A NEW BIOGRAPHER of Winston Churchill has to be fairly lion-hearted himself. Churchill wrote so well -- and so much -- about Churchill. There are his own 52 volumes, including 18 volumes of speeches and 28 of history (mainly his own or his family's history). There is the mountainous family archive guarded by the Chartwell Trust, and its mountainous result, the official history now being written by Martin Gilbert. So far this runs to 18 volumes, of 18,625 pages, and has not yet reached the Second World War.

Is the new biographer to try to find a new route -- perhaps a shortcut -- up the face of the mountain? Or is he to plod along the trail, trodden by so many historians before him?

William Manchester takes 973 pages to complete the first part of a projected two-part biography. He's certainly not the man for shortcuts. He and his research team have spent years leafing through printed sources. Unpublished sources are not their concern. This is not a book for professional historians. It's the life and times of the gret man, a journey in the old trail with pleasant diversions. Manchester makes light work of his heavy task. His sense of theater matches Churchill's.I read on with increasing enjoyment.

The challenge for Churchill's biographers is to explain this extraordinary man, whose career was as paradoxical as his character. Was there any inner consistency in him, apart from a heightened sense of patriotism, and an ego larger than the ballroom at Blenheim? None of the ordinary labels seemd to work with him. Was he a Liberal or a Conservative? Was he a Home Ruler or an imperialist? Did he behave like an English nobleman or an American on the make? Was he even a politician? He found words (especially his own words) as heady as opium. Political philosophy, economic theory, even the notion of what made men tick -- it was all Greek to him.

At first his unusual gifts -- intellectual energy, eloquence and imprudence -- carried him upwards like a cork. He bobbed up from the Tories' sinking ship in 1904, in time to scramble into office with the Liberals. He was at Lloyd George's elbow pushing through the great Liberal reforms of the early 1900s, which first gave working people pay while unemployed, and pensions for old age. He served Asquith as a flamboyant home secretary and an ironclad first lord of the admiralty. Then came disaster at Gallipoli. It was a typically Churchillian idea to break the stalemate on the Western Front by seizing Constanipole from the Turks. Like Churchill himself, it was brilliant, reckless, flawed.

One of the few serious misjudgments in the author's narrative is his handling of Gallipoli. He has succumbed to the dramatic force of Alan Moorehead's book on the subject. There is no reference to Robert Rhodes James' standard work on the campaign. Of course the plan's execution was worse than the plan, for it was flawed and reckless, without a trace of brilliance. Churchill bore no blame for that, Disaster became catastrophe. The Allies suffered 265,000 casualties in this Turkish Somme without gaining a yard of strategic ground or shortening the war by an hour. Down came Churchill into the mud, first lord no more, now a mere colonel down in the trenches.

Yet somehow he bounded back up the greasy pole. By 1924 he was Baldwin's chancellor of the exchequer, a Tory once again. His five budgets in the '20s bore no trace of the radical who'd slaved away with Lloyd George before the war. They were orthodox Tory budgets brilliantly argued. Results were disappointing, especially when, with a romantic gesture to Wall Street, he put Britain back on the gold standard. To pay for cutting the income tax he reversed his prewar policy of naval expansion. War was unlikely in the future, he declared. The Royal Navy was squeezed as thin as a steel plate...

In dealing with the Empire he pursued the same zig-zag path. In his maiden speech in 1901, after returning a war hero from the Boer War, he declared, "if I were a Boer, I hope I would be fighting in the field." The Tories were astounded. As a Liberal he showed no great sympathy for the Ulster Unionists who refused to be united with the Irish. Yet by the end of the '20s he was taking an extreme stand against Indian nationalism. Baldwin felt mild sympathy with Gandhi; Churchill called him a "malignant and subversive fanatic," and warned the country that Britain could not survive without India. He broke with the Tories once more. And he seemd to have permanently alienated the left by his provocative actions in the General Strike. His dire warnings about British socialism added to his isolation. By 1932, when this volume ends, Churchill seemed finished.

How to explain this wayward genius? The author rightly devotes much of this book to Churchill's personal life. What he says about his father, Lord Randolph, rings true. The son idolized the father and the idol was dangerously flawed. His own character began to develop his father's defects: the impatience, the willfulness, the indifference to other people's feelings. After his father's pitiful death (from syphilis) Churchill said that his taks was to "lift again the flag I found lying on a stricken field." Later he wrote: "There remained for me only to pursue his aims and vindicate his memory." But the aims were as erratic as the man. Some of Churchill's early aberrations, like his tactless attack on defense spending during the Boer War, seem debts to his father.

To his mother he owed still more. Here it must be said that the author takes a somewhat unchivalrous view of Lady Randolph, alias Jennie. In the table of chronology we are told that in 1888 "his mother is now a great Victorian courtesan." Jennie was certainly one of the fast set who paid court to the Prince of Wales. She was no courtesan. She was part of Society, one of the ladies received at the front door. Kept women were kept out, or crept in by the side entrance.

In fact Winston's romantic patriotism, the one thing that gave his career some consistency, owed a double debt to his American mother. As a neglected child in the nursery, or at a sadistic prep-school, he knew his mother as a princess lointaine. After his father's terrible death, they came to depend on each other like brother and sister. She set his feet on the first rungs of the ladder, lobbying her beaux to get him up to the front in India and Egypt. He came to feel protective, even possessive, towards her.

Perhaps his old-fashioned patriotism never fully outgrew the feelings he felt towards his mother in the nursery. England was a princess assailed by ogres and dragons. He was her knight at arms. Often, as in the case of Gandhi or the British Labor Party, this gothic view of lif was an absurdity. In the crucial case -- after Hitler's rise -- the dragon was real enough.