CHURCHILL BACK IN BUSINESS, WEEK 5
We were already thinking deeply about the women who worked for Winston Churchill (and occasionally wrote about him), when news came of the passing at 96 of Doreen Pugh, Churchill’s Personal Secretary for the last ten years of his life. Ms. Pugh did not write a book about her boss. Elizabeth Nel, however, did. We look to hers next, in our tour of the relative handful of Churchill memoirs written by women.
Winston Churchill’s closest collaborators, as a writer, were the young ladies who took down his dictation. They were always young because Churchill’s relentless, nocturnal work habits burned out even the most youthful and vigorous. Elizabeth Layton Nel, the young secretary depicted in the recent movie Darkest Hour, published her book Mr. Churchill’s Secretary in 1958. Though many in Churchill’s circle frowned on this book as yet another violation of protocol, decorum and privacy (by a woman memoirist, at least), it remains a fascinating read. Young Layton, from the age of 24, did indeed grow up working alongside the Prime Minister for the entirety of World War II, though she did not, in fact, begin working for him until May 1941, a year after the events depicted in Darkest Hour.
Her book marvelously captures the grinding terror and the excitement of those war years. It also vividly depicts Churchill’s courage, up close, as well as the courage, by inference, of his young typist.
Born in England but raised in Canada, Ms. Nel made the astonishingly gutsy choice of returning to her homeland at the height of the Blitz. “I wanted to share the lot of the Londoners who had been my comrades,” she wrote. “Let’s be honest. I felt bored with safety and wanted to join in all the excitement.”
Ms. Nel hurls readers into the vortex with her.
“Piccadilly was closed to motor traffic, and the roadway was piled high with glass and full of craters; from the Ritz Hotel in Piccadilly to the Mall there was a long line of flames and smoke. It was into this rather muddled existence that the great news suddenly fell upon me. A telephone call from the employment bureau — the Prime Minister needs an additional shorthand-typist… I felt rather like one of the barrage balloons that floated over London.”
She remained with Churchill from 1941-1945, the most decisive years of his long career. “He was difficult, yes, he was impatient, yes, he was demanding,” she wrote, “but never impossible. Through all of this I perceived an inner kindness and appreciation. He cared.”
In 2007, shortly before her death, Ms. Nel updated her book for a paperback reissue newly retitled, Winston Churchill by his Personal Secretary. “The fact that I am now the only one left who can tell you with absolute certainty how Winston was in the office, what he said and did, weighs rather heavily upon me,” she concluded, “the others all being now gone, alas… He certainly said to the boys of Harrow School when he visited there in August 1941, ‘Never. never, Never, NEVER give in — except to conviction of Honour or Common-sense.’ I have thought of this so often and tried to live up to it.”
As the pandemic skies darken again, we wish you heightened safety and vaccinated good health. ‘Never. never, Never, NEVER give in.’