The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm: 1940-1965

One of my best book purchases ever was Volume 1 of William Manchester's planned three volume Winston Churchill biography. It was on a remainder rack selling "books by the inch" for $1/inch. I figure Volume 1 added about $1.75 to my purchase.

After a long wait, Volume 3 is finally out, albeit, sadly, after a change of author as Manchester passed away during the process, writing duties taken over by Paul Reid.

It shows. About 25% into the narrative the book becomes little more than a list of activities with little overall storytelling. To be sure, this characteristic turns many biographies into a slog to the finish, but here more than most.

The book leaves the reader wondering what about Churchill did to make him so beloved, at least after the initial London blitz. This is a man who was offered a Dukedom because a mere knighthood didn’t seem generous enough, a man with his own monument in Westminster Abbey. Yet we are not given any feel whatsoever about why. Perhaps just being PM during the war was enough, but something made him the most important person of the first half century, and then the entire century. This book does not give a feeling for what that something was (again, at least after his spirited heroism during the initial blitz...the narrative of which might well have been written primarily by Manchester).

Immediately after V-E day Churchill was resoundingly and overwhelmingly swept from office. Why? Of course sensible hypotheses leap mind, but we read the book to learn what knowledgeable researchers conclude, not what we assume.

(Presumably) relatedly, early on in the war, after the death of Neville Chamberlain, Churchill accepted the Tory party leadership, even though he was PM of a bi-partisan wartime government. The book describes this as the worst political decision of his life, but doesn't even try to link it to anything. Presumably it played a crucial role in the disastrous 1945 elections. As to what that role was, the reader is left to his own prejudices.

Despite the above criticisms, I'm thrilled that this book was finally completed and released, even if a substitute author had to be brought in. The world would have been the worse without it.