Archive for December 12th, 2011

Out from under his bed: Paul Reid speaks about Churchill, Manchester, and The Last Lion

Monday, December 12th, 2011
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A few weeks ago I wrote about the world anxiously awaiting the final third volume of William Manchester’s The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Defender of the Realm:  “I know, I know,” I wrote. “It’s going to be written not by Manchester, who died in 2004, but by Paul Reid, and everyone is wondering if it will be up to snuff.  So much so it’s a wonder that Reid doesn’t just hide under his bed and refuse to write anything at all.”

Relax, everyone!  He’s fine!  Paul Reid emailed me over the weekend to say: “I have emerged from under my bed to assure you that The Last Lion is being edited, all 470,000 words, every man-jack of them composed, proofed, and sourced while I labored with just ten inches of head room.  It’s so cramped under there even the rats are stoop-shouldered.”

Then he invited me to chat:  “Please allow the phone to ring several times, as it takes me a while to crawl from under the bed, climb the ladder from the bunker to the padded room, and reach the phone.”

Chat we did, and it was great fun.

He recalled the October night when his friend Bill Manchester, in failing health, asked him to continue the series.  “We were watching a Red Sox game – the Red Sox lost, as usual.”

“The night he asked me to do it, I said, ‘Gee I don’t know, Bill.’”

Both men had been feature writers for daily newspapers, banging out articles of about 800 words.  Manchester’s advice to the budding author: “String together a thousand short feature stories and you’ll have a book.”

“If I imagined 800 pages, I would have been pretty daunted,” Paul admitted. He also said that he would have been cowed if asked to write about, say, Paganini.  However, Paul had been a World War II buff from way back:  “I knew the battles, I knew Montgomery, ‘Bomber’ Harris – my whole life, that’s been my hobby. I loved history, from my earliest memory.”

Speaking out from the bunker

“You can do it, just write,” Manchester exhorted Paul. “I’ll have my red Number 2 pencil. I’ll edit; you write.”

That was the plan.  “But he died 7 months later,” Paul said.  Then the younger author was on his own, guided by 4,000-5,000 pages of Manchester’s notes.

Manchester was “an organization guy.” But it was an organization not necessarily recognizable to anyone else.

“He had his own system for putting his notes together.” Manchester had called them “clumps” of notes, formed by taking a hundred sheets of paper, taping or gluing pairs of them together to form one long sheet, and binding them at the top to create his own “tablet.” He would tape or glue Xeroxes of speeches and official documents.  He left behind dozens of these makeshift tablets.

Manchester also had his own notation system. On the lefthand margin of the manuscript, he would jot one of at least a hundred “topic codes” (for example, De Gaulle, Nazi Germany).  A little pound sign would indicate information on Churchill’s family.

He marked the righthand side with cryptic “source codes.”  Paul cracked one early: HAR was a code for Averell Harriman’s memoir. But the others?

“I finally had a brainstorm,” he said.  He called the Wesleyan Library where Manchester did his research, and asked for a list of all the books Manchester had borrowed.  It didn’t keep any such list.  “Because I knew Bill,” Paul said he had another flashbulb moment:  Could have a list of all Manchester’s overdue books? “That ran to dozens of pages.” The code was cracked again.

“I went out and purchased everything,” including collections of Hitler speeches, Roosevelt speeches, diaries of generals.  The Bostonian’s North Carolina bunker has about 25 linear feet of World War II books.  “The war is 85 percent of the story, and that what a lot of people are waiting for.”

Manchester’s manic writing habits were famous (Vanity Fair wrote about Manchester here) – 7 days a week, for 12-14 hours a day.  Paul, however, is a bit more leisurely: he spends about 5 or 6 hours going over sources about a particular week in the war, writes for a few hours, and starts over the next day.

So what does Churchill have to say to us today? “For Churchill, courage – moral courage – was the first virtue in the Aristotelian sense.”

Paul recounted an incident where the prime minister talked to 8 and 9 year old schoolboys at his former Harrow school in 1940.  “That’s when he said, never give in, never give in, to tyranny, to evil.  These are not dark days, best days of our lives.”  This lesson, for 8 and 9 year children, Paul emphasized.

He had a system.

“There was no guile with Churchill.  He didn’t know how to be dishonest.  Stalin knew that.  He [Churchill] was a brave man, but not foolhardy man.”

Nor was he a despot, like his famous foes:  “He pursued knowledge, not power,” said Paul. His pugnacious stances were not just based on opinions, but on his wideranging study:  “He read everything – Aristotle, Plato, Thucydides, Cicero, The Aeneid, The Iliad, The Odyssey, Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, British empiricists,  Macaulay, and all of Gibbons, Yeats and Keats and Byron and Shelley, Longfellow and Emerson.  Everything.”

Manchester and Churchill both threaded through Paul Reid’s mind as he worked, but the final work?  “The work is not only yours, it’s you.”

Now he is close to the finish line.  He won’t prophesy exactly when the book will be out – “it’s a big project, and it will take some time.”

“Churchill would just push ahead. That’s what you have to do.”

Just like I said a few weeks ago.”