Edinburgh-born Jamie Melville is a widower living in Scarborough with his two youngest daughters and running the family fishing business. He is still trying to get over the untimely death of his wife Gemma six years earlier, and the business has been made no easier to run by the requisitioning of some of the boats and their crews to support the war effort. For it is 1942, and even in Scarborough the impact of World War Two is felt in many different ways.
It is about to be felt in one more way. A knock on Jamie's door means his life must change forever. Things are bad in London. Winston Churchill is suffering from health problems, and is being worn down by enemies, both around the world and very much closer to home. He badly needs friends, a commodity in very short supply. But, unlikely as it seems, there was a time when Jamie Melville, the wee lad from Gorgie who joined the army in 1915, aged only 15, was once Winston's closest friend. The story of how the two met on the Western Front and how Jamie subsequently worked for Winston in London during World War One is beautifully told in "Winston & Me" by Mark Woodburn.
But time has moved on. "The Finest Years & Me" tells the second half of the story of the friendship between the two men, and shows how Jamie bolsters Winston's morale at a time when the outcome of the war really could still go either way. Jamie leaves the girls, and the business, to be cared for by his brother, and moves to London. Here he again has to cope with the feelings of inferiority and alienation that he felt in the city a quarter of a century earlier. But again he proves how valuable he can be as a sounding-board, a drinking companion and a moderating influence. He soon re-establishes himself as one of very few people whose views Winston will actually listen to and take heed of.
The entry of the USA into the war at the end of the previous year was something Winston had long been working towards, but it brought with it complications. Jamie accompanies Winston to Washington, and experiences first hand the strident voices calling for military priority to be given to defeating Japan rather than Germany, and the balancing act being performed by the President in trying to reconcile political pressures at home with the realities of the wider world. Jamie again proves himself invaluable as an informal diplomat, but also finds himself caught up as a pawn in a much larger game whose full extent and implications he is unable to grasp. On returning to London he finds that the game is still in play, and events begin to take on the increasingly dark hue of a tense political thriller, where almost no-one is quite what they seem to be.
We loved "Winston & Me", and thoroughly enjoyed "The Finest Years & Me". We found the complexities of the plotting (in every sense of the word) in the second book a little hard to follow at times towards the end, but this didn't get in the way of the simple desire to see how things turned out for central characters we felt completely drawn to. So how does an author conclude a book which combines historical figures whose stories are, in outline at least, known to most readers, and fictional characters? Beautifully, and poignantly in the case of Mark Woodburn. We'd recommend that everyone reads this pair of memorable books.