|Author:||Harold Nicolson, Nigel Nicolson|
This 1967 book comprises a record of the British Parliament from the viewpoint of a cabinet officer and later backbencher Harold Nicolson (1886-1968) during the time he was a witness to many of the backstage workings of the British National Coalition Government until 1941 and later as a witness to secret sessions in the chambers of power and other important meetings.
When the writer/politician was removed from his place as an assistant cabinet (to make way for a Labour party minister) he spent the rest of the war as a backbencher, while still writing histories, doing weekly newspaper columns and giving pro-Allied speeches in neutral nations like Sweden and parts of North Africa recently liberated by the Allies in order to boost the war effort. HIs 1939 book, "Why England is at War" was also a major success.
After Nicolson was asked to leave by Churchill he still was on good terms with the likes of the Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, Harold MacMillan and others who steered the country as well as visiting Americans like influential newsmen Edward R Murrow and William Shirer.
The refreshing thing about reading the diary of an insider to major events is not how often Nicolson got things right--sometimes he didn't as when he predicted that Stalin would keep his promises at the Yalta Conference or when he seemed assured The USA would enter the war after Roosevelt's reelection in 1940. But it is his intelligence and descriptive powers that are on display here.
Nicholson also was a best-selling novelist and biographer, journalist, diplomat (on hand with Lloyd George at the Versailles Conference in 1919), Governor of the BBC and the husband of one of Britain leading poet/novelists Vita Sackville-West. Their "open marriage" and lovers of the same sex is an issue covered by their son, the writer Nigel Nicholson (1918-2004) in his own biography of his parents lives' "Portrait of A Marriage" (1973)
This diary focuses on the Nicolson's public career, his affectionate letters to his wife and his two sons (Nigel and Ben) who are both fighting in Europe and North Africa. There is also his personal doubts about the war effort and flights of enthusiasm he had even in the darkest times about Britain emerging victorious. That he held this spirit despite the long odds that events in 1940-41 (the Fall of France, the evacuation of Dunkirk, The Battle of Britain, et al) held for the Allies and later served as a champion to the cause of the Free French government in exile speaks well to his character. (Although he had misgivings about General DeGaulle, who was a difficult man to handle to put it mildly and gave fits to many a greater contemporary.)
Nicolson has a lot of humor in his writing, at one point describing the Deputy Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, as a singularly unimpressive speaker, rather "like a snipe pretending to be an eagle" and somehow making the news of a British victory in North Africa sound almost as a defeat. His praise of Churchill is higher, although he steers clear of being a hero-worshipper and takes hm to task for being too boastful at times and, later, not supporting the Free French cause with enough vigor. The descriptions of Churchill in the House bring the man and the moment to life. This is as close as we shall get to having a camera view of this era and how its ministers and members behaved in a multi-party government during times of great stress.
There are also Nicolson's concerns that their renovated, partially- Elizabethan home in Kent (Sissinghurst) he shared with his wife will make it through the war and all those involved in the grounds will of course survive.
There's something rather British in the way Nicolson and his wife concern themselves with the garden in a time when one bomb could have taken either one of them out separately or together. Indeed in the darkest time of the war (1940) both husband and wife were prepared to commit suicide by poison rather than fall into the hands of the Gestapo.
The strangest part to me is that, as a governor of the BBC, he argued that he's rather lose a son in battle than lose a great work of architecture like the Monte Cassino monastery in Italy. Other than that I find nothing in Nicolson's diaries presented here that doesn't either inform or delight.
His son Nigel gives an overview of the progress and red-letter events of the war at the beginning of each year to better frame his father's records.