The Tamsen Chronicles

Words Were His Sword

Of Cabbages and Kings by Oscar Tamsen

There is an old adage in the newspaper world that the journalist always learns more than the person being interviewed. That was most certainly the case when I had a one-on-one talk in 1960 with the late indomitable human powerhouse, Sir Winston Spencer Churchill, in the shadow of the Houses of Parliament at Westminster in London.

At the time, I found myself in England as the recipient of the (British) Commonwealth Press Union Scholarship and Fellowship and the Colonial Office Bursary as a result of my working as a young journalist and foreign correspondent covering Africa from north to south.

As the scholarship organisers knew that my job was somewhat similar to that also experienced by Sir Winston when he also worked in Africa as a journalist and soldier during the Boer War, it was decided that I should have the great opportunity of meeting in person the great statesman, writer and orator.

When I was duly taken to meet Sir Winston, I found him sitting with a cigar in one hand, which he never actually smoked throughout the time of our meeting, but I felt he had it as a prop for making a typical remonstrative Churchillian point or two.

He greeted me with a knowing smile as a fellow journalist before casually throwing me a saying in Afrikaans which I unfortunately did not know and which I had to have explained to me later. It was something he had always remembered over 64 very busy years, claiming that well-spoken and remembered words could conquer most problems of life.

On hearing Sir Winston’s rendition of Afrikaans, I immediately realised that, although this former British wartime Prime Minister had not been in South Africa since the Boer War days in 1900, he had an amazing knowledge and memory as a former journalist and soldier there some years before I was even born.

Speaking with his usual lisp, slight stammer and perfectly enunciated Harrow School diction, Sir Winston quickly let me know that his writing days in Africa had actually set him up to become Britain’s longest sitting parliamentarian in history.

When I enquired how this had come about, he said that, on his return to England, he had for the first time a little hard-earned money on hand. With this, he was able to immediately seek a suitable parliamentary seat to which he was elected as a volunteer MP, largely due to his persuasive speech writing and a rash of letters printed in his local newspaper.

Although he was born as the second son of a British Lord, I was totally astonished to learn that he and his aristocratic family had no real big money to spend. This was particularly the case when, in his early parliamentary years, he had to continually borrow sufficient funds to meet his pre-polling and other expenses.

As a result, he considered himself to be the nearest thing to being a pauper during his initial parliamentary working period but yet a rich man as he fortunately had a good knowledge of words.       

This thought literally forced him to continue to write day and night to gain a meagre living from his pen and to enable him to continue to represent those who had voted for him.

A problem in the year 1900 was that no British members of Parliament were paid for any of their political efforts and had to literally put their own money where their mouths were.

They all had to patiently wait until 1916 to receive a salary and expenses which then enabled even the poorest of community conscious people to take public office on behalf of their community and constituents.

I was told very kindly in the most simple of words that, to become a successful journalist, Sir Winston had to make writing a daily-long habit, irrespective of office hours.

This was apparently very much the case with him as I later learned from one of his wartime secretaries that he always woke up early, read the morning newspaper in bed and would then put pen to paper for hours, writing and re-writing whatever he wished to record, be it a speech, a letter or a serious article for publication.

I soon realised during our interview that this old World War11 warrior and two-times Prime Minister basically only lived for writing and speaking his common sense mind with a determination that had kept Britain safe from Adolph Hitler and his Nazi army only 22 miles away from Dover and across the English Channel.

“We journalists,” Sir Winston told me, “make a living  by what we get, but we must make a life for our nation by what we give.” I felt these few words to be very true in 1960 and even more so in today’s world of the new and often disruptive social media and highly politicised newspapers.

The tenure of his political advice was to always defend Democracy by speaking one’s mind with well-chosen words — even if one had to resort to using serious barbed rhetoric on odd occasions.

I was also pointed to the fact that, in a truly Democratic society, people were encouraged to stand up and speak their minds freely with well-chosen words, but they needed to know they had the same freedom to sit down when necessary to listen and learn.

Appeasers, on the other hand, were those without words who “fed the crocodiles in society, hoping they would be the last to be eaten.”

It was his sincere belief — and his very accurate prediction to me in 1960 — that the Western World would always have to continue to heavily defend itself with well targeted words of diplomacy against Russia and China before ever resorting to warfare, just as he had to against Nazi Germany in 1940.

Sir Winston’s view on Communism in general was that it was a system in which everyone is forced to “share the same misery.” To his mind, both countries were “riddles wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

This great man of words and action told me that, in essence, his words were his sword at all times, and were more useful in achieving a sense of national pride when under pressure by Germany during the Nazis’ battle for Britain.

I still clearly remember his success in calling all the people of the United Kingdom to defend their isle, whatever the cost and, if necessary, man-to-man with garden forks on the beaches.

When I took leave of our meeting, Sir Winston’s parting words were, “Never give up; never, never, never.” I took his advice and, here I am still searching for words as a journalist in my ninth decade.


Yamba resident and former foreign correspondent Oscar Tamsen whose work around the world from the early 1950s saw him in Colonial Africa for nearly two decades as a working journalist. Oscar’s years in the ‘Dark Continent,’ as it was then known, had him travelling from Cairo to Cape Town, meeting some of the world’s top newsmakers of the time as well as participating in a number of wars and rebellions.