David Spiller on John Colville, Considerable Indiscretions, Slightly Foxed Issue 35

Considerable Indiscretions

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The huge literature on Winston Churchill can seem impenetrable to the casual reader. Churchill’s own writings, with their stentorian prose, do not always appeal (though My Early Life scores through its pell-mell pace of events). Martin Gilbert’s official biography marshals the main themes superbly but cannot convey the everyday feel of Churchillian life. A host of Churchill’s contemporaries have gone into print, reporting their dealings with the great man and basking in the light of his genius. Among them is Lady Violet Bonham-Carter, whose Winston Churchill as I Knew Him describes with beguiling insight her friend’s life up to the year 1916. In the preface Bonham-Carter quotes Gray’s remark to Horace Walpole: ‘Any fool may write a most valuable book by chance, if he will only tell us what he heard and saw with veracity.’ Such a man – though certainly no fool – was John (or Jock) Colville, one of the private secretaries to Churchill in both his spells as Prime Minister. During those periods Colville kept detailed diaries of events, which were published in 1985, two years before their author’s death, as The Fringes of Power: Downing Street Diaries, 1939–1955.

When Churchill acceded to power in 1940, Colville was an impetuous young man of 25. To keep a written account in wartime, as he did, was to take one hell of a security risk. Even now one shudders at the thought of certain entries getting into the wrong hands (‘The Cabinet are considering, very secretly, the possibility of bombing the Ruhr’, Nov. 1939). Colville left the forbidden record locked in a drawer of his writing-table at 10 Downing Street; then, stricken by conscience, began moving it to his family home in Staffordshire, because ‘its indiscretions were considerable’. Had he been rumbled it would have meant instant dismissal. He was amused to be told years later that the punishment for diary-keeping under Stalin’s regime was dea

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About the contributor

David Spiller has twice kept diaries, which will never see the light of day.

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