THE LAST LION
Winston Spencer Churchill: Visions Of Glory, 1874-1932
Together, Churchill and Manchester--the lion and the lionizer, the quotable and the quoter, the anecdoted and the anecdotist--can hardly miss in the marketplace. Even those who know better may find 900 pp. of juicy Churchilliana hard to pass up. This is extravagance, however, with a motive. When Manchester writes that Churchill, after Dunkirk, "spoke. . . to the English people as no one had before or ever would again," he has in mind the end of Empire, and the romantic, bellicose, paternalistic Churchill as its last great embodiment. It's a splendid theme, at any rate, for a spectacle--with flares shooting off in all directions. Churchill, to Manchester, is a 19th-century man--but also the inventor of the tank and an early champion of air power (on both of which M. has fine, fresh material). He's a consummate politician, a hopeless politician. (Similarly, Stanley Baldwin is "a shrewder politician than Churchill" on p. 784; "in his long career"--on p. 799--"Baldwin did few clever things.") "As a youth [Churchill] decided that the great issues of his time would be decided on the battlefield." As a child, he suppressed his rage against his parents, turning his hostility inward, becoming a depressive; in war, he found an outlet for his aggression and, in bolshevism and Hitler, worthy enemies, The book is erratic, inconsistent, undiscriminating in other respects too. To absolve Churchill of blame for Gallipoli (a major stress), Manchester cites Rhodes James and Liddell Hart--the best of sources; to fill out his murderous portraits of mother Jennie and especially father Randolph, he leans on Frank Harris (and can't understand why people don't credit Harris' tale of how RC contracted syphilis). He writes sniggeringly of Jennie's lovers (and other sexual matters--referring repeatedly, for instance, to "the expensive Dutch cup" and other contraceptive curiosa)--but he also provides a sparkling account of young Winston's Kaiser Wilhelm/Crystal Palace weekend with Count Kinsky. Periodically, he catalogues what's-going-on-in-Britain: a paragraph on the theater, sheer writerly legerdemain ("At his Majesty's Theatre you could see . . ."), climaxes in a crackling bit of WC/GBS badinage. The book has no proportion; but except as political history, it does have the virtues of its excesses. In a curious way, however, Manchester's massively detailed glorification of Churchill has the same effect as Robert Caro's recent, massively detailed damnation of Lyndon Johnson: it sets up counter-currents. We are reminded of Churchill's dogged intervention in the Russian civil war and, subsequently, of "his visceral reaction against socialism--he was always mistaking pink for red." We're reminded, apropos of his fight against Indian self-government (which Manchester tries hard to justify), of his lifelong racial prejudice. The book ends, in 1932, with Lady Astor's assurance to Hitler: "Churchill? . . . Oh, he's finished." As a curtain-line, terrific (if unsubtle). But Manchester may also have demonstrated, by this omnium-gatherum, why Churchill's greatness lay in wartime leadership.