Review: The Last Lion

Full Title: The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965 by William Manchester and Paul Reid.

I listened to this as an audiobook over a period of three months. Fifty-four hours of listening, and the book is only the fourth volume of a biography covering the entire life of Winston Churchill. I haven't read the earlier installments; I went straight to the World War II years.

I won't deny that there were moments when this biography felt like a long haul. Especially at first. I'm used to the biography style that's caught on in recent years--or at least, the recently published biographies that I've read conform to this type--that stick really close to the subject. They attempt to root around in the subject's interior world, to show what makes the subject tick. The broad canvas of history may get a lot of pagetime, but is always secondary to the tight focus on the subject as a character.

The Last Lion isn't like that at all. It's a history of World War II as much as it is a book about Winston Churchill. Churchill is a constant presence, a lodestone the author doesn't stray from, but he remains at a slight remove from the reader. Just a step or two away, enough to feel intimate but not invasive.

I picked up the book because I'm interested in 'great' people--people who accomplished impossible things, larger than life personalities. It's a practical interest. If I want to write extraordinary characters, I should study some examples.

And so the things that delighted me most about the biography were odd, surprising moments--Churchill holding court in a kimono, Churchill jumping into the ocean starkers, often with a whole coterie of guards stationed or even paddling around him, his painting and his volatile temper and his sense of humor. He was a really funny guy.

Actually, the key quote for me came almost at the end. Churchill's determination during the early war years, when failure seemed inevitable, is almost impossible to comprehend. Before I read this book, my knowledge of World War II extended to, basically, the beaches of Normandy and the Holocaust. I avoid military history, as a rule. So I had no idea how bad it was for Britain, how desperate things got.

I mean, yes, I knew about the Blitz and the bomb shelters and children sent to the country but...I had no idea. One country after another toppling to Hitler, some surrendering in advance because every display of force proved resistance to be futile, until Britain is the last holdout in Europe. If it were fiction, I would not have believed the turnaround--I would not have believed that Britain could have held out against the onslaught, or that any leader could keep his population defiant in the face of near-certain defeat. 

It just seemed impossible. And I wondered--what is it about him, what quality did he dig up inside himself, that kept him from ordering a surrender? And, as I said, I got a clue at the end.

After the war is over. Churchill loses the election that would have allowed him to stay on as Prime Minister. The coalition government falls apart; in peacetime, people remember their disagreements. Churchill ends up as the opposition leader, fully partisan. And a lot of people are critical of him. They say he should step away from party politics; that he has a role as a statesman; that he's tarnishing his reputation.

Churchill's reply? "I fight for my corner, and I leave when the pub closes." 

That's the personality. It cuts both ways--probably it did harm his reputation--but that rigidity, that loyalty, defines him at his best and his worst. Probably he was a warmonger, certainly he was an Imperialist. He oversaw a lot of losing battles and it sounds like he could be really childish and mercurial--but could anyone else have done what he did? 

I have to say, I found the whole book riveting. It was so full of new-to-me information, and Churchill such a fascinating, funny, unpredictable guy--Roosevelt said, "Churchill had a hundred ideas a day, four of which are good" (indeed, his aides complained of this) & Churchill replied (paraphrasing now) that it was rotten thing to say, coming from someone who had no ideas at all. Always a quip or a rejoinder--of someone who he found overly virtuous, "There, but for the grace of God, goes God"--when someone suggested that his baby grandson bore a resemblance to him, he replied that it wasn't a family resemblance, he just looked like a baby. 

Anyway. Worth the time invested.