The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965
William Manchester and Paul Reid
There is something in the figure of Winston Churchill that elicits from people - historians, biographers, commentators - a degree of sycophancy that would have brought blushes to the cheeks of his most illustrious ancestors among the Churchills going back to Stamford Bridge. His presence in the historical record can prompt even the most sober dons to break out language more ornate than they used in love letters to their sweethearts. The ordinarily severe and balanced AL Rowse waxed lyrical, saying Winston "resides on Olympus". In his history of wartime England, the calm and objective AJP Taylor, in his biographical footnote on the man, refers to Churchill - simply and without apparent irony - as "the saviour of his country". To which dozens of British statesmen, hundreds of British officers, and thousands of British enlisted men and women might have found cause to echo Shakespeare's Cassius when he complains, "Now in the names of all the gods at once/Upon what meat does this our Caesar feed/That he is grown so great?"
With the exception only of Churchill himself, the late William Manchester did more to burnish this hagiography than any other 20th-century writer. His Last Lion books, 1983's Visions of Glory and 1988's Alone, were runaway bestsellers that regaled millions of readers with an energetically worshipful tale of Churchill on the rise. Popular as they were, the books only set the stage: the climax of the story, Churchill's leadership during the Second World War, would be the subject of the final volume. But Manchester suffered two strokes in 1998 and wouldn't be able to finish his trilogy.
Enter journalist Paul Reid. He'd befriended Manchester in the 1990s, and in 2003 an ailing Manchester gave him permission to finish The Last Lion - "finish" being a problematic word in this case, since Manchester himself hadn't really begun it. Blocks of rough research, a few first-draft pages, and some cryptic marginalia - perfunctory to the point of open deceit to call such scraps a "draft" of a 1,100-page book. Essentially, Manchester was giving permission for Reid to proceed with an idea - and the publisher Little, Brown was giving him permission to complete a valuable property. Reid himself was understandably daunted - "I reread Bill's earlier biographies and histories for insight into his approach to narrative pace and cadence," he tells us. "Only then could I begin to write the book." Manchester died in 2004, and now, nearly a decade later, the fruits of Reid's enormous work are brought before the reading public. This final volume in the Last Lion series is, in addition to all its other distinctions, a consummate feat of sustained literary ventriloquism; the many, many readers who made the first two volumes such commercial successes will have the eerie, utterly convincing feeling that they are in Manchester's company once more. Manchester often counselled Reid that a biographer must "get out of the way and let the subject speak", and Reid has had it doubly difficult - he's had to get out of the way not only of Churchill but of Churchill's most popular biographer.
He wholly succeeds. Defender of the Realm is a worthy successor to the first two volumes, mimicking precisely Manchester's penchant for vivid moments and colourful thumbnail sketches of personalities. It's certainly the most thrilling, propulsive 1,100-page doorstop readers are likely to encounter any time soon; virtually every stage of the 15 years it covers was full of shot and incident, and Reid has found precise details to bring all of it memorably to life, as when he writes of the 6th Australian Division advancing on the North African stronghold of Bardia: "Waves of them came on, screaming as one, 'We're off to see the Wizard, the wonderful wizard of Oz.' They went right through the wire and poured into the trenches," Reid wrote.
"I never think about after the war," Churchill's wife Clementine often remarked. "You see, I think Winston will die when it's over." The sentiment was natural - Churchill himself shared it - and clearly Reid (and the hard-eyed accountants at Little, Brown) agrees. Barely 200 pages of Defender of the Realm are devoted to the 10 years Churchill spent in the public eye (including another stint as prime minister from 1951 to 1955) after the war, important, even crucial years but naturally lacking lustre when compared with the great fight when it sometimes seemed - and Churchill encouraged it to seem - that one man's bulldog tenacity was all that saved England from Nazi conquest. The vast percentage of this book is devoted to Churchill's wartime leadership.
In fact, and amazingly, it's on the subject of that wartime leadership that Reid sometimes breaks with the lockstep adoration Manchester so customarily bestowed on his subject. The Churchill in Defender of the Realm is a crotchety old man whose vanity and pomposity often led him astray, and although Reid distractingly refers to him as "the Old Man" throughout (the familiar term Churchill's subordinates had for him, but surely no part of a biographer's legitimate lexicon), he doles out a refreshing amount of low-key censure as well. When referring to Churchill's famous 1939 plea to America, "Give us the tools, and we will finish the job," Reid calls the statement "a whopper" and perceptively dissects the thinking behind it, noting that "Churchill … was informed by his experiences in the Great War, when massed armies faced off for four years along five hundred miles of trenches … Warfare had since changed, and though Churchill knew intellectually that it had, he did not know it in his gut."
Of course, there are limits to such counterbalancing. Although sometimes out of step with modern warfare, "the Old Man" is never allowed to be simply inept (his disastrous proposals for D-Day are passed over in near-silence); although raffishly bellicose with secretaries, he's never shown to be careless with lives; although strict in his pursuit of tottering Germany, he's never categorised as personally bloodthirsty: "He had no choice but to continue the bombing," Reid tells us. "It might erode morale; it might smash industrial targets. Whatever the results, British morale would be boosted. Britons were not to be denied their revenge." An associate of Churchill's once commented: "In war he is particularly feral" - but that animal seldom makes an appearance in these pages.
And through it all, the reader is treated to one fantastic set-piece after another, all of it pitched to such a tempo that the pages fly by. It's an intentionally novelistic approach; the Nazis are preening villains who "strutted and swayed under a thick haze of cigarette smoke on the beer-drenched floors of the Lowenbraukeller", and the German pilotless bombers, "devilish devices propelled by a pulse-jet engine that worked by alternately gulping compressed air and jet fuel, which accounted for the pulsing, throaty thrump, thrump, thrump, thrump as they rumbled overhead". The narrative departs from Churchill for long stretches in order to follow the action in the field, and usually these digressions are expertly timed. Occasionally, Reid's enthusiasm gets the better of his syntax, although even then, the effects are dramatic: "The Germany of the future that Churchill described to Stalin bore a close resemblance to Roosevelt's post-war Germany, a Carthaginian future, in fact, which is to say, no future."
Churchill's own future is handled with a great deal of reserve (here, too, one senses Manchester would have written very differently). His massive literary outpourings are virtually ignored. His postwar time in office - a frequent source of muted embarrassment to Churchill biographers - is dealt with briskly, as is the deterioration in the great man's health that was taking place the whole time. Strokes and increasing frailty took their toll in the early 1960s, rendering Churchill too weak to fly to the White House when President John F Kennedy bestowed on him an honorary US citizenship (the only other recipient had been the Marquis de Lafayette). The young Queen Elizabeth II wanted to bestow a dukedom, but Churchill refused. When he died, in January 1965, 320,000 mourners filed past his coffin, and thousands more witnessed his elaborate state funeral - only the third non-royal to be granted such a funeral in a century.
Reid draws the details in measured, sombre prose and avoids making any kind of lachrymose summing-up. "Gentlemen, we are engaged in a very serious business," Churchill used to tell his cabinet. "We must conduct it in a serious way." Such seems to have been Reid's philosophy at the close of his labours. The Last Lion is a complete trilogy, suitable for box-sets and commemorative editions - and for robust sales, which Defender of the Realm has been enjoying since its publication. Manchester's name has top billing on the book's cover, but Reid is to be congratulated on a very tough job well done.
Steve Donoghue is managing editor of Open Letters Monthly.