Great Contemporaries: Hilaire Belloc
- By RICHARD M. LANGWORTH
- | September 25, 2017
- Category: Explore
“To Belloc this generation owes big glimpses of the Homeric spirit. His mission is to flay alive the humbugs and hypocrites and the pedants and to chant robust folk-songs to the naked stars of the English world to a rousing obligato of clinking flagons.”1
Joseph Hilaire Pierre Belloc (1870-1953)—writer, sailor, poet, friend of Churchill—helped fuel Churchill’s passion for the survival of free government. 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, the Member for Salford South, Manchester: curious, since Salford was heavily Jewish and Belloc “suffered from an urbane anti-Semitism.”2 This seems to have been his major character flaw, but Churchill tended to overlook the faults of his friends.
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.”3 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.”4
English by choice, Belloc shared Churchill’s reverence for France. A mutual friend remembered an Oxford Union debate in 1893 on the motion, “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.”5
Young Men in a Hurry
While Churchill was learning to be a cavalry officer, Belloc was a shooting star among Oxford’s young Liberals. In his Six Liberal Essays he argued against the growing “pragmatism” of the Liberal Party. Neither socialist nor capitalist, Belloc believed that British civilization had peaked in the High Middle Ages, led by the Catholic monarchs Charles II and James II. For him the last 400 years had simply entrenched the class system and handed control from a land-owning yeomanry to an aristocratic establishment—a view which would eventually disenchant him with politics.6
Belloc and Churchill were part of the Liberal sweep in the 1906 general election. Violet Bonham Carter, in her outstanding memoir, Winston Churchill As I Knew Him, says she met WSC at a party with Belloc. Both men supported Irish Home Rule and Free Trade, but their early relationship was uneven. In 1906 they clashed over Lord Milner, Governor of the Transvaal, who had been accused of illegally flogging Chinese coolies. Belloc questioned whether he had done anything wrong. Affronted, Churchill shot back that Milner had committed “a grave dereliction of public duty.”7
Importation of coolies for work in the Rand coal mines was widely disparaged. Lloyd George called it “Chinese Slavery,” though Churchill called that a “terminological inexactitude.”8 Banning it seemed a good political ploy, but proved tricky. If cheap labor were not imported, taxpayers might have to compensate mine-owners for the losses they would suffer. The government waffled, to the ire of Belloc, “whose liberalism was always most intense when it could be allied with his savage hatred of the ‘gallant Albus,’ ‘fair young Wernhers’ and ‘tall Goltmans’ of international Jewish finance.” Ultimately the Transvaal took its own decision to send the Chinese home. “The experiment in semi-slavery had by then proved such a failure that not even the mine-owners wanted to keep them. 9
Belloc and Churchill began on opposite sides over Women’s Suffrage, on which Churchill’s views were “evolving” (to use a modern expression) while Belloc’s had “evolved.” Churchill’s secretary, Eddie Marsh, recalled a heated debate when Belloc said he was glad anti-suffragists had not argued the intellectual inferiority of women—a view, he said, “held only by young, unmarried men. The rest of us, as we grow older, come to look on the intelligence of women first with reverence, then with stupor, and finally with terror.” Imagine, Marsh added, saying all this with “his French r’s.”10 Women began to receive the vote in 1918, with Churchill’s support.
Churchill never gave up on constitutional democracy, but Belloc was an early casualty. He’d had high hopes for the Liberal government, and his maiden speech had marked him as a brilliant orator. He now concluded that Liberal reforms merely offered the “propertyless worker perpetual security…in exchange for the surrender of the political freedom,” confirming the “inferior status of the proletariat as the recipient of financial aid,” conferring “a superior status upon those taxed to fulfill that obligation.” The result, he said, was a permanent division “between laborer and employer, serf and lord, slave and citizen.”11
Such examples of business as usual—as when his party refused to strip the House of Lords of all power—soured Belloc on Parliament. He refused to run again in 1910, saying he was “weary of the party system.”12 Persuaded that things were really no different under a Liberal than a Tory government, he wrote an oft-quoted epigram:
The accursed power that stands on privilege
And goes with women and champagne and bridge
Broke, and democracy resumed her reign
Which goes with bridge and women and champagne.13
A distinguished poet and satirist, Belloc then devoted his time to writing, producing 153 books of essays, fiction, history, biography and verse, as well as many articles. Few English writers, thought Churchill’s friend Brendan Bracken, “could hold a candle to Belloc, in his day, for wit, hard logic and felicity of phrasing.”14 Later his books arrived in such quantity and mixed quality that he was deemed a hack, but he was far from that. Today his most celebrated work is a group of nonsense poems, Cautionary Tales from Children; but in his time he was a famous critic of the establishment, notably in his 1912 book, The Servile State.
Anti-statist, anti-collectivist and anti-establishment, Belloc deplored the servitude of the industrial wage-earner and longed to reconcile his two great loves, “the soil of England and the Catholic faith.”15 His book championed “distributism,“ a combination of broad land distribution, corporate organization of society, workers’ control of the means of production, decentralization of power, and Jeffersonian democracy comprising a property-owning electorate. Like Churchill, Belloc had traveled in America; it is odd that he never seemed to suggest that the United States, with its class mobility and broad property ownership, came remarkably close to his vision.
