­ly the right length.

In 2014 we were prepar­ing an issue on the 1938 Munich Cri­sis. We were intent on defend­ing Churchill’s view that mil­i­tar­i­ly, 1938—not 1939—had been the time to resist Hitler. “That’s quite true,” Paul observed…

…but you need to under­stand why Britons were reluc­tant. What­ev­er the rel­a­tive strengths between the Anglo-French and Nazi Ger­many in 1938, the First World War was so recent in nation­al mem­o­ries that pub­lic opin­ion (and Par­lia­ment) would nev­er have been in favour of any pre-emp­tive ulti­ma­tum or strike at Hitler. It took two more Nazi outrages—the absorp­tion of Czecho­slo­va­kia and the attack on Poland—to per­suade every­one that enough was enough.

Click on any of the links above and you will more exam­ples of his deft under­stand­ing. I don’t know a bet­ter def­i­n­i­tion of a pro.

“Up, up the long delirious burning blue”

Paul Courte­nay was born 6 March 1934 to William and Gre­ta Courte­nay. His ear­ly life was spent amid the burn­ing blue—aviation’s most excit­ing era of progress and dis­cov­ery. Father William was a found­ing mem­ber of the Roy­al Air Force, an avi­a­tion writer and cor­re­spon­dent. His god­moth­er was the great avi­a­trix Amy John­son, the first woman to fly solo from Britain to Australia.

Paul went to prep school at Cottes­more, West Sus­sex, and grew up in North Wales as the Sec­ond World War raged. Then he enrolled at Malvern Col­lege, Worces­ter­shire, where he earned high aca­d­e­m­ic marks and excelled at cross coun­try. Paul was only eigh­teen when he joined the British Army. “One of his ear­li­est assign­ments,” his son James says, “was to guard the route along the Mall at the Queen’s Coro­na­tion in 1953.”

Fur­ther assign­ments saw Paul in Korea at the wind-up of that war, and on peace­keep­ing duties in Aden and Gibral­tar. James writes: “He had deep and abid­ing friend­ships in the Roy­al Sus­sex Reg­i­ment, which lat­er merged with three oth­ers to form The Queen’s Reg­i­ment.” He met Sara, his wife of six­ty years, raised four chil­dren and cel­e­brat­ed twelve grand­chil­dren. Weeks after mar­riage he was fly­ing Army Air Corps planes in Kenya. Oth­er post­ings brought Paul and Sara to Cyprus, Mal­ta, Gibral­tar, Ger­many and Amer­i­ca. In Eng­land they lived in Kent, Sus­sex, Sur­rey and North­ern Ire­land before final­ly set­tling in Andover, Hamp­shire. There they lived for forty years.

Courtenay, Courtenay and Churchill

Paul’s Churchill con­nec­tion devel­oped ear­ly. His father, lec­tur­ing on the war against Japan, some­times shared a plat­form with Win­ston Churchill. William Courte­nay was often “present at the cre­ation,” as Paul elo­quent­ly wrote for Hills­dale:

He was at many of those key cam­paigns, and he was on board the Mis­souri, as Gen­er­al MacArthur’s guest, at the hour of vic­to­ry in Sep­tem­ber 1945. As supreme com­man­der of occu­pied Japan, MacArthur ren­dered fur­ther ser­vice, build­ing trust with the for­mer ene­my as it evolved into a free state. Churchill applaud­ed those events. “We must strive,” he said in 1946, “to redeem and to rein­cor­po­rate the Ger­man and the Japan­ese peo­ples in a world sys­tem of free and civ­i­lized democ­ra­cy. The idea of keep­ing scores of mil­lions of peo­ple hang­ing about in a sub-human state between earth and hell, until they are worn down to a slave con­di­tion or embrace Com­mu­nism, or die off from hunger, will only, if it is pur­sued, breed at least a moral pesti­lence and prob­a­bly an actu­al war.”

“Labouring in the vineyard”

When we met, Paul was about to retire from the Army, which he did in 1987. He then worked in Lon­don for the Inde­pen­dent Broad­cast­ing Author­i­ty and the Insti­tute of Char­tered Accoun­tants. View­ing “retire­ment” with the same dis­dain as Sir Win­ston, he devot­ed him­self to Churchilliana. Sir Mar­tin Gilbert, who respect­ed Paul’s work, used to refer to this as “labour­ing in the vineyard.”

