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March 23 2013


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

February 21 2012


Fifty-Cent Piece

Fifty years ago today, John Glenn circled the Earth three times aboard Friendship 7, the first American in orbit. Fifty years ago yesterday, the New York Mets opened their first spring training with Casey Stengel's stories in St. Petersburg, Florida. And 50 years ago tomorrow, I slipped into this world. My parents had watched Glenn coverage on snowy black and white television the day before, and my grandfather bought a new camera for the occasion of my birth. There was a snowstorm in New York.

Such a round number, fifty. The states of course. The half dollar. The knowledge that within limits of human biology, 50 is often the biggest anniversary most people attain. The Rolling Stones are 50 this year. So is Darryl Strawberry, that meteoric and magical Met, born three weeks after I was. David Foster Wallace would have been 50 tomorrow, born the same day as me in upstate Ithaca.

My father was a newspaperman on the production side, and my mother a school teacher. The American world they brought me into was far smaller and less connected, far more conservative and tribal than the one my children will bring their children into. In 1962, the year that James Meredith sought to enroll as the first black student at the University of Mississippi, much of the South still broiled under legal segregation. Women had little access to the top ranks of the work place, and the Ivy League was all-male. Homosexuals hid their identities away, or faced terrible consequences. The idea that a one-year-old baby born in Hawaii the year before me to mixed race parents would someday occupy the White House was the stuff of pure political fantasy.

Time is a strange phenomenon, particularly when considering generations. The last Civil War veterans died during the decade before I was born, but veterans of the frontier wars against the American Indian and the Spanish-American War were still around when I came on the scene. World War I vets were grandfathers, and World War II vets were the still-young middle-aged managers. The U.S. had a few military advisers in Southeast Asia, and the idea that an American army would someday invade a Middle East nation wasn't even on the radar screen, nor was Islam much of a geo-political factor. The enemy was communism and its spread, personified by 35-year-old Fidel Castro and his patron in Moscow, Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev. Winston Churchill still lived, as did Harry Truman, Jawaharlal Nehru, Douglas MacArthur and Charles DeGaulle. Mao ruled China. JFK was President, RFK his Attorney General and Martin Luther King was a young civil rights leader. Marilyn Monroe still had a few months to live.

'Tis strange to be 50, I'll admit. So much still to do, so many projects simmering. The challenges mount (precluding much time on this blog, long-suffering followers). But some things are timeless, and music is one of them. Here then, as a little gift to myself, one of the chart-toppers of 1962 (number one on some charts) - and a true classic of the genre:

Tags: History
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