Of the seven volumes of diaries published over the years by James Lees-Milne two have now been reissued as rather grand paperbacks, along with an eighth, a final hardback selection made by Michael Bloch. They all have titles like Ancestral Voices, Caves of Ice, Through Wood and Dale, Midway on the Waves and Prophesying Peace, and it will not escape the notice of the literate public that they are all derived, one with a bit of a spin on it, from ‘Kubla Khan’. This sturdy attachment to Coleridge’s poem is not easy to explain, as Lees-Milne, for all his curious learning, does not pretend to go in for flashing eyes and floating hair, and the chosen titles seem quite irrelevant to the contents of the books. It is known, for Coleridge mentions it, that Byron admired ‘Kubla Khan’ and that Lees-Milne admired Byron, for he makes a point of saying so, but the connection still seems tenuous.
Myself a newcomer to the delights of these diaries, which are thought by some to be addictive, I found other obstacles to understanding. The author clearly has many rich and interesting friends, but often makes a point of not being very interesting himself. He is, he says, an opsimath. It takes one to know one, though I suspect he began to acquire his vast knowledge of grand people and grand houses in early youth. He says he is not ‘a highbrow with intellectual leanings’ but ‘a simple, rather stupid man’. This may have been said only to outbid Elspeth Huxley in a modesty contest, but he could sometimes be genuinely overawed by the company. Arriving at a very grand luncheon party, he saw ‘ten sophisticated guests assembled’ and would have bolted had his wife not been there to steady him. ‘Agoraphobia seizes me on such occasions.’ (Can he have meant quite that?)
A touch of the Prufrocks, perhaps, and a welcome sign of common humanity. Ordinary mortals may suppose that regular frequentation of the multitude of well-born characters mentioned in these books would have eliminated shyness for ever. Many of his women friends are named after counties or important metropolitan districts: Diana Westmoreland, Sally Westminster, Caroline Somerset, Deborah Devonshire. Numerous acquaintances identified in the text by their quite ordinary first names turn out, in the footnotes, to be dukes or earls. Some, by a process of dynastic agglutination, actually have as many as four surnames. One can of course manage with two, but might this not leave one less sure of one’s status?
A principal interest, for me, was to achieve an understanding of the diarist’s social position. A provincial journal (Gloucester Life) described him in 1979 as a ‘Scholar and Gentleman’, but ‘these are two attributes I can make no claim to.’ He is not an aristocrat (‘I have noticed that aristocrats are either like Lord Salisbury, gentle, attentive to their inferiors, courteous, while aware of their superior social status in the world; or provocative and combative and rude like Randolph, Edward Stanley, Nigel Birch and others’) and it seems he is unwilling even to be a gentleman. He notes that Somerset Maugham said that Kipling was ‘not quite a gent’. When Kipling said of somebody, ‘He’s a white man,’ Maugham thought: ‘How I wish, in order to fulfil my preconceptions of him, he would say he was a pukka sahib. “He’s a pukka sahib, all right,” continued Kipling.’ So that rules him out. But Willie’s observations lose authority when one considers that at 79 ‘his face is like a nutcracker carelessly wrapped in parchment.’ To be a truly admired gent it helps to be young and beautiful, a point made several times in these diaries. There are other ways of qualifying; on the authority of Sir Oswald Mosley Hitler is declared to be ‘gentle and gentlemanly. He slipped shyly into a room.’
Still uncertain about rank, one may be helped a little by taking bearings on those who are not gentlemen because far above or far below that station. Living in a house on the Badminton estate, the diarist could not wholly avoid contact with the Duke of Beaufort, not, of course, a gent but a terrific aristocrat, always known as the Master. When Lees-Milne let his dogs disturb some foxcubs on the Master’s land he got a terrible wigging and resolved henceforth to snub the irascible landlord, or anyway to give him no more than a curt greeting, which surely indicates gentlemanliness. When Sally Westminster asked Sir Arnold Weinstock to luncheon to meet the Beauforts, the Master congratulated Sir Arnold on the ‘nice coverts’ he had in the place he’d just bought, but Sir Arnold said he hated the hunt and wouldn’t let it near his land; whereupon the Master went scarlet in the face and said nothing more. This catastrophic exchange had the fortunate effect of expunging the memory of the peccadillos of the Lees-Milne dogs but showed the Master to be a true aristocrat. Where it left Sir Arnold, socially speaking, one can guess with some certainty. He is described as ‘a brash, quick-witted, well-informed, pushing little man; also very ugly’ and ‘the occasion was like Sir Leicester Dedlock meeting the manufacturer son of his housekeeper . . . or the Duke of Omnium keeping his temper in the company of an insolent arriviste at Gatherum Castle’.
The Royals, though out of easy social reach, are bumped into from time to time, and are not immune to criticism. With the country suffering from a fuel crisis and endless impudent strikes, Princess Anne’s grand wedding went ahead with plebeian approval: ‘the public were determined to enjoy the spectacle of this Princess, who is ugly, marrying a handsome boy who is barely a gentleman.’ The Queen, however, is gracious, and there is always a good seat at Garter ceremonies. Whatever his true rank, the diarist has privileged access almost everywhere, and certainly has more in common with the best people than with the crowd.
