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But Churchill was a copious letter writer even as a child, and everything was saved. Even during the years when he was a terrible student, nearly everyone around him (except his parents) recognized his genius and the likelihood that he would amount to something in the world. In short, Churchill was, even in failure, memorable.
So Manchester has copious amounts of information – letters, memoirs and eyewitness accounts – about Churchill's childhood.
He is also fortunate that Churchill was himself a journalist and historian of considerable ability, and while Churchill's histories are often colored by his own participation in the events – why would he not defend his own views and decisions when writing histories about events he helped to shape? – it is also true that every claim he makes about his own actions, including extraordinary heroism, leadership and correctness in battle – is corroborated by independent witnesses, often by people who disliked Churchill personally but could not deny his genius, courage and determination.
The result is a superb biography of the man I consider to be the greatest human being whose life overlaps my own. America has had no statesman of comparable ability since Abraham Lincoln, and few before him (Alexander Hamilton is the only likely candidate, with George Washington a distant runner-up).
Churchill changed the world, and he changed it for the better. Even though he was blamed for defeats he did not cause and some of his achievements were treated as defeats (his stiffening of the defense of Antwerp arguably saved the British and French from having their flank turned by the German invaders), he can be credited with doing more than any other person to bring victory to the democracies not only in World War II, but in World War I as well. And had his advice been followed and his policies pursued after World War I, there would have been no World War II, and quite possibly no Cold War either.
Of course, he also was wrong or semi-wrong about other things; even geniuses have blind spots, and certain, detailed foreknowledge is not vouchsafed to anyone. Sometimes it seems that the only person in Churchill's life more prescient was his wife, Clementine. She was able to foresee the results of his errors before he committed them; had he listened to her a little more often, he might have suffered fewer of the slings and arrows of outraged anti-Churchillians.
If he had listened to Clementine, there would have been no Black & Tans during Churchill's time as colonial secretary dealing with Ireland in the last days of British rule there. Yet Churchill was also the leading member of the government to abandon reprisal and repression and seek whatever political compromise was possible. What was worked out by him and others, Michael Collins died for; but Churchill was also a leading target of IRA assassins, whose murderous path – matched by murderous opponents in Northern Ireland – blackened Irish history for a century.
Indeed, Churchill became the lightning rod for every government he was part of, even when, as often happened, he had opposed the very policy for which he then took the lion's share of the blame. It was not his policy that failed in the Dardanelles in World War I, it was the hash that others made of it; and they, fully knowing this, later dared to taunt him openly for the failure of their decisions.
When the Lloyd George government foolishly supported Greek designs on Constantinople, it was Churchill who advocated withdrawing British occupation of the city and working out a political compromise with Kemal Ataturk. Lloyd George refused – but it was Churchill who was blamed for not being able to leave the Dardanelles alone! He made enough mistakes of his own not to need to bear the blame for other people's.
If he had been prime minister during World War I, then the war would probably have lasted only a couple of years, and Britain would have won it decisively. The tsar of Russia would not have fallen when and as he did, so that Communism might never have achieved power there; Germany would not have been treated so badly after the war and Hitler probably would never have reached power.
But Churchill was not prime minister of England then. His policies were not followed; the world paid the consequences; then, miraculously, Churchill, as an old man, was still available when England and the world absolutely required him to stop Hitler.
The life of Winston Churchill is well worth studying, and while I've read many good books about him, each one illuminating, in detail, episodes and eras that Manchester's broader account can deal with only lightly, I have found no other account that contradicts Manchester.
He is a trustworthy historian. He is an excellent writer.
And in the audiobook, you will find that the narrator of the first volume, Frederick Davidson, is absolutely superb. His imitation of Churchill's voice is accurate without being annoying; his pronunciation of the occasional long foreign-language quotations is excellent; and throughout, he does a fine job of differentiating voices and bringing them to life.
It is in narrating Manchester's narrative voice, however, that he does his most important work, for Manchester's perfect clarity is undiminished in the reading. This is one book that is greatly improved by listening, and not just because the volumes themselves are so thick and heavy that if you fall asleep reading them in bed, you may be suffocated by morning.