Winston Churchill as a celebrity journalist, Irish mystery writers, and George Smith and the Epic of Gilgamesh: newsletter, January 24, 2020

January 27, 2020 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: fiction, history, journalism, newsletter, writers, writing.

This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,6xx) on Friday, January 24, 2020.



Mid-January has brought us subfreezing temperatures and plenty of rain. The rain has kept us out of the garden plots, which need winter tilling, and the cold prevents wood-working because glue won’t adhere in the cold. All this makes a perfect time for drawing, painting, and reading.

All of that brings me to one of the major pleasures of modern life — Amazon’s “free samples.” I use free samples in two ways: to download the first of a book that I might be interested in; and to start reading a book that the library has but is checked out. On more than one occasion, the free sample led me to buy the book itself, either the Kindle edition or the print copy. So, this week, I am especially thankful for free samples.

I hope that you have found something in this season to be thankful for, and I wish you a happy and contented weekend.

Under the newsletter’s hood: Last week’s newsletter was sent to 2,626 subscribers and had a 29.7 percent open rate; 6 people unsubscribed.

Important: Remember to open the images or click on one of the links so that my email service will record your engagement, and you will stay active on the list. Thanks.

Winston Churchill and the Second Boer War: A celeb journalist becomes a hero

When the Second Boer War between the British Empire and the Boer states in southern-most Africa broke out in the fall of 1899, the British newspaper reading public could be sure of one thing: the newspapers in London would spare no expense in their efforts to cover the war and to bring home exciting stories that would boost both sales and advertising.

It was an age when newspapers were ascendant; they had become money-making behemoths.

It was also the age of celebrity journalists. The crowded field of scribblers was led by the likes of Rudyard Kipling, whose name was well known to the British for his patriotic poetry and The Jungle Book, which has been published five years before. Another was Edgar Wallace, who would eventually achieve fame as a novelist, short story writer, and playwright. There was also Arthur Conan Doyle, who had created Sherlock Holmes 12 years earlier and whose byline would be a magnet for readers. Doyle, a physician by training, planned to volunteer as a doctor for the British army but would also be available for journalistic purposes. Doyle ended up writing one of the war’s best histories, The Great Boer War.

Despite these famous names, the byline that every publisher wanted for his newspaper was that of 24-year-old Winston Churchill.

In September, before the war had even begun, Churchill received a telegram from Sir Alfred Harmsworth, publisher of two of Britain’s most popular newspapers, the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror, that made the young man a lucrative offer if he would be the newspapers’ correspondent. Churchill, however, believed he could do better, so he contacted Oliver Borthwick, editor of the Morning Post, a newspaper that prided itself in its coverage of foreign affairs.

Borthwick did not have to be persuaded. He responded immediately with an offer of 1,000 pounds (more than $150,000 in modern dollars) for four months’ work and another 200 pounds per month after that.

Why so much effort and money to land Churchill, who would not reach his 25th birthday until November.

Simply put, Churchill had proven himself on the battlefield not only as a soldier but also as a writer. Churchill had been with British troops in earlier conflicts in India, Egypt, and the Sudan. He not only fought bravely, but he had also written vividly about it.

Churchill biographer William Manchester (The Last Lion trilogy; Visions of Glory, volume 1) noted that the greatest achievement of Churchill’s young life was his mastery of the language. His command of English set him apart from most other writers. His wide range of reading gave his writing depth. His lively and original descriptions and his vivid imagery put readers on the field beside him, allowing them to experience the exhilaration and horror of war. Churchill’s dispatches and his books — he had already written one and was about to publish another by the fall of 1899 — were read from Buckingham Palace to the small villages in the countryside.

Borthwick got more than his money’s worth in hiring Churchill. The young correspondent put himself in the middle of the action soon after arriving in South Africa and was captured and held in a POW camp in Pretoria by the Boers. After several weeks of internment, Churchill escaped and spent many harrowing days making his way east to Portuguese East Africa, where he was free. Churchill’s internment and escape — which the Boers announced by offering a reward for his capture — made him even more of a celebrity than ever. Afterwards, Churchill returned to the war and continued writing dispatches for The Morning Post.

