By James Lees-Milne
Edited and abridged by Michael Bloch
The architectural historian, preservationist and biographer James Lees-Milne was in his early sixties in 1971 when he resumed keeping a diary after a gap of twenty-two years. This volume is a distillation (reduced to a quarter of their original length) of his diaries of the Seventies that were published in five separate volumes between 1994 and 2001. As a master of the diary form, his ability to combine the profound and the inconsequential and his pithy descriptions of personalities and places produce a shimmering cascade of delights.
Familiar characters are an important element, of course, whether they be friends from Eton and Oxford, former lovers of either sex, colleagues in the world of architectural preservation, fellow writers, and assorted toffs whom he got to meet through their country houses. For a diarist in old age, there is always the prospect of death demanding to be acknowledged, if not propitiated; in particular, the physical decline of those whom he knew in their gilded youth. For example, Elizabeth Cavendish leads John Betjeman “by the arm, making encouraging noises as one would to a recalcitrant horse. He has both sleeves of his shirt, without links, hanging over his hands. This, and his staggering gait, make him seem drunk after dinner.”
Much to the chagrin of his wife Alvilde, who like him was bisexual, Lees-Milne fell in love with a young Oxford undergraduate, referred to simply as “M.” throughout. This is Michael Bloch, now a distinguished biographer, whom Lees-Milne chose as his literary executor and who has abridged and edited this book. Bloch did not realise at the time how painfully besotted Lees-Milne was, though the intensity of this coup de foudre is demonstrated by the following entry from June 1980: “My dependence on M. is such that I can honestly say I wish I had never met him. In some dreadful way I almost wish he would die so that I could thereby possess him totally. At times I feel I am going mad.”
Lee-Milne was no slave to nostalgia. He bemoans the diminishing reverence for old age, but welcomes the increasing acceptance of cohabiting homosexuals (“there is no disguisement”). Recording the death of the photographer and costume designer Cecil Beaton, he notes that “with him passes an age, and the Twenties have gone for good. And a good thing too”. Yet there are some sublime moments when he looks back to his youth. Revisiting Eton in 1983, he reflects on the acceleration of change in the modern world: “My schooldays in the 1920s were closer in time to my grandfather’s in the 1860s than to today”. On a visit to a country house, he says that the visitors’ book “is the earliest I know. It begins in 1858. Victorian signatures splendidly Baroque, with flourishes; today’s like housemaids’, unreadable and inelegant’.
Sometimes it is just a passing anecdote told by another that stimulates our amusement. Lunching at Coutts Bank in the Strand, Lees-Milne is told by the manager that Baroness Burdett-Coutts once noticed a member of staff with crumbs in his beard. Upon discovering that the man had eaten some home-made sandwiches for his lunch, “she at once gave orders that henceforth no member of staff might wear a beard or moustache; and further, that the Bank must supply every member of staff with a proper midday meal.”
For their range of interests and emotions, their piquant observations and phrases, and their judicious shafts of self-analysis, Lees-Milnes’s diaries deserve their august reputation, among the greatest 20th-century exemplars of the genre. Even if you have little in common with this sensitive aesthete, you should nonetheless find that every page is a cause for rapture.