The Servile State was the first appearance of “Chesterbelloc,” a philosophy expressed by Hilaire and his close friend G.K. Chesterton.16 Belloc had converted Chesterton to Catholicism, and wrote for G.K.’s Weekly; the two were England’s leading lay exponents of Catholic doctrine, with what Robert Blake described as “ceaseless hammering of ‘the system’ and their disagreeable streak of anti-Semitism—partly a French importation, partly a reaction to the great break-through of the rich Jewish financiers into society and politics under the earlier patronage of Edward VII.”17
This meant disagreement with Churchill, who if anything was a philo-Semite, especially after Belloc and G.K’s brother Cecil produced a violently anti-Jewish journal called Eye Witness. Churchill’s colleague Herbert Samuel wished to sue Eye Witness for libel, but was dissuaded by Asquith. “Prosecution would secure it notoriety,” the Prime Minister said. “We have broken weather,” he went on somewhat irrelevantly, “and but for Winston there would be nothing [positive about the Liberals] in the newspapers.”18
First World War
“But for Winston” there would be nothing positive in the Admiralty, either. When the Dardanelles fiasco forced Churchill to resign as First Lord and join a regiment at the front, Belloc and other friends “drank Winston’s health and sang the French children’s song that poked fun at the First Duke of Marlborough, ‘Malbrouck s’en vat’en guerre.’ (Marlborough goes off to war).” They congratulated Churchill for “breaking loose from his official bondage to the gang of incapables that had been making a fool of the British Empire.”19 One of their bogeys was Andrew Bonar Law, the Tory leader who in 1915 brought his party into coalition with Asquith, at the price of denying Churchill major office. Bonar Law, a worthy but plodding figure, was briefly Prime Minister after the war, and died shortly afterward. He was an unhappy participant in the 1916 struggle that saw Asquith replaced by Lloyd George as prime minister, which Churchill welcomed. The latter sometimes quoted lines composed by Belloc: “Of all prime ministers I ever saw, The least remarkable was Bonar Law….”20
By the 1920’s Belloc had befriended all the Churchills. Johnny recalled his father, Winston’s brother Jack, renting a summer house in the South Downs: “…we were near enough to Belloc for him to visit us…..At the end of a course he liked to get up from the table with an apology, leave the room and reappear in a few minutes with an enormous omelet, which he had cooked himself. He was a very good cook…..I remember being absolutely mystified at seeing him hanging out of a top-floor window one day. He had a bottle of brandy in his hand and was carefully dripping the precious liquid into a bowl placed in the garden below. ‘This,’ he assured me in all seriousness, ‘will add ten years to its age.’”21
Belloc shared Churchill’s interest in John Churchill, First Duke of Marlborough. While Churchill was writing Marlborough’s life in the 1930s, Belloc published Six British Battles: Crécy, Poitiers, Blenheim, Malplaquet, Tourcoing, Waterloo in November 1931; and The Tactics and Strategy of the Great Duke of Marlborough in July 1933. Churchill drew his friend’s work to the attention of his literary assistant, Lt.-Col. Packenham-Walsh: “I do not know whether you have read this rather suggestive account of the Blenheim March by Hilaire Belloc….and we will have another discussion when I get nearer to it…..22 He makes a great point of the dip in the ground at Ramillies which shielded the counter march….I expect he is right about Marlborough keeping everything open on his march to Blenheim.”23
But while Churchill thought Marlborough’s victories had contributed to British glory, Belloc thought they had entrenched the class system and rule by elites. In stimulating evenings at Chartwell they hashed over their differences, and Churchill cited Belloc in his bibliography. Belloc was asked to review Churchill’s first volume but declined because, he said, the fee was too low. Possibly he did not wish to criticize his friend. The attack on Churchill’s hostile portrait of Belloc’s favorite Catholic monarch was left to Malcolm Hay’s Winston Churchill and James II.24
It was characteristic of Churchill to solicit the historical views of friends who were not historians, such as Belloc and Alfred Duff Cooper. Duff told Churchill that a “partisan history” like Marlborough “knows more of the truth of the matter than the Dryasdust cold blooded historian can ever get at after sifting all the evidence and applying his microscope to the faded ink.”25
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 Duff and Belloc when ‘the food was excellent, the claret superb’ and 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 dinner in 1936 was “enlivened by the poet singing ‘Provencal lyrics’ and reciting French poetry and Jacobite ballads: It was quite a unique experience—but not to be repeated.”26
Second World War
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, and would lose his second son in World War II. He did not like the modern world—still less the horrific, blacked-out streets of shattered London. The England of his time was far away, and “probably the only place he could have flourished as he did. Churchill offered him a high honor in the name of the King, in the twilight of Belloc’s life, when the bombs were bursting over Britain. Belloc turned him down courteously.”27
Earlier he had gladly accepted such honors. In 1934, Pope Pius XI had decorated him with the Grand Cross of the Order of St. Gregory the Great for his services to Catholicism as a writer, while Oxford had given him the honorary degree of Master of Arts. He shared with Churchill the distinction of being the only persons to have their portraits hung in the National Portrait Gallery while they were still alive. He should have accepted Churchill’s honor, for this “loud and opinionated Anglo-Frenchman was more unpopular than he realized.”28 He had attacked too many sacred cows to suit the establishment. He had been, in the 1930s, a Franco supporter in the Spanish Civil War, a position that pleased few.
