Wilson - the Authorised Life by Philip Ziegler, HarperCollins #163;9.99 In Search of Churchill, Martin Gilbert, HarperCollins #163;7.99 Winston Churchill as I Knew Him by Violet Bonham Carter, Weidenfeld #163;14.99 Churchill - An Unruly Life by Norman Rose Simon and Schuster #163;12.99 Speaking My Mind, by Sir Rhodes Boyson, Peter Owen, #163;12.50 On Human Nature by Edward O Wilson, Penguin #163;7.99
In 1993, the latest year for which figures are available, 2,722 biographies were published in Britain. Publishers and even readers like them because (like novels) they tell a story. And, unlike some literary fiction, you know what you are getting. At least you know how the story will end since biographers find life easier if their subject is dead. Consequently (things being as they are) an amazing number of biographies are about dead white males - and not a few are about dead white male prime ministers.
In this field, the word "authorised" is suspect: it suggests family vetting. But Wilson - the Authorised Life by Philip Ziegler is much more than a rose-tinted catalogue of events. A quiet wit enlivens the narrative; public perceptions are corrected (he was hooked on Worcestershire, not HP, Sauce) and his groupie-like adoration of pop stars is noted. Its appearance in paperback so close to Wilson's death would have appealed to his sense of timing.
Meanwhile the Churchill industry continues apace. In 1962, Martin Gilbert became research assistant to Churchill's son, Randolph, who had just started his father's official biography. When Randolph died, Gilbert took it over. The eight volume work was completed in 1988; a parallel series of edited documents continues. The old man kept every letter he received and copies of most he sent - he knew their worth.
Gilbert also knows a good thing. He has now written his own account of writing the biography. In Search of Churchill is actually quite fascinating, especially the chapter devoted to the letters the biography generated. He has also contributed an introduction to a new edition of Violet Bonham Carter's Winston Churchill as I Knew Him. First published in the year Churchill died (1965), it covers the period she knew him most closely (1906-16) and is written with a certain tendresse. The speed with which it appeared seems to have riled Randolph Churchill. Martin Gilbert is, however, generous. "It is a worthy volume to sit alongside Churchill's own books on a Churchill shelf of any home."
Also suitable for that shelf (you do have one, don't you?) is Churchill - An Unruly Life by Norman Rose. All the original reviews tagged it as "the best one-volume biography available" and with a comparatively mere 346 pages it is certainly succinct. Yet it still finds room for detail. Churchill took his first whisky soon after breakfast, added ice and soda but "for most of the day the tumbler was rarely empty". "Really a mouthwash," explained an aide.
Not quite in the same political or literary league is Sir Rhodes Boyson's autobiography Speaking My Mind. But, think what you like about Sir Rhodes, you cannot deny that he is always ready to quote a favourable press cutting or to commit himself to a little self-assessment: "I am a good number one in taking total charge of what is happening." I can recommend the book to any head in favour of corporal and capital punishment who is thinking of entering parliament at the next election. But I do wish that Sir Rhodes would learn the difference between "who" and "whom".
If Boyson can be simplistic at times, the same cannot be said of On Human Nature by Edward O Wilson. No single sentence should contain the words "electrophoresis", "chromatography" and "density-gradient centrifugation" but enough of this analysis of how the mind works is sufficiently accessible and fascinating to make me want to understand it all. As we identify more and more specific genes, is my free-will disproved? And will the properties of atomic structure really confirm God's presence in the world? A heady mixture of biology, sociology and philosophy.