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Thoughts on The Last Lion, the Biography of Winston Churchill by William Manchester
Yesterday, I finished reading William Manchester’s massive 3-volume biography of Winston Churchill, The Last Lion. It is, officially, the longest biography I have ever read, far taking the 3-volume Theodore Roosevelt biography by Edmund Morris. The three books total more than 2,000 pages. The audio books are more than 130 hours in length, the equivalent of listening non-stop for 5-1/2 days. For folks who binge-watch TV shows, that is the equivalent of watching about 195 40-minute episodes back-to-back.
Not a moment of it was boring, and while I’d say the book doesn’t dethrone David McCullough’s John Adams as my favorite biography, it does join it there, in equal splendor, although for different reasons.
3 volumes make up this biography:
- Visions of Glory: 1874-1932 (1984)
- Alone: 1932-1940 (1989)
- Defender of the Realm: 1940-1965 (2012)
Manchester did not survive to finish the third volume, and enlisted the help of journalist Paul Reid to complete the task.
I started reading the biography back on July 13 and finished yesterday, on September 17, so I spent a good portion of the summer immersed in British and European history, and I found it fascinating. Here are some initial thoughts.
1. The rich details of the book really did immerse me in the time period. While I probably should not have been surprised, I found that when I finished the books yesterday, I was overcome by sadness. Churchill was dead, and for two months, I had followed the course of his life in great detail from his birth, through three wars, through the Korean conflict and the beginning of the Cold War, and through his death and funeral. The book is a very hard act to follow. I wanted more, much more. Fortunately, there is plenty that Churchill himself wrote available to read, but I decided to give myself a little break. Before I jump into more Churchill, I’m distracting myself with Lee Child’s first Jack Reacher novel.
2. Two events in the book brought tears to my eyes. The first was the death of Marigold Churchill, Winston and Clementine’s daughter, who died in childhood before Mary Churchill was born. The second was not Churchill’s death, nor his moving state funeral at St. Paul’s. It was something that took place eight months later, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Battle of Britain:
The Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey, at the request of the Queen and Parliament, placed a sixty-by-seventy-six-inch polished green-marble slab in the floor of that thousand-year-old monument to English history. All who enter cannot help but see it there, in the nave, just a few feet inside the great west doors. Engraved upon it are the words:
3. Churchill lived a long life (90 years) that happened to span a period of time when the world took gigantic leaps forward in technology. He was born in the Victorian era, and indeed, first began serving in Parliament under Queen Victoria. He first crossed the Atlantic to the United States on a ship that carried a sail, just in case the engines quit, and took 10 days to make the crossing. On his final return from the United States to England at the end of his life, he flew on a Boeing 707, flying 7 miles above the ocean and taking only 6 hours or so. That seems remarkable to me.
4. Reading the biography was a stark illustration of just how little I’d known about either World War, but especially the Great War. What we learn about World War I in school is more or less how it started and how it ended. I’m not blaming the education system for the lapses. There is so much history and so little time. But to see, in continuous flow, the events leading up to the first World War, and how the settlement after the war, and the Treaty of Versailles set up conditions that would naturally lead to World War II was an education in and of itself.
5. I learned more about British politics, and the political process in England than I had ever known before. The biography is a lesson in parliamentary politics through example. In college, as a political science major, I took a couple of classes in European politics, and always enjoyed them. But I learned more practical politics from the biography than I did from all of those classes combined. Every form of democracy has its pluses and minuses, but throughout my reading, I came to appreciate the parliamentary form more than I ever had before. There is something about the odd combination of decorum and candor in the House of Commons debates that I wish took place in the House and Senate, but which I don’t imagine would ever really be possible.
6. People occasionally ask me how I manage to fit into a day everything that I manage to do. I take this as external validation that I am a fairly productive person and make good use of my time. But set beside Winston Churchill, I look like a sluggard. Churchull is probably known for staying in bed most of the mornings, smoking cigars and constantly having a drink at his side. But he worked in bed, and the hours he kept throughout his life, often working through the night until close to dawn, were staggering. Churchill managed to pack in two full days of work into every day he lived. It is an incredible to witness.
7. Along those lines, the Churchill biography is ripe with productivity tips. I could write an entire post on the tips I’ve gleaned from Churchill. Stay-tuned on this one.
8. This biography, like other books I’ve mentioned in the past, is an object lesson in large-scale project management. As someone who is involved in project management on a daily basis, I am often stunned at how complex we make things, and how, more often than not, the tools we use to manage project actually get in our way. Whether it’s a Gaant chart, budgeting software, a resource management tool, the complexity of the tools have diminishing returns and ultimately make projects more difficult to manage. I’ve felt this intuitively, but the evidence in favor of it exists in books like the Churchill biography.
Consider that Winston Churchill ran a government without Microsoft Office, Visio, Project, Lotus Note, Outlook, Gmail. Indeed, the entire government ran on paper, mostly in the form of memos that contained Churchill’s signature. His rules were simple: if he asked for something to be done, he expected it to be done at once, but only if he put it in writing and signed the paper.
Consider further that Churchill led England through World War II in the same manner, planning operations, organizing the military, preparing the defense of the homeland, all without any fancy project management tool. Indeed, I suspect such tools would have slowed him down. It makes me realize that not all productivity tools useful, or even productive. Sometimes, they slow things down.
9. You can’t go through 2,000 pages or 130 hours with Winston Churchill without feeling like you know him, that he’s become a friend, and that, were he alive, you could sit with him in his study or at his dinner table and talk. More surprising, however, were just how many of the people that surrounded Churchill also seemed to come to life in this biography. Whether other statesmen like Lloyd George, or close friends like William (“Max”) Beaverbrook, and Jock Colville, I felt like I came to know many of them almost as well I came to know Winston Churchill.
10. The biography did not attempt to hide Churchill’s mistakes. It was clear that sometimes, he was wrong, though he always sounded confidence in his speeches and writing. Manchester called out Churchill on numerous occasions where he thought Churchill made unfair, or even mean-spirited comments or assessments. He highlighted times when Churchill was being underhanded (mostly politically). In short, he showed Churchill’s worts as well as his medals. This brought Winston Churchill down to earth somewhat, but also made me appreciate the fact that he was just as fallible as the rest of us.
11. Churchill was a writer, and a good one. Would that someone today would write emails the way that Churchill wrote memos. But he also wrote articles, and books. Reading about his process for writing, research, and reading about the subject which he wrote, and excerpts thereof, made me want to read more. Of all of the books Churchill wrote in his life, the books that most whet my appetite, based on the description of them in the biography, are his books that make up The History of the English Speaking Peoples. I will be reading these sometime in the not-too-distant future.
I have a lot more thoughts about the biography, but that is enough for now. I still need distance, and time to ruminate on a long life very well spent. Perhaps what I find most remarkable of all about Winston Churchill is that, were he a fictional character invented in the mind of some author, he would be almost unbelieveable, a kind of superhero, whose super powers were words and his ability to use them, both on the page, and in front of an audience. This is a biography that will stay with me for a long time to come.