Winston Churchill: ‘minister of the Crown by day, writer by night’

Aha, I am thinking, as I stand at last in Winston Churchill’s study. So this is how he did it. By special leave of the staff at Chartwell I have come right up to the desk — beyond the rope barrier. I am looking at the very same pair of round black John Lennon-ish Bond Street spectacles that he used; and there are his hole-punches. There is the bust of Napoleon, rather bigger than the bust of Nelson, and there are the paperweights that you see in some of the photographs.

As I stoop to examine the deep scuffing in the right arm of his desk chair – a reminder of the odd way Churchill used to clutch it, perhaps because of his dislocated shoulder – I am politely asked to step back. I think they are worried I am going to test the chair with my weight.

I comply unhesitatingly. I have seen enough.

This is not just an English country house, with a stunning view of the weald of Kent, with fish ponds and croquet lawn and a cinema and painting studio and every civilised amenity that could be devised by a gentleman of leisure. No, no: this much-amended Elizabethan manor is no scene of repose. This is a machine.

It is no wonder that the design of this house proceeded from the same teeming brain that helped invent the tank and the seaplane and which foresaw the atom bomb. Chartwell Manor, Westerham, Kent, was one of the world’s first word processors. The whole house is a gigantic engine for the generation of text.

Downstairs there is a room with green lamps hanging from the ceiling, and maps on the wall and a telephone exchange: and here he kept his researchers – about six of them at once, junior Oxford dons, research fellows, some of them destined for high academic honours. There they were, filleting, devilling, rootling around in books and documents in search of stuff that might be of use… When he needed some fact or text, he would figuratively hit the “execute” key, and summon them; and up they would go – only one at a time. They would go into the study and there they would find him in the act of composition.

One of the many reasons for feeling overawed by Churchill is that he could not only discharge his duties as a minister of the Crown by day. He would then have a slap-up dinner, with champagne, wine and brandy. Only then, at 10pm, refreshed and very jovial, he would begin to write.

Extract from The Churchill Factor by Boris Johnson (Hodder, £25)