An author should be allowed his vanities. In the case of the historian Sir Martin Gilbert, the vanities fill two whole shelves of his library in North London. These are the books he has written since he graduated from Oxford in 1960, more than 75 of them. ‘This is where I start,’ he says, tapping the spine of one. ‘And here is my latest.’ He taps another, Churchill and the Jews, published this month. ‘Two shelves in chronological order. And over here….’ he rakes the backs of his fingers along another shelf, playing the spines as if they were piano keys. ‘… over here are my new translations.’ The steady, resonant tock of a grandfather clock can be heard in the room, dulled by the wall-to-wall books. ‘It’s a little vanity every author must be allowed.’
Actually this is a house, not a library. ‘I bought a five bedroom house, turned the smallest bedroom into my bedroom and put up shelving in the rest. Three floors of books. ‘What can you do?’ he says, almost apologetically. ‘An historian has to read.’ A tour of his shelves is revealing. Here is a book inscribed by Harold Wilson, for whom Gilbert once worked as an advisor. Here is the new book on cricket by John Major, for whom he also worked, advising him on the special relationship with America and accompanying him on trips there. On his most recent trip to the States, incidently, Gilbert attended the white tie banquet held in honour of the Queen at the White House. He was the only British guest present at the personal invitation of the president, as opposed to the British ambassador. ‘He remembered me from a talk I gave to his staff at the White House a few years ago.’
So he’s to blame!
‘No, no!’ Gilbert laughs wheezily. ‘It was after that.’
The 70 year old author has the energetic bearing and lucidity of a younger man, but his voice is subdued, his delivery careful. He is not afraid to leave long pauses as he mulls over a thought or searches for a precise word. Precision is his modus operandi. That and pedantry. ‘For me the word pedant is a paean of praise.’ He lectures regularly — he is a visiting professor at the University of Western Ontario, as well as an honorary fellow of Merton College, Oxford — and earlier today he gave a talk at University College, London. But most of his time is spend in scholarly silence broken only by the ticking of the clock and the rustle of a manuscript. This is where he works, when not in America or, the other country he visits frequently, Israel.
Sir Martin — he was knighted in 1995 for services to history and international relations — is on his third marriage (he has a 40 year old daughter from his first and two sons in their twenties from his second). Clearly industriousness does not come without a domestic price. A measure of his output is the ‘by the same author’ page at the front of his books. Most authors have one. He has two. Among his most important works listed there are his one volume histories of the first and second world wars and his seminal history of the Holocaust. But it is for his eight volume biography of Churchill — as well as its numerous companion papers — that his reputation rests. In addition to these he has written more than a dozen themed books on Churchill, such as Churchill and America. But his finest and best selling work is the single volume Churchill: A Life, published in 1991, written in long hand with a new fountain pen bought for the task, and running to almost a 1000 pages. It is definitive.
He has had one huge advantage over the countless other pretenders to the Churchill biographer crown: he is the official biographer and therefore the only man with, as it were, an ‘access all areas’ backstage pass. The story of how he pulled off this coup is an object lesson in timing and networking. In 1962, while working as a junior research fellow at Oxford, he approached Lady Diana Cooper, widow of Duff Cooper who had resigned from the cabinet after Munich, and asked if he could read any of her late husband’s unpublished material. She was impressed by him and wrote to ‘Darling Randy’ her friend Randolph Churchill: ‘Martin Gilbert loves Duff and hates the Coroner and is full of zeal to set history right. Do see him.’ (The Coroner was Chamberlain.) Randolph, who at the time was researching his father’s archive with a view to writing a major biography, began sending Gilbert telegrams asking to see him. Gilbert was reluctant at first because, well, I’ll let him tell it: ‘Randolph invited me to Stour, his seat in Bergholt, Suffolk, but I was loathe to go because I had seen him drunk and loud mouthed at the Randolph Hotel bar and had heard about his unpleasant, extreme right wing views — views bordering on the fascist. He had a reputation for being what was then known as a fascist beast.’
