Insider's diaries open the door to No. 10 Downing Street

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The Fringes of Power: 10 Downing Street Diaries 1939-1955, by John Colville. New York: Norton. 796 pp. $25. Unlike presidents of the United States who generally choose their aides from the ranks of political (or even campaign) advisers, British prime ministers usually employ civil servants as their private secretaries. The strict nonpartisanship for which the British civil service is so justly renowned could thus permit a Foreign Office official like John Colville to serve three consecutive prime ministers as different as Neville Chamberlain, Winston Churchill, and Clement Atlee with absolute loyalty and fidelity.

In ``The Fringes of Power,'' Colville provides the reader with a very special set of insights into the workings of the British government at one of the most crucial times in its long history. Most of the book consists of a diary Colville kept while working in the prime minister's office. These pithy entries, usually set down at the end of each event-filled day, afford an unparalleled sense of immediacy. This is truly history in the making, forColville gives us fine descriptions of how the great figures of the time -- notably Winston Churchill -- saw and reacted to events as they actually happened.

Much of the value of this lies in the very lack of historical perspective with which we have since become accustomed to viewing such events as the Battle of Britain or the fall of France. But even in this respect, Colville has done a marvelous job of giving us everything. His excellent footnotes and annotations -- lively, insightful, and wise -- and a most valuable set of biographical notes that are masterly in their blend of brevity with definitive judgment, provide a kind of lens through which the raw stuff of history may be most profitably viewed.

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Although Colville was very young (still under 25 at the time this book begins), he brought to his job a set of outstanding qualifications. Schooled at Harrow (Sir Winston's alma mater), he had a brilliant career at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he won honors as a history scholar. He then entered the diplomatic service, serving at the Foreign Office before being transferred to 10 Downing Street shortly after the outbreak of war in 1939.

He was very much the insider, no doubt a putative member of what later came to be called the Establishment. He was grandson of the distinguished Liberal Party politician the Marquess of Crewe, and his mother was lady-in-waiting (and close friend) to Queen Mary. His connections probably played some part in his obtaining his influential position at such a young age. More important perhaps, they gave him access to a network that added an unusual dimension to his power. For instance, when Colville had the idea that the great Imperial statesman from South Africa, Jan Christiaan Smuts, might be an inspired replacement for Churchill, in the event of the latter's death, he was able to get his suggestion rapidly to the attention of King George VI. By going through his mother and Queen Mary, he managed to achieve this without Sir Winston's even knowing about it.

Colville is a man of decided -- and markedly Tory -- political views, and the nonpartisanship of the civil service in no way restrained him from confiding his personal opinions to his diaries. This imparts a certain piquancy to the book and gives the reader the benefit of a forthright, shoot-from-the-hip attitude that one suspects his prime minister(s) did not always encounter. It is somewhat chilling to see the hostility that he, like so many others, felt toward Churchill in the final months of Chamberlain's ministry. But perhaps this makes it all the more impressive when, so soon after Churchill assumes the highest office in May 1940 and becomes, quite literally, his nation's last hope, Colville pays tribute again and again to the man's greatness.

Churchill, indeed, is the heart of this book. If there were not a hundred other reasons to value and enjoy ``The Fringes of Power,'' Colville's portrait of Churchill struggling to do the all but impossible would alone make it an indispensable volume. Others have -- and will again -- provide more balanced and impartial accounts of Winston Churchill, but few could equal the wealth of detail to be found here.

We see him in all kinds of moods, in many situations, in lights that are flattering and others that are less so. But the overall effect of the variegated brushstrokes is to evoke an increased appreciation and admiration of the human being who achieved such a superhuman feat in rallying his embattled country.

I don't think that Colville consciously set out to become Churchill's Boswell, but he has proved himself worthy of the comparison. It will certainly be difficult for me to think of Winston Churchill without thinking of what I have read of him here. Excerpt from `Fringes'

``How old are you?'' asked Winston Churchill when I was about to leave 10 Downing Street.

``Twenty-six,'' I replied.

``At twenty-six Napoleon commanded the armies of Italy.''

``Pitt was Prime Minister at twenty-four.''

``On that round you win,'' admitted the sixty-six-year-old Prime Minister.

It was a rare triumph to score against him by repartee.

The shock I experienced in change of life-style was volcanic. At one moment I was living in luxury, at least by war-time standards, and basking in the Prime Minister's favour. A few days later I was sleeping on the floor of an unfurnished flat off Regent's Park, an Aircraftsman 2nd Class at the Aircrew Receiving Centre known in the R.A.F., not at all affectionately, as Arsy-Tarsy. We were fed, by no means lavishly, in the Zoo. The pay was two shillings a day. . . .

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