October 17, 2008

By William Manchester, Little Brown, Boston & Toronto, 971 pages, 9½ x 6½”, bookstore price $25.

Reviewed by Richard M. Langworth

The eminent William Manchester, covering Winston Churchill’s first 58 years in the first of a two-volume biography, has produced an erudite, highly readable “life” that supplants at once every similar account short of the Official Biography itself. The Last Lion has been criticized by some reviewers as not saying any­thing new, which gives the author short shrift and entirely misses his point. Manchester’s book is for mainstream readers who don’t wish to digest the multi-volume O.B., and in that field it surpasses all its rivals by a country mile.

What makes the work so readable is the author’s smooth prose and his sense of pace. He knows when a subject has been plumbed, when it’s time to move along. Personal notes from his own wide experience add a new dimension to the Churchill story. Manchester notes, for instance, that in 1950 he surveyed Indian villages to learn how many natives knew the Raj had ended. He gave up when it became apparent that most didn’t know the British had arrived! This rather disputes an earlier statement that WSC couldn’t understand the Indians’ “rising expectations” for home rule, but is most illuminating and interesting.

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Manchester’s greatest qualification as a Churchill biographer is his broad background in history. Unlike almost every previous biographer, he ably relates in just a few paragraphs not only what happened, but why it happened, and the context and background behind it. Unlike all the rest, he begins not in 1874 but with a 40-page preamble, which is really an “appreciation” of WSC, so beautifully written that it is alone worth the price of the book: “His niche in history—it is a big one—is secure,” Manchester writes of the Great Man. “And so is his place in our affections. He will be remembered as freedom’s champion in its darkest hour, but he will be cherished as a man. He was a feast of charac­ter, a figure emanating parochial grandeur like King David, and he also belonged to that rare species, the cultivated man of action, the engage intellectual … When his flag-draped coffin moved slowly across the old capital, drawn by naval ratings, and bare-headed Londoners stood trembling in the cold, they mourned not only him and all lie had meant, but all that they had been, and no longer were, and would never be again.”

There are a few questionable conclusions, open to at least some argument. Manchester has “the distinct impression” that WSC thought his skin graft for a fellow officer in Egypt “would win votes.” He says modern Britons “wince” at public displays of patriotism- but there was no wincing during the Falklands incident, nor at any Royal event we’ve ever witnessed. He sug­gests that Churchill’s “name, not academic competence, got him through Harrow and Sandhurst” (Harrow, but surely not Sandhurst); that “his brilliance and dazzling wit were lost” on Clementine (not if we accept Clemmie’s own account of her first impressions); that the “Ulster Will Fight” slogan was Lord Randolph’s mischievous “chief contribution to history” (surely it was Lord Randolph’s reiteration that the Tories could not survive on the old pedestal of class and privilege?); that WSC’s real solace after the deaths of his father and Everest was that his links with the past were broken (yet WSC constantly invoked his father’s mannerisms and causes during his early political career, and never forgot Everest, particularly when he decided on the location of a country home).

There are also one or two misplaced quotes. The “You Are Drunk/You Are Ugly” exchange came in 1947, not the late 1920s; “They almost got me that time, Thompson,” came after a near miss by a car in Nassau, after the 1931 New York accident; Lullenden is represented as a town rather than a house; and W. H. Thompson was not at WSC’s side “off and on for the rest of his political life”-Thompson left, under a considerable cloud, at the end of WW2. Manchester calls WSC’s expropriation of two battleships being built in Britain for Turkey an “unbelievable” act which sent Turkey into the arms of the Kaiser, which is an uncharacteristic underestimate of what capital ships meant by the war standards of that time. It is hard to imagine any other First Lord handing them over to an uncommitted power in a war like that.

This said, I reach the limits of my criticism of this fine work. No reader moderately schooled in Churchill can get through 900 pages without some disagreement with a biographer; yet I found that the usually copious notes of complaint and conten­tion I make while reading other biographies amounted in this case to just a few lines. Perhaps it’s just that I agree with Man­chester and we’re both wrong; but I tend to think other Churchillophiles will find this book as appealing as I do. I should also mention that the 60-odd photographs are not crammed into hard-to-find photo sections but interspersed throughout the book, so they coincide exactly with the appropriate text.

Most ardent Churchillophiles are often asked by their friends, “Which biography would you recommend I read for a good grasp of Churchill?” This has always been a difficult question for me, but the answer is now easy. I tell them, “The Last Lion­–beyond a doubt.” Get it!         -RML

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