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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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