Thursday, August 26, 2010

JOHN CHUCKMAN REVIEW OF WILLIAM MANCHESTER’S THE LAST LION

William Manchester died before finishing his massive three-volume biography of Winston Churchill, having completed Visions of Glory - Churchill’s childhood, military career, and early politics - and Alone, covering the period of relative political inactivity from 1932 to the start of World War II.

This is a biography which covers both Winston’s personal life and political career.

The first volume of the set is gripping, Manchester having a subject of almost unparalleled interest, a bright but very difficult child who finally finds his place as a soldier and uses his family connections – his father being a descendent of the Duke of Marlborough – to gain assignments in zones of danger from fighting on the frontiers of Afghanistan to fighting the Boers in South Africa. His adventures in faraway realms of the Empire are absolutely absorbing, sort of Boy’s Own stuff for adults. Churchill was almost fearless and often extremely lucky. He also later served as a brave officer on the front in the Great War.

Manchester’s style is clear and direct, but there are times he enters into subject areas I prefer he hadn’t, as speculations on Winston’s sexuality or rather lack of it, but Manchester had a remarkable memory and did extensive research so that all kinds of interesting little facts are scattered through the text. He also follows the custom of periodically giving little vignettes of the kind of events which were happening at the time.

Churchill’s childhood was not one anyone would envy, despite the wealth and privilege and great connections with history. His father, who died fairly early, was one of the most promising men in Parliament, having been marked out as a future Prime Minister. However, he simply did not like Winston, and theirs was a cold and often unpleasant relationship. His mother was a handsome East Coast American from a well-off family, a woman who was regularly unfaithful to her husband and reportedly even slept with the future king. She simply had no time or even interest in Winston, although there was some change when Winston’s father died.

Winston had a temperament as a boy reminding me of several historical figures who simply could not get on well in school and yet were immensely successful later, Einstein coming first to mind. Winston’s brilliance was evident to teachers but his application was slim to non-existent.

I do think Manchester goes out of his way at times trying to justify some of Winston’s schemes such as the disastrous Dardanelles campaign in World War I, an event over which others have roundly condemned Churchill. He is clearly in his subject’s corner, something I generally prefer to hostile biographers, but still it is worth pointing out that he is at times a bit excessive in this.

The second volume is less interesting, and there are two reasons for this. First, it is simply a much less engaging chapter in Winston’s life, but, second, I think Manchester plays too strongly on the word “appeasement,” even offering up a definition early on. The word and its variants, such as “appeasers,” are repeated over and over in the text, communicating to me the chilling tone of Right-wing American language.

After all, Americans barely were scratched in World War I while Europe experienced what was to that time the greatest, most pointless carnage in history. Efforts to stop a repeat of that vast horror only twenty years later remain to me not contemptible. In general, too, it was less the appeasers that eased Hitler’s path than it was a French government, in possession of the strongest army in Europe by far during the early thirties, which was unstable and uncertain and failed in the simplest, almost bloodless acts such as opposing the re-occupation of the Rhineland.

The second volume does have some nice tableaux of Winston, from his painting, which became a major hobby, to his trudging around the estate in overalls building brick walls for his gardens.

Churchill was extraordinary, and this biography captures a good deal of the flavour or tone of the man. It is recommended for students of history, leadership, world affairs, politics, psychology, and those who love a good biography.

Apparently, Manchester, before he died, selected a writer, Paul Reid, to finish the third volume. The last I read it was due in 2011.

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