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15:35

The First of Human Qualities

ChurchillA number of years ago, my Parliamentary namesake the well-known Labour MP Tom Watson from West Bromwich East was kindly giving me a tour behind the scenes of Whitehall, where he was then running the Cabinet Office at the very center of the British Government. As I recall, Tom's office overlooked Horse Guards Parade on one side and the back garden of 10 Downing Street, then tenanted by Gordon Brown, on the other. Catching my look of historical hankering as I gazed out his windows, he took me on a whirlwind look through the passageways until we ended up in Number 10 itself (it's really all one big, rambling connected complex - but perhaps that's a state secret I shouldn't divulge).

In any event, there we were looking around the grand staircase with its portraits, the white drawing room where Presidents are photographed with Prime Ministers, and the famed cabinet room. And just before we left the building - through the black No. 10 door itself, as it turned out - Tom pointed out a rather deflated old brown leather wing chair in the corner of the vestibule. That he said, with some historic flourish, is Winston Churchill's reading chair.

I was recalling this moment of history-related generosity on Mr. Watson's part - it was very cool - as I sailed through The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965, the posthumous collaboration between the eminent Connecticut historian William Manchester and Paul Reid. Manchester, the most prominent Western  hemisphere Churchillian, was the author of two volumes of a planned three volume biography of Churchill, the last of which was published in 1988 left Churchill on the edge of the premiereship - and the Second World War - in 1940. Manchester's health failed him, though he compiled acres of notes and outlines for the final volume before he died in 2003.

Like many armchair historians, Manchester's writing was formative for me. Goodbye Darkness, his account of the war in the Pacific, in part a first-person narrative, is among the great war books ever written. Manchester had the knack for weaving large-scale events into ground-level stories that imparted both the global machinations of empires and lives of actual people. So when my friend Eric Goldberg, over some Italian wine at I Trulli, strongly recommended the Manchester-Reid book - and Eric has never steered me wrong on history - a download was imminent.

I'd read the somewhat mixed reviews last fall when the book was released, but was intrigued by how Reid, who met Manchester as a reporter for the Palm Beach Post, deciphered both the old man's notes and his intentions like a one-man Bletchley Park team and produced a long, final chapter. And I'm not disappointed. Indeed, I think Reid's journalistic skills serve him very well on the vast, global canvas that was the last quarter century of Churchill's life. And I'm struck with the real generosity and ambition of the book. Certainly, the world didn't demand another Churchill biography; the Roy Jenkins book could certainly have served as the last big 20th century summation of that giant's life. Yet Reid is sure to explain - and then to demonstrate in capturing the sweep of events that defined Manchester's first two works - that this is a Manchester book and worthy of that reputation. The bones of garden are Manchester; the walls and pathways are laid out and familiar and the soil well-tilled with a lifetime's research. The plants are mainly Reid's - but they're arranged in the way that Gertrude Jekyll gardens still are decades after the great gardener's death. The grand design is recognizable.

As to Churchill, such is the cartoonish reputation still that it's always refreshing to read an open-eyed biography - one that countenances weakness, failure, and (perhaps) the immorality and folly of empire itself. Nonetheless, courage really was contagious in Britain in 1941 - and Churchill's keen sense of the Cold War's rise remains an example of actual strategic thinking by a major political leader. I'm not saying Churchill's world view should be welcomed early in this new century as a tonic for our global problems, nor that Churchill's famously loopy tactical ideas are either. But that clarity? By all means.

Tags: Books History

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