Randolph was, indeed, known as ‘the beast of Bergholt’. He proved friendly enough though. One of his first questions to the young Gilbert was: ‘Are you musical? all Jews are musical.’ He was eccentric, too. He would refer to archive discoveries as ‘Lovely grub’. ‘History was for him a feast, full of delicious morsels,’ Gilbert says. ‘And so, despite his unpredictable rages, it became for me.’ Randolph would explode frequently, blowing hot and cold, but he took to his protégé because he didn’t ‘wilt under fire’. Gilbert recalls having to stay up until 2am on his first night at Stour, standing his ground. Next morning as Randolph was cheerfully pottering on his terrace, ‘his dressing gown blowing in the wind, his slippers shuffling on the flagstones’ he asked Gilbert to work for him, as one of a team of five researching the Churchill papers. ‘I thought it would last six months. It lasted a lifetime.’ When Randolph died in 1968 at the age of 57 Gilbert was the chosen successor. The Churchill papers were brought across country from Stour in a pantechnicon, under police escort and put, for safety, into the basement of the Bodleian library. They weighed 15 tons. ‘Merton gave me a sabbatical in 1970 and it lasted several decades.’
It’s a massive archive, and Churchill is a massive subject, arguably the most important in history — was he not overwhelmed by the scale of his task? Gilbert smiles thinly. ‘I’ve arranged the archive material for my next book on Churchill in my studio next door. I’ll show you if you like. You’ll be the first person to see it.’ He leads the way out of the house and around the corner to a modern looking studio. There are 25 desks lined up end to end, each with a pile of green papers on it, stacked according to years. ‘I’m beginning to think that it was a mistake laying them out like this. It does look daunting, doesn’t it? I aim to go through each file systematically. I decided not to use the catalogue. If you skip files that say “miscellaneous” then that is the file where the nugget will be.’
Initially the Churchill books took an age to research because of the official secrets act. ‘When I started working for Randolph in 1962 you couldn’t see anything after 1912. I remember visiting John Profumo to ask his permission to see just one or two files from the thousands on Churchill at the War Office in the First World War.’
Although he never formally met his subject, he does remember being struck by how short he was the first time he saw him walking out of Downing Street in 1955. When I ask what the one question is he would ask Churchill if he walked into the room now he reflects for a full minute, drumming his fingers. ‘Did he believe in 1903 that when he set up the Unionist Free Traders that he might be able to persuade the Tory party to adopt free trade. Or did he accept that he would have to become a liberal at that stage and that that was his way of signalling to the Tories and liberals that tariffs were an issue that he was not prepared to compromise upon.’
Oh. Well, I did ask. But given all the intrigue in Churchill’s life I had been expecting something more colourful. I try a different tack: does Gilbert ever catch himself talking to Churchill as he is working, you know, muttering to himself? ‘No, I don’t. And I’ve only twice dreamt about him. Once when I was having a real problem with the Dardanelles chapters and I was walking along the seafront and there he was in front of me. I rushed up to ask this pedantic question that was bugging me. The other time was a few weeks ago. He was being affable and pleased to see me.’
Gilbert has dedicated many, many years to the study of this one man — a lifetime, indeed — does he feel his subject has overshadowed his own life? ‘Not really, because I very deliberately tried to do some other pieces of writing in between the Churchill volumes. And I’ve always made an effort to read writing other than his own, so as not to lapse into a parody of his style.’
As well as a being an adventurer, a hard drinker and a maverick, Churchill had experience of war and understood its exhilarations and traumas. He also, of course, made history, rather than observing it from the sidelines. Sir Martin is 70 now. When he looks back at his own life does he feel a certain ennui, a sense of having lived a flat life by comparison with his hero’s, as an observer of history rather than a maker of it? ‘I know what you mean but no, I don’t think…I did my National Service but I had no aspirations to be a solider. I just published a book on the Somme and every page was difficult to write. I kept thinking back to my mindset at 20 and wondering whether I would have survived a day and kept sane. Churchill did, incidentally. He wrote a letter to his wife after two months in the trenches: “All the excitement dies away and there is only dull resentment.”’
