I finally finished No More Champagne: Churchill and his Money, a meticulously-researched history of Winston Churchill’s financial life.
The guy was kind of a mess when it came to his money. Churchill was meaningfully in debt for much of his career, right up to and including some of his time as Prime Minister. His financial saving grace was a combination of an other-worldly level of creative output (enabled by a strong supporting team of researchers and ghostwriters) and some arguably dubious but impressive creativity in avoiding the UK’s insanely high wartime taxes. It didn’t hurt that, at the time, his World War 2 memoirs also garnered the largest non-fiction book deal in history.
No More Champagne goes deep on Churchill’s dealings during the stock market crash of 1929, and includes an excerpt from an op-ed he wrote for a London newspaper a week after the first market plummet. Though Churchill’s words are nearly a century old, they are still very relevant:
“Under my very window a gentleman cast himself down 15 stories and was dashed to pieces. No one could doubt that this financial disaster, huge as it is, cruel as it is to thousands, is only a passing episode in the march of a valiant and serviceable people who by fierce experiment are hewing new paths for man, and showing to all nations much that they should attempt and much that they should avoid.”
The initial imagery is dark, but I love this passage. After painting a scene of absolute despair, Churchill offers us some valuable perspective and two powerful points that are worth listening to today. Especially today.
Churchill’s first point is about time. All of us are guilty of watching the scoreboard of our own current plight. We can’t help ourselves. We’re inundated from all sides with real-time election projections, updated counts of new COVID cases, and the high-def images of natural disaster after natural disaster. But if you’re actively wallowing in the trough of whatever happens to be going wrong, you’re missing the point. As Otto von Bismarck said, “Life is like being at the dentist. You always think that the worst is yet to come, and yet it’s over already.” Churchill knew this, and shared an obvious but comforting perspective: However long it takes, whatever we’re dealing with, we will get through it. In some ways, the worst is likely already over. That’s an abstract concept, especially when we’re “in it” like we are right now. But the hope that comes with focusing on the horizon — and knowing that we’re closer to it today than we were yesterday — is an idea worth letting in. It certainly beats the alternative.
Churchill’s second point — the more important one — is about living with intention. Author Robert Greene has a concept he shared with his protege (and now best-selling author) Ryan Holiday called “Alive Time and Dead Time.” “One is when you sit around, when you wait until things happen to you. The other is when you are in control, when you make every second count, when you are learning and improving and growing.” Churchill’s hopes for his countrymen, the “new paths” he expected them to hew during the crisis, were grounded in this idea of choosing alive time. Rather than sit around and wait for the storm to pass, he called upon people to do something (anything!) to make the time worthwhile. To create an example for others to follow. To find a new way. To try stuff, and figure out what works.
So while our world is clearly a little fucked up right now, there are questions worth asking ourselves. What are we experimenting with? What habits are we cultivating? What are we deciding to say “yes” and “no” to? Who are we becoming? Picking something, anything, to tack onto our identity during this time, something we want to exit this chapter of our lives better at, prepared for, or just a bit more practiced in, and to do it on purpose, is the essence of choosing alive time and living with intention.
Good news: The changes that come with choosing alive time don’t have to be drastic to be meaningful. The secret for me has been to start small, stay consistent, and be forgiving of the occasional miss. For example, I wanted to come out of the pandemic a better writer. So I bought a small Moleskine journal, and started a morning coffee and journaling ritual, jotting down whatever work, exercise, and thoughts stood out from the day before. I don’t write much, and I don’t write every day. The key for me has been, as James Clear says in his fantastic book, Atomic Habits, to “always stay below the point where it feels like work.” But 8 months after starting my ritual, I now have three notebooks on my desk. They’re all full. I’m proud that I now have a semi-complete but entirely personal record to share from a unique period in history, and the evidence of my accumulated practice as a writer gives me confidence and momentum— in all my work. Most importantly, I’m a little more aware of my tendencies, my blind spots, and the actions that tend to nudge me towards a good day or bad day: “What I should attempt, and what I should avoid.”
It’s true, as a New York Times Op-Ed headline blared this week, “Too Much Is Happening.” But no matter how bad it gets, we still have control. Paraphrasing Mr. Churchill: Time will pass, and people can change. Both of these truths — applied in little, consistent ways — can always work to our benefit. And even now, in a time that seems scarier and less certain than any I can remember, there’s something exciting about that.
No More Champagne is a long, dense work of impressive nonfiction. To help you decide if it you might enjoy reading it, I would recommend checking out this article from the team at NPR. The article includes an inventory of Churchill’s annual alcohol consumption, which had the unintended side benefit of making me feel much better about my other new pandemic ritual — the weekday evening glass of wine.