From time to time he shows keen interest in people who had no claim whatever to be gentlemen, studying them with an anthropologist’s curiosity. The generic description for such people is ‘bedint’, a term borrowed from Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West; meaning, I suppose, someone who serves, whose manners are appropriate to a subordinate station. They might be ‘Liverpool Geordies’ (it’s hard to tell one bedint from another) or educated at a redbrick university, in which case they affect a ‘la-de-dah’ accent and are bound to be ‘painfully suburban’:
A young man, doctor in history I think from Liverpool University . . . He is writing a book about Princess Winnie [Winaretta de Polignac]. Sensitive, intelligent and earnest. Not handsome, but a fine face, and very long, white, nervous fingers. Pronounces Italian, Itarlian, and holds his fork in that ungainly way as though it were a dangerous instrument. Kept saying things like, ‘Did the Princess really know Lady Diana Cooper, Lady Cunard, Lady Colefax, Miss Rosamond Lehmann?’ We almost felt apologetic for knowing them ourselves . . . One wonders how he can and what he will make of such a circle. How can he, born towards the end of the war, and living in a genteel villa in the outskirts of Liverpool, have a clue?
We see this talented young fellow betwixt and between, indulging aspirations that would seem unexceptionable to his teachers, but, under practised scrutiny, quite hopeless. Pardonable, perhaps, and he must have said something to earn the description sensitive and intelligent, though we are not told what it was. Much trouble ensues from the unwillingness of people below the rank of gentleman to stay in their stations. Admittedly they are sometimes very nice, but ‘self-motivated’. ‘All they want is less work and more money. They have no decent regard for the truth. They are spoilt and rotten. I hope unemployment leaps to astronomical proportions, and that they will be humiliated and come begging cap in hand for work.’
In 1973 the country was clearly in a terrible state, largely because of the unions. Moreover, capital punishment had been unreasonably abolished. Heath was running out of time, the IRA was bombing London, a dangerous oil crisis loomed. Sacheverell Sitwell passes on the warning of ‘influential city friends’: ‘we’ have only three months to clear out of England. Another such friend told him to
hoard his cartridges, for there would be shooting within that time . . . Yesterday we lunched with Diana Westmoreland. She was blazing with fury against the Trades Unions and Mr Gormley in particular, for saying over the air that he did not care a damn about the inconvenience he was causing the public, and he was going to have a jolly good Christmas. She wanted to write him a letter. What should she write? I said: ‘The Dowager Countess of Westmoreland presents her compliments to Mr Gormley and begs to inform him that he is a shit.’
The Dowager Countess had a better idea. ‘No. I will write: “Fuck off to Russia!”’ Meanwhile the wicked Healey was on the air, telling terrible lies about Mr Barber.
What was needed was discipline. ‘Feebleness has been this country’s undoing . . . I think it very possible that there may be fighting within four months. If Heath gives way to the Unions this time, the moderates who make up 80 per cent of the population will be in despair. The extremists will press their demands and have to be resisted with force by a super-leader.’ Watching the TUC Conference on television persuaded him that Communism was unstoppable. Lord Camrose of the Telegraph thought the takeover would happen overnight. Years before all this our diarist had said he would not have dined with the Mosleys had they been Stalinists, ‘but I had never felt opposed to Fascists’. His hatred of the Left extends as far as the Communards of 1871 (‘loathsome vermin’). By the end of the 1970s ‘we’ were still around, the pressure to emigrate relieved by Mrs Thatcher. Back on the Badminton estate the Duke’s secretary knows which way every single inhabitant of the village voted. ‘They subscribe to Tory funds yet vote Labour. Wonderfully cheered by [Thatcher’s] victory.’ Yet in 1981 he is still fearing a Russian ultimatum ‘demanding complete capitulation within a week’. The trouble was ‘the people’, discontented, greedy and mendacious, one’s servants always putting one out so that one can’t write.
If the country was still in a fearful mess, the Church was worse. Lees-Milne had been a convert to Rome but now disliked it very much, for it was being propelled down an evil road by ‘secret Commies’ who perverted the traditional ritual and abolished Latin. The Church of England was only a little better. The diarist’s wife was served at Communion with a stale wafer and the clergymen’s fingers were none too clean. The Church of England unfortunately offers the sacrament in both kinds; the hour was too early for wine, which in any case was Wincarnis, and the officiating priest wiped the chalice ‘in a perfunctory way’. This was perhaps the very priest who detained one in the vestry with horrifying accounts of his bowels. As the populace no longer went to church one’s own would doubtless in the near future become a school, and not only a school but a state school, its squash court where the diarist now stood. Brave new world!
It’s a national weakness to admire really terrific snobbery, but to me the most pleasing passages in these voluminous diaries were ones that don’t seem to be substituting a class identity for a person but instead show a simple interest in the writer’s more amiable peculiarities. He chats to himself about his bathroom routines, his marital tiffs, his dreams; or perhaps records a religious or oceanic experience. Reading in bed, he looks up and notices a tapestry on the opposite wall. ‘In a flash, so quick that it occupied the fraction of a second, I understood the whole meaning of existence.’ When a poet such as Yeats says such things we are disposed to take them more seriously, but although it claims relatively little this passage looks impressive in the