Churchill’s adventure during the Second Boer War is the subject of Candice Millard’s Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, the Daring Escape, and The Making of Winston Churchill — a tale well-told.

New York City’s subway and its map

Have you ever been to New York City and ridden on its subway system?

If so, did you use the official subway system map?

The map has been under constant development for the past 40 years. The New York Times has a graphic presentation explaining the map and how it got to be the way it is here: The New York City Subway Map as You’ve Never Seen It Before – The New York Times

It takes you on a subway ride that is pretty interesting. Take the ride. It won’t cost anything but a few minutes.

The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries.”

Irish mystery writers, plus an excellent website

In thinking about putting together a March display on Irish mystery writers for the local library, I asked my good friend and reference librarian/researcher extraordinaire Brennan L. — also proud Irish descendant — for a starter list. Here’s what she provided:

Here is a handful of Irish/Northern Irish crime writers I have read. Sorry, but Tana French is the only woman.
– Brian McGilloway – Inspector Benedict Devlin series, on border of Ireland/Northern Ireland
– Ken Bruen – hard-boiled & noir crime fiction
– Declan Hughes – noir crime fiction
– Adrian McKinty – Sean Duffy Series, NI
– Benjamin Black – Quirke series, a 1950s Dublin pathologist (he has written other fiction under his real name, John Banville)
– Tana French – Dublin murder squad
– Peter Tremayne – Sister Fidelma series. A 7th century nun,under the Brehon code, was authorized to practice law. Lots of historic detail.
– Stuart Neville – NI crime thrillers.
The Neville book I read was way too gruesome for me (torture, Nazis, ripping off fingernails, etc) but I was delighted that it mentioned a relative. My dad’s first cousin, Noel Browne, was a controversial political figure in Ireland and he pops up in the book Ratlines.
Any additions to the list?
The aforementioned Brennan also suggested this:
Look over this link.
If you (and your newsletter readers) don’t know about, it is an amazing place to search for mysteries by location, sub-genre, main character, award winners, etc.
This really is an excellent website that all mystery readers should be aware of.
George Smith and the Epic of Gilgamesh


— Writing: It started with the Sumerians (part 1)

— The library of Ashurbanipal: its discovery changed our view of history (part 2)

 Henry Rawlinson on the Behistun inscription: key to the translations of Ashurbanipal’s library (part 3) 

When George Smith stood up before London’s most important people at the British Museum in late 1872, he was within walking distance of the neighborhood where he had been born, Chelsea. But Smith had traveled life’s road a great distance from his humble birth. The audience that day included William Gladstone, England’s prime minister and most important politician, and scholars, theologians, and many high-born gentlemen. They were all waiting almost breathlessly for what the young 32-year-old of humble birth had to say.

George Smith had spent the previous several years studying the astonishing findings of Austen Henry Layard and Hormuzd Rassam when they stumbled upon the Library of Ashurbanipal while digging up the ancient city of Nineveh in Persia. Smith was fascinated by the clay tablets that contain cuneiform characters that were obviously from some ancient culture, likely the Sumerians who lived more than 4,000 before.

Much of the cuneiform code had been broken through the work of Persian language expert Sir Henry Rawlinson, who had risked his life to find the secrets of the ancient languages of Mesopotamia. Despite Rawlinson’s work, the cuneiform impressions in the tablets were still damnably hard to read and decipher.

Smith, as a printer’s apprentice, had taken an amateur’s interest in all of these findings and had made it a habit of visiting the museum almost on a daily basis to view the tablets. Doing so allowed him to develop a knowledge and understanding of the shapes and impressions in the stones that went beyond anyone else’s, and museum officials and Rawlinson took notice. They eventually extracted him from the printer’s shop and brought him onto the museum’s staff.

One day while looking through some of the tablets spread out on a table, Smith’s eyes zeroed in on a particular one, and he began to read what would become the most sensational discovery of them all. It was the story of a flood — a flood during which a man survived by building a large boat. The boat was caught on a mountaintop, and a bird was sent to search for dry land.

