3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
The diaries of a playboy politician,
This review is from: The Duff Cooper Diaries: 1915-1951 (Paperback)
Duff Cooper could have been a great diarist. Indeed, he could have been a great many things. In his time, he was a successful diplomat, politician, author and columnist, a courageous soldier and a good deal more. However, above all, he was a man who loved life: good food, good wine, beautiful women (usually somebody else's), and a fine party.
As a result, he wasn't quite as successful in any of his professional fields as he could have been, as he never quite devoted himself to them in the way that would have been necessary; the sacrifice to his social life would have been too great. On the other hand, had he made that sacrifice, the diaries wouldn't be what they are and what makes them so fascinating: a brutally candid insight into the lives of the upper and upper-middle classes in the first half of the century, in or near power.
What emerges is not a very edifying picture to modern eyes: an endless stream of dinners, luncheons and parties set against a backdrop of war, recession and unemployment. Nor does Cooper himself emerge in a glowing light: serially unfaithful to his wife (though apart from during their courtship, she doesn't seem to mind), which is just one aspect of what could have been a destructive lack of self-control. He was clearly good company, even if not a good man.
On the other hand, that self-same lack of self-control means this is no work written and polished to show off to future generations (indeed, it was probably written solely for his own amusement, like much else in his life). It is a candid record and all the better for it.
Apart from that very honest aspect, what also makes these first-class diaries are the events they cover. In and amongst the partying and affairs, Cooper was a Foreign Office official and then soldier in the First World War (but also, as a friend of Asquith's son, a first-hand witness to events far closer to the heart of government), an MP during the General Strike, a friend of Edward VIII at the time of the abdication, a cabinet minister during the Munich crisis, and Britain's ambassador to Free France in the run-up to D-Day, then in Paris for three years after. Few others can have witnessed so many great events from such proximity.
Cooper writes well and though frequently self-centred, the insights into others and of events are generally astute (but not always - and that those errors of judgement have been retained also adds to the honesty of the book).
Why four stars and not five? Cooper was not a consistent diarist. By far the two strongest periods in the book are 1915-24 and 1944-47, when Duff kept regular entries. The years between are recorded only episodically and while those episodes are interesting and cover great events, they're isolated and lack the flow of the two wartime sections. The gap of twenty years between them also means that very few people appear in both, so their introductions and exits from Cooper's life are missing.
Overall though, it's a fascinating, enjoyable and revealing insight into a social world long gone, shining more light on some of the key events of the first half of the twentieth century, and a revealing, honest (and perhaps unintentional) self-portrait of a flawed man who loved life and lived it to the full.