In This Review

The Fringes of Power: 10 Downing Street Diaries, 1939-1955
The Fringes of Power: 10 Downing Street Diaries, 1939-1955
By John Colville
Norton, 1985, 429 pp.

Luck, breeding and talent landed Colville at No. 10 in 1939, first serving under Chamberlain, then under Churchill in and out of London, except between August 1941 and December 1943 when at his own insistence he served with a fighter squadron of the RAF. This is a close, splendid picture of Churchill, whose ascent to prime minister he thought a "terrible risk," and whom he came to see as imperious, impossible, fiercely inconsiderate-and "innately lovable and generous." There are valuable glimpses for the historian: Churchill's leadership, the awe that Germany's soldiery inspired, the uncertainty about what to do with postwar Germany. (At Quebec, Colville realized that the prime minister was to talk to FDR about zones of occupation without having read the briefs: "I volunteered to read them to him in his bath. This bizarre procedure was accepted, but the difficulties were accentuated by his inclination to submerge himself entirely from time to time and thus become deaf to certain passages.") We learn about Churchill's disdain for Eisenhower as President; we learn that Churchill's speeches were always original, his letters mostly composed by his flock. Elegant Colville writes of upper-class English life, the endless round of lunches and dinners at countless clubs (on a troopship to South Africa, he discovered the bitterness of rank division); the social instinct seems greater than the political. Even from the fringes, one could have wished for a still richer, more searching diary.