It was, Smith was then convinced, the Biblical story of Noah. Because the stone from which Smith was reading had been broken, the story was only a few lines long, but to him and to others it was confirmation of the Biblical text from an ancient source — far older than anything that had ever been discovered. His appearance before the Society of Biblical Archeology, which included Prime Minister Gladstone, caused a sensation throughout the Western world.

Smith subsequently found that he was incorrect about the story. To the disappointment of many theologians and clergy, the tale was not about Noah. It was something even more ancient. It was part of the Epic of Gilgamesh, now thought to be the oldest piece of literature we have on record.

After his appearance before the Society of Biblical Archeology, the London Daily Telegraph financed an expedition for Smith to go to the Nineveh site to see if he could find more tablets that contained the story. Because of the state of the site and the thousands of tablets that remained there, it was a needle-in-a-haystack hunt. Miraculously, however, Smith discovered tablets that had many other parts of the story, and eventually Smith was able to translate and better understand what he had found.

Smith made a second journey to Persia in 1873, after which he finished one of his books, The Chaldean Account of Genesis, which you can read online. During a third expedition, tragedy struck. Smith became ill and died of dysentery. He was 36 years old.

Illustration: A representation of some of the pieces of the tablet from which Smith extracted the flood story. Smith had become an expert at fitting pieces of this ancient puzzle together.


Dan C.: I would like to contest a couple of statements you made last week.

1. I would say that my fellow one year Cadet at West Point, Edgar Allen Poe, was the father of modern horror. A Tell-Tale Heart pre-dates Lovecraft by nearly a half a century and you cannot get much weirder than The Raven (or Poe himself). I do have to admit that Poe and Lovecraft did write a different type of weird.

2. I am one who feels you should never start a sentence with And or But as you did. My reasoning is that they are unnecessary words and the period (in a weird way) acts as the connector. As an editor, I try to get rid of as many unneeded words as possible.
Marcia D.: A sad note, as far as bookstores go, the Barnes and Noble in downtown Seattle closed this week. After 22 years, their lease was not renewed. They are looking for another location downtown!
Susan W.: I began ignoring Benjamin Dryer’s three rules a few years back for the sake of readability. It was tough at first. I heard the voices of beloved teachers in my ear, chastising. But I wanted to remove the slight awkwardness of reading when following those rules. Readers also appreciate, I think, the more conversational feel of written language when those three rules are ignored. Split infinitives especially sound better when split! LOL! And now I don’t have to feel guilty — a Random House editor has given dispensation!
Vicki G.: Thank you for the very informative article about H.P. Lovecraft, I devoured the entire article and subscribed to the podcast!
Charles B.: Ignore never end a sentence with a preposition? Well, ok, so long as the preposition isn’t at.
A couple of readers wrote with the Winston Churchill story about ending a sentence with a preposition, including the following:

Bill G.: I agree with ignoring all three rules, but I wanted to tell you my favorite quote on this topic. Winston Churchill had given a speech at the House of Commons and a woman approached him to complain, “Mr. Churchill, you ended a sentence with a preposition.” Churchill replied, “You are right, madam, ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.”

In other words, when the correction is more awkward than the mistake, make the mistake.

Or this one:

Ian A.: There are a few variations of what Churchill supposedly scribbled but all are similar. It was:
‘Not ending a sentence with a preposition is a bit of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put.’

Finally . . .

This week’s watercolor: George Smith (caricature)

Best quote of the week:

“Science, my lad, is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which it is useful to make, because they lead little by little to the truth.” Jules Verne, French novelist, poet, and playwright (1828-1905)

Helping those in need

Fires in California, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast — disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them need our help.

It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).

When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief ( is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.

Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.


Jim Stovall

You can connect with Jim on FacebookTwitterLinkedin, and BookBub.

His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.

Last week’s newsletter: The father of modern horror literature, grammar rules to live without, and a podcast recommendation: newsletter, January 17, 2020



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