Courte­nay cer­tain­ly picked a lot of grapes. Cru­cial­ly for Churchill researchers, he knew Chival­ry cold. Is a Knight a Peer? Does an Earl trump a Vis­count? Why is Lady Soames not “Lady Mary,” but Lady Mar­garet Colville is not “Lady Colville”? Paul knew. Yet he would often remark: “Like most Eng­lish­men, I am not sure what to make of it.”

A fas­tid­i­ous proof­read­er, he was involved in repub­li­ca­tion of Churchill clas­sics. Togeth­er with James Muller, Paul pro­vid­ed new foot­notes to new edi­tions of Thoughts and Adven­tures and Great Con­tem­po­raries. Our last work togeth­er was on that gem of a biog­ra­phy, Churchill: Walk­ing with Des­tiny, by Andrew Roberts. We three shared a thou­sand emails, scru­ti­niz­ing every para­graph, argu­ing arcane details. It was a tremen­dous edu­ca­tion­al expe­ri­ence. There was no vast Courte­nay dig­i­tal ref­er­ence at his fin­ger­tips. He stored it all in his head. He knew where to look for the tini­est frag­ment of Churchill lore. I know Andrew agrees that absent Paul Courte­nay, his­to­ry can­not be served so well.

I will say one per­son­al thing about my friend. To any writer, proof­read­ers and pedants are indis­pens­able. But often when work­ing with them, one is con­scious of being patron­ized. A few are per­ni­cious snobs whose main pur­pose is to demon­strate how much they know—and how much you don’t. Of course, no book ever exist­ed with­out errors. With Paul Courte­nay, one nev­er encoun­tered that atti­tude. He would greet the dis­cov­ery of an error we’d missed with the same regret as our own. But he would nev­er say, “I told you so.” (Even if he had told us so.)

“Shivered into fragments”

Thanks to Hills­dale Col­lege I do have access to a fair dig­i­tal ref­er­ence. Paul’s loss sent me there to find Churchill’s trib­ute to Arthur Bal­four in Great Con­tem­po­raries. Here again Paul taught me some­thing new. I searched for “shiv­ered into frag­ments,” think­ing the words had only appeared in the Bal­four piece. In fact, it was a favorite Churchill phrase. Any­way, anent Bal­four and Courte­nay, the great man’s words apply equally:

Amid uni­ver­sal good­will and wide­spread affec­tion he cel­e­brat­ed tri­umphant­ly his eight­i­eth birth­day. But there­after hun­gry Time began to revenge itself upon one who had so long dis­dained its men­ace…. I saw with grief the approach­ing depar­ture, and—for all human purposes—extinction, of a being high uplift­ed above the com­mon run. As I observed him regard­ing with calm, firm and cheer­ful gaze the approach of Death, I felt how fool­ish the Sto­ics were to make such a fuss about an event so nat­ur­al and so indis­pens­able to mankind. But I felt also the tragedy which robs the world of all the wis­dom and trea­sure gath­ered in a great man’s life and expe­ri­ence, and hands the lamp to some impetu­ous and untu­tored stripling, or lets it fall shiv­ered into frag­ments upon the ground.

3 thoughts on “Paul Courtenay 1934-2020: No Better Definition of a Pro

  1. What a very kind and gen­er­ous obit­u­ary. My father was indeed a great man, in all the most impor­tant ways that great­ness should be mea­sured. He loved work­ing along­side authors ded­i­cat­ing them­selves to books about Churchill, and would have been so pleased with this eulo­gy from a man for whom he had both great respect and with whom he enjoyed such an endur­ing friendship.

  2. I had the good for­tune to meet Paul a few times, at Berlin and Chica­go Churchill con­fer­ences, and shared a cab with him on our way to the Chica­go air­port. A true Eng­lish gen­tle­man. Rest in peace Paul.

  3. So sor­ry for your loss. Men like Paul are a rare trea­sure and not too many found. I’m glad he had a good friend in you. 

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