Liz Smith: The Last Lion

“… Now, the hour had come for him to mobilize the English language and send it into battle,” reported America’s grand reporter, Edward R. Murrow, speaking of the new Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the start of World War II.

Ladies and gentlemen readers, I want to follow this with a rather long quote from the beginning of the best-selling book The Last Lion by William Manchester and Paul Reid.

This is the massive end of Manchester’s long research into the life of Winston Spencer Churchill: 1940-1965. I paid about $40 for this specimen and for the life of me, can’t think why (but for expense).

Little, Brown did not break it into two volumes. If you put it on a reading device like the Kindle, the Nook, iPad, or Sony eReader — you can handle it better. (But I am still buying print hoping to help keep printed books alive.)

I am only at the beginning of this masterful work.

It opens with a description of Winston’s work and play habits, his incredible energy, consuming incredible amounts of food and drink, imperiously demanding “a bath” in unusual circumstances. This all coincides with his “costumes” and the treatment of helpers, and his inspired confidence in the people of the British Empire.

This beginning description would all be funny and amusing were it not for the tragedy of the war at his heels. But I liked so much the following excerpt that I want to tease you into the entire book:

“After reading Plato and Aristotle as a young man, Churchill declared for agnosticism … although he embraced the Greek’s philosophical antecedents of Christianity, he found no intellectual reward in theological exercises. He subscribed to the Christian values of mercy and forgiveness.

“He … concluded that the greatness and goodness of the past could be recaptured through the exercise of will. God would play no part in the saga because if God, indeed if there was a God, was unwitting or unable to intervene …. Yet that paradigm left open the possibility that a force of evil — such as Hitler — might well impose his will on the future … he intended to deny Hitler his supposed destiny … Churchill, not God, would safeguard the future of Europe and the British Empire, and he would do so by the vigorous exercise of his imagination and the imposition of his will by the only means he knew — action, action this day, action everyday.”

This precedes the German blitzkrieg through civilized Europe and the stranding of the British Expeditionary Force on the shores of France at Dunkirk. With the feeble attempt of France to hold back the Nazis, the world watched holding its breath.

At Dunkirk, it was realized that there were roughly casualties making up a third of Allied forces. This consisted of 338,226 odd British and their allies — with 112,000 of them French. (Many of these men lived to fight another day.) But the RAF had lost 959 aircraft and 300 pilots. It was considered a disaster. Nobody knows exactly how many died or were imprisoned.

The naysayers watching were legion, but Churchill stood against them. Admiral Darlan, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Lord Halifax, King Gustav of Sweden, Lord Lothian, former P.M. Lloyd George, Sir Samuel Hoare, the Vatican and the U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain, one Joseph Kennedy. All were urging Churchill to make a deal with Hitler and surrender.

Churchill said no and King George VI backed him to the hilt. Britain began to evacuate men from Dunkirk any way it could — yacht clubs putted to the rescue, Britain dispatched its only few destroyers, merchant vessels pitched in, small row boats went back and forth suffering carnage. But Churchill was able to say it was Great Britain’s finest hour and declared, “A miracle of deliverance, achieved by valor, by perseverance, by perfect discipline, by faultless service, by recourse, by skill, by unconquerable fidelity.”

Most of the world that could, applauded. And Germany did not invade Great Britain. Churchill always believed they probably could not attempt it. He was right. The naysayers were wrong. England won a breather although there were terrible times still ahead. And Churchill began to summon the help of the United States and of its own many dominions world-wide and the P.M. began a process to keep the Mediterranean out of Nazi hands. He acted ever decisively. And his speaking voice led a nation and the world to deny the Nazis.

I know you think you already know all of this.

I lived as a young war bride through World War II and thought I knew everything. But until you read Bill Manchester’s incredible research and the end result, you don’t know even a fraction of it. I didn’t either and I have only begun this remarkable book.

I should add here that I knew Mr. Manchester slightly and had some correspondence with him after he wrote the Jackie-assigned book about the death of JFK. Then, Mrs. Kennedy in a negative state of mind, asked her brother-in-law Bobby to join her in suppressing Manchester’s work. This fight almost killed the writer. In my columns I felt I had to side with Manchester. I think eventually even Jackie changed her mind again. But I understand why she was so sensitive and when she became an editor herself, later, she seemed always to be on the side of creators and writers who were as decent as Bill Manchester.

When Manchester was dying, his secretary answered a rave of mine. She said, “He wants you to know that letters like yours mean more to him than most critical notices.”

Add The Last Lion to your library.

This column originally appeared on NYSocialDiary.com on 12/11/12

One comment so far.

  1. avatar omasan says:

    Let’s pray they never stop printing real books! There is nothing like the feel and sound and look of a real book. I will personally only use my Kindle for vacation–because it beats carrying two or three real books. The worst part about the reading devices is all the errors–spelling, grammar, misprints, you name it. I have yet to read ONE book on Kindle that did not have an error. In my mind, that’s totally unacceptable but it doesn’t seem to bother anyone else …