“On these faces there is no smile”
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) that 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.”29
In 1947 the Labour government set up a royal commission on the press, an act Lord Beaverbrook regarded as “persecution” (particularly since he was one of its targets). It charged that Beaverbrook kept a blacklist of people who were never to be mentioned in his newspapers: an odd lot including Belloc, Paul Robeson, Haile Selassie and Noël Coward. But the commission decided that the list was simply intended to name libel risks. Belloc had been mentioned many times in the Beaverbrook press (but he never sued).30
Four days before his eighty-third birthday, while Belloc was dozing before the fire in his daughter’s home, he fell into the flames. He was so badly burned that he died in hospital on 16 July 1953.31 He was buried in his beloved Sussex at the Shrine Church of Our Lady of Consolation, West Grinstead. He was mourned by few, but one of them was Winston Churchill.
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.” Ralph Mansfield threw out the dross and instituted a cellar book, which was scarcely necessary: the cellar consisted almost entirely of Pol Roger, vintage Hine and Johnny Walker Black Label.
One set of bottles, which Mansfield pronounced “awful,” was designated for the bin, but Sir Winston intervened. They contained a white burgundy which Churchill had personally bottled with Belloc.32
Don’t touch them, declared Sir Winston Churchill. Let them rest.
2 Randolph S. Churchill, Winston S. Churchill, vol. II, Young Statesman 1901-1914 (Hillsdale College Press, 2007), 174.
3 Catholic Authors, op. cit.
4 John Spencer Churchill, Crowded Canvas (London: Odhams, 1961), 41-42.
5 Leopold Amery, My Political Life, 3 vols. (London: Hutchinson, 1953-55), I, 55.
6 Victor Feske, From Belloc to Churchill: Private Scholars, Public Culture and the Crisis of British Liberalism 1900-1939 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), 17.
7 Randolph S. Churchill, Winston S. Churchill II, 174-75.
8 Richard M. Langworth, ed., Churchill in His Own Words (London: Ebury Press, 2012), 45.
9 Roy Jenkins, Asquith (London: Collins, 1964), 162-63.
10 Eddie Marsh to Lady Gladstone, 1 July 1910 in Christopher Hassall, Edward Marsh: A Biography (London: Longmans, 1959), 163.
11 Fiske, From Belloc to Churchill, 34.
12 Catholic Authors, op. cit.
13 Elizabeth Longford, Winston Churchill (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1974), 32-33.
14 Andrew Boyle, Poor, Dear Brendan: The Quest for Brendan Bracken (London: Hutchinson, 1974), 192.
15 Fiske, From Belloc to Churchill, 18, 29.
16 Ibid., 33.
17 Robert Blake, The Conservative Party from Peel to Churchill (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1970), 192.
18 Robert Rhodes James, The British Revolution: British Politics 1880-1939 (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1976), 271.
19 Ted Morgan, Churchill: The Rise to Failure 1874-1915 (London: Jonathan Cape, 1983), 607.
20 John Colville, The Churchillians (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1981), 63.
21 J.S. Churchill, Crowded Canvas, 42-43.
22 WSC to Lt.-Col. Pakenham-Walsh, 9 February 1933 (Churchill papers: 8/321) in Martin Gilbert, ed., Winston S. Churchill, Companion Volume V, Part 2, The Wilderness Years 1929-1935 (London: Heinemann, 1976), 524.
23 WSC to Packenham-Walsh, 13 July 1933 (Churchill papers: 8/323), ibid., 629.
24 Feske, From Belloc to Churchill, 204, 206, 272 (n.128). Malcolm Hay, Winston Churchill and James II of England (London: Harding & More, 1934).
25 Alfred Duff Cooper to WSC, 9 July 1933, in Feske, Belloc to Churchill, 204.
26 John Charmley, Duff Cooper (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1986), 93.
27 Frederick D. Wilhelmsen, “Hilaire Belloc: Defender of the Faith,” in The Catholic Writer: The Proceedings of the Wethersfield Institute 2 (1989): 83-95.
28 Fiske, From Belloc to Churchill, 20.
29 Wilhelmsen, “Defender of the Faith,” 94.
30 Anne Chisholm-Davie,Beaverbrook: A Life (London: Hutchinson, 1992), 457-58.
31 Catholic Authors, op. cit.
32 Dalton Newfield, “International Updates,” Finest Hour 37, Autumn 1982, 4.