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Diaries, 1984-1997: v. 3 Hardcover – Abridged, 21 Aug 2008
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Praise for the earlier volumes in the series
A master of the diary form, he combines the profound and the inconsequential with his pithy descriptions of personalities and places . . . For their range of interests and emotions, their piquant observation and judicious shifts of self-analysis, Lees-Milnes diaries deserve their august reputation(Christopher Silvester, Daily Express)
These diaries, superbly abridged by Michael Bloch, have a fin de Proust atmosphere of delicate regret, sprinkled with gossipy asides (Miranda Seymour, Guardian)
Lees-Milne latecomers will find no better introduction to the diarist than this anthology of his earliest journals . . . Reading these is a mix of shame and delight . . . Hes the best company, beautifully frank, funny and addictive (Evening Standard)
James Lees-Milnes beautiful style and pace remind one how it should be done . . . His passion for buildings and for literary heritage runs through the diary and yet is equalled by a passion for understanding character (Observer)
These diaries offer a peerless portrait of stately homes and their owners at their lowest ebb . . . James Lees-Milne is the Man who Saved Britain (Max Hastings, Daily Mail)
'A very good writer' (Contemporary Review)
The final compilation from James Lees-Milnes celebrated diaries covering the last fourteen years of his life.See all Product description
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The author (1908-97) was an important player in the conservation of England's "stately homes" through his job at the National Trust and a prolific biographer who used the library of the gothic writer William Beckford as his private study in Bath. His notes on the architectural changes in the great houses he visits are those of an expert. Educated at Eton and Oxford, he was kept on a shoe string by his squirearchical father but got on in society through his talents, charm and, it seems, friendships with ex-public school queers and bisexuals who abounded in posh circles before the decriminalization of homosexual acts in 1967, when such inclinations fell out of fashion - a fact confirmed in a conversation the diarist has with the Master of Wellington College. One of the sadder aspects of Lees-Milne's paked social life is visiting friends dying of AIDS. Dementia, while not a laughing matter for sufferers, is treated with light-hearted humour, though in good taste, the hallmark of Jim's outlook.
The widowed Duchess of Beaufort, for example, on whose estate Lees-Milne and his wife Alvide leased a house as close friends of the future Duke and Duchess, demanded that the coffin of "the Master" (i.e. of fox hounds) be opened in church before the funeral began. Having identified the body of her womanizing husband with a kiss, she popped into the kitchens of Badminton House to instruct the cook to prepare lunch for herself and a friend. "His Grace will be out." One wonders just how senile she was.
Insights into the Royal Family are not many but are original and sometimes first-hand. It may come of a surprise that the grandees are not as keen on the Windsors as the reader might imagine. Ducal friends are expected to bow and scrap when Prince Charles gets up from supper and they address him as Sir even in the privacy of their own palaces. Lees-Milne declares:
"You can't take the slightest liberty with royals, which makes their presence a bore and a blight on social gatherings." He even asks himself whether "the whole business of dukes and lords ought to be abolished." Although he often had lunch with Prince and Princess Michael of Kent (the forme is "a dear sensitive, courteous and very stupid little man"), Jim had "no wish to be taken up by royalty." His editor, the painstaking Michael Bloch, informs us that he refused a C.B.E.
We read of unusual opinions from his noble friends. Andrew Somerset, the 11th Duke of Beaufort, "is praying for a socialist government which would stop hunting." (1985) He was fed up with it but couldn't close down the Beaufort himself.
As well as revealing observations on public figures from Hitlerite Lady Diana Mosley to rocker Mick Jagger, Lees-Milne freely shares his own thoughts and feelings. He accepts the cancer which eventually kills him with philosophy with acute asides at the mediical profession. Castration, as he unflinchingly calls his orchiectomy, results in a deeper form of love, especially forr his wife.
We suffer with him too when he has to have his whippets put down.
Politically he is too right-wing and inconsistent to be taken seriously, but should be read like the reacionary Peter Simple column in the Telegraph. Crime, rubbish, strikes and the insolence of former colonies persuade him that Britain is on the brink of civil war in 1985. He detests the "stinking nation" of Ireland while saying nice things about Irish individuals, hates the miners but likes the sweet voice of their leader Arthur Scargill when heard of the radio. He dislikes the "Gay Brigade" as much as the "biblical abhorrence" of bigoted Christians. He loathes the anti-nuclear feminists but agrees with them that the Americans should be denied bases on English soil. Jim certainly has a true love for nature, despising Conservative minister like Nicholas Ridley, who argues with him about the decline in the bird population due to contamination and modern farming.
Religiously, Lees-Milne is a ditherer, having converted to Rome only to be horrified by Pope John's reforms. He later objects to Wojtyla's encyclical exhorting bishops to sell off their treasures and send the proceeds to the Third World, advice which if carried out would mean "bang goes the Pala'Oro in Saint Mark's for a start." Although he returns to the Anglican village church near his family manor-house, he seems somewhat agnostic. Like his friend the painter Derek Hill (mentor of Prince Charles), Jim became a member of The Friends of Mount Athos.
It was at a meeting of the Friends in Oxford that I was introduced to him on 18th May 1994. He records the event but doesn't mention this enthusiastic reviewer. He impressed me as a warm, lively and courteous person, but I hadn't a clue who he was at the time.
Most helpful customer reviews on Amazon.com
Readers interested in old country houses; gardens; upper-crust social conventions; the royals (especially Prince Charles); the Mitford sisters; Mick Jagger (!); and clear sparkling prose should buy this book.
How many people aged ninety (or at any age) can describe a frail elderly person so: "[He] like a feather. Or like a crisp old leaf, that's what he is, bent and hollow in the middle as he scuttles like a crab upstairs."