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Wednesday, 27 February 2013 00:00

Final volume of Churchill biography a long-awaited gem

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bookWilliam Manchester, author of a number of best-selling books, including The Death of A President, American Caesar, and Goodbye, Darkness, spent nearly 30 years writing a three-volume biography of Winston Churchill. Still a young man when I read the first volume, The Last Lion: Visions of Glory, in 1984, I was entranced by his account not only of Churchill but also of the Victorian Age into which he had been born and the Edwardian Era in which he won his first real measure of fame. Manchester gave me and thousands of other readers more than the man: he recreated the world in which Winston Churchill had so exuberantly lived.

 

The second volume, The Last Lion: Alone, appeared in 1988, and though not quite as exciting to me — it focused largely on the 1930s and the run up to war — it was nonetheless an excellent history. Churchill and a company of other figures from the time came alive in those pages.

Like so many others, I eagerly awaited the third volume: Britain alone in the struggles against Nazism, Churchill’s friendship with Roosevelt, the aftermath of the Second World War and the new struggle against the Soviets. The second volume had appeared five years after the first, and I expected the same time-frame for the third. 

But the book never appeared. Year by year went by, and I would occasionally recollect that missing volume and wonder whether Manchester would ever bring out his final gift. I did not know then that William Manchester had spent those years suffering from a severe illness, and when I read in 2004 that he had died, I thought again with sadness on that incomplete set of books and felt sorry for Manchester, as I was certain he must have felt bitter regret at his failure. 

Then came one of those little miracles of the book world: the third volume appeared in November 2012. By then, I had heard that a Mr. Paul Reid, a writer I must confess I had never read, had honored Manchester’s request to take up the book and finish it. As I found out more about Mr. Reid, I learned that he lived in North Carolina, in Asheville if I am not mistaken, and that he and Manchester were long-time friends. But even then I wondered whether the third volume would really appear.

And then suddenly there it was — in the bookshops, online, in large stores.

I am happy to report that Manchester and Reid’s The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965 (Little, Brown and Company ISBN 978-0-316-54770-3) has completed the banquet begun so long ago. Here is a volume that easily matches the other two in its breadth of history and in its finely-wrought picture of the great man himself.

In terms of its history, one great strength of the book is its account of Great Britain in 1940. Consequences in history may seem inevitable in hindsight, but after reading the first three hundred pages of this book, we truly realize how close England came to invasion and to losing the war. Because of their fine use of detail to underline their major points, and because both writers are deeply interested in human nature as well as events, we follow the history of 1940 as we might read a story: the German attacks, the collapse of the French, Dunkirk, England alone, the horrendous bombardments that raked London night after night, the staggering loss of ships and men in the North Atlantic, the desperation felt by the British as they prepared to meet — some of them armed with pikes — a full-scale invasion of their island.

At the center of all this mess stood Churchill. Later, when asked the year of his life that meant the most to him, he replied, “1940 — always 1940.” He was 65 when he became prime minister, an age when most men begin slowing down, but “everyone who had been around him in 1940 remembered the Old Man’s astonishing, unflagging energy.” Of him that year, Reid and Manchester write:

“To the British public, he had become the ultimate Englishman, an embodiment of the bulldog breed, with the pugnacious set of his jaw, the challenging tilt of his cigar, his stovepipe hat … He himself had always ignored dietary rules, and rarely paid a penalty for it, and he drank whatever he wanted, usually alcohol, whenever he wanted it, which was often.”

Both biographers are quick to point out Churchill’s flaws: his dominance of conversations; his lack of administrative skills; his quick temper (coupled often, however, with a strong sense of chagrin); his penchant for projects and special operations. They also reveal his several efforts to lure the United States into a war. Men with long public careers are bound to make both enemies and mistakes, and Reid and Manchester don’t shy away from exposing those of Churchill.

The philosopher and critic George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We can learn from the examples of history, though we must be careful how we apply what we learn. We may also — and this is, I think, a great gift of history and biography — take solace from the past. The struggles of others, the trials of great and common men, can grant us the comfort and courage we require to confront our own misfortunes, public and private.

If nothing else, The Last Lion, now brought to completion, teaches us some of these lessons. It gives us a man who faced a dozen great ordeals in his own life and how he fought back, sometimes against great odds, with determination, pluck, and humor. If nothing else, Winston Churchill reminds us — and we need these reminders — that life was meant to be lived with grit and passion.

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