His latest book is the marriage of his two big subjects, Churchill and the Jews. There was some controversy about it early this year when a Cambridge academic claimed to have found an anti-Semitic article that had been ghost written for Churchill — the article, which was never published, described Jews as ‘Hebrew bloodsuckers’. Gilbert swatted the academic away like a fly, pointing out that 1) he had first unearthed this document 20 years ago and quoted from it in a book and that 2) Churchill had refused to have the article published because he disagreed with it.
He asks to see my copy of his new book. I hand it over gingerly, pointing that I have annotated it throughout. He tells me not to worry and turns to a page in which he quotes Churchill’s instructions to the ghostwriter. When he has read it he says: ‘… So we do know what he was thinking…’ This leads me to ask about something that has been bothering me. Even though he can claim to know the mind of Churchill better than anyone, he never speculates about what Churchill was thinking. Why is that? ‘Well I was fortunate with this book in that I didn’t need to because I had access to the secret evidence Churchill gave to the appeal commission on Palestine. It reveals his true positive feelings towards the Jewish state and his contempt for the Arabs. He had wanted his evidence destroyed in 1937 but his secretary Mrs Hills, who I knew, never threw anything away. She kept the proof copy. Thank you, Mrs Hills. She performed a service to history. Other prime ministers were more successful in destroying their archives. I had two spells of working for Harold Wilson and he used to just screw up documents and drop them in the waste paper basket. I saw him do it. “That is my archive,” he would say.’
Although speculation is not Sir Martin’s game, he has tried to piece together the substance of Churchill’s private conversations. ‘I found an account of him warning Lloyd George that he must not have too many liberal Jews in his cabinet. Three being too many. That was in 1917.’
One of the difficulties in having Churchill as an historical subject was that he wrote so much history himself. Would it be fair to say that the difference between them as writers of history is that Churchill liked to tell a story whereas Gilbert prefers to stick to documented evidence? ‘Yes, Churchill liked the purple passages and the grand sweeps which are fun to read but they don’t advance the narrative.’ Historians who resort to the word ‘perhaps’ are simply trying to mask their failure to get to the truth, he adds. Perhaps, I say, but at least that is more fun. Gilbert smiles the thin smile. ‘I believe in true history. What happened in the past is unalterable and definite. Failure in historical research is no crime. It is one of the hazards of the profession.’ He also thinks you have to be careful not to leap to conclusions that the evidence does not support — ‘Wanting something to be the case does not make it so.’ This may be why he is regarded in the profession as more a chronicler of history than an interpreter of it. Perhaps.
Bearing in mind the current success enjoyed by TV historians such as David Starkey and Simon Schama, as well as the astonishing sales of books such as Stalingrad, I ask him why he thinks we are all suddenly so obsessed with history. ‘I think because it is now history. My generation lived through that war. It wasn’t history to us then. Now it is far enough in the past to seem very different from our lives. When I was writing about the Somme I thought: how do you describe what Britons went though? At least the Second World War had movement. But there is no movement in the First World War and I think that is why Americans are now anxious about Iraq. There is no movement. It has become a war of attrition.’
Speaking of which, I cannot help noticing a small stars and stripes flag on his desk. ‘That? The first President Bush gave it to me. We were filming in the White House and I gave him a copy of my Second World War book. Six months later, when Saddam invaded Kuwait, I started getting messages from journalists asking: “Did Churchill believe in assassination?” “What was Churchill’s view of one country invading another?” I was puzzled then I was told that on Air Force One that morning the president had produced my book and said: ‘I’m going to go into Kuwait. This book is proof I should do it.” The journalists had assumed it was my Churchill book. It wasn’t. It was the Second World War book I had given him.’
Timing and networking again. In his memoirs Bush describes how he had read the first 15 pages of the book, the ones which describe how the Germans had begun killing civilians within days of invading Poland — mayors, priests, clerks. ‘Bush said he wasn’t going to allow history to repeat itself.’
So Gilbert was to blame for that war, too, I say.
He laughs wheezily, his face creasing momentarily before resuming an expressionless composure. A thought hangs between us unsaid: the historian did have a hand in history, after all. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.