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A priceless firsthand account of Churchill at war,
This review is from: The Fringes of Power: Downing Street Diaries 1939-1955 (Paperback)
John Colville was a man blessed with good fortune. Born to a well-connected upper-class family, he excelled in school and capped his academic career with a first in history at Trinity College Cambridge. Fascinated by current events, he passed the Foreign Office entrance exam on the first try and was posted to the Middle East before returning home just prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. A little more than a month after the start of hostilities, he was seconded to 10 Downing Street as an assistant private secretary, an assignment that gave him a privileged vantage point from which to witness events.
Colville's decision to keep a diary predated his posting, reflecting his desire to capture his impressions about the war that he experienced. His transfer to the office of the Prime Minister, however, transformed it into a priceless firsthand account of British politics during the war. It is the first part of the diary, covering Colville's observations from September 1939 until his transfer to the RAF in October 1941, that is the highlight of the book, yet the later sections covering his return to Downing Street in 1943-5 and again in Churchill's postwar ministry are also enjoyable for their insights. Winston Churchill is naturally at the heart of these diaries, and though Colville edited his diaries for publication he let stand many of his comments from that time no matter how inaccurate and embarrassing they must have seemed later. This only enhances their value, allowing the reader to see Colville's evolving attitude towards him, which begins with concerns for Churchill's "ineffective, and indeed harmful" (p.108) efforts as First Lord before coming to respect and admire him as Prime Minister. It is from these pages that we get some of our best assessments of Churchill and the war, as well as a generous collection of his bon mots about his political contemporaries (supplemented by a few from Colville himself)
All of this makes Colville's diary an indispensable resource for anyone interested in Churchill and Britain during the Second World War. It is valuable not just for the moments he captures involving the decision makers but for its portrait of upper-class life during the war as well, a life of dinners and diversions not too constrained by wartime deprivations. Together they make for an enduring work, one that will continue to shed light while the works which draw from it collect dust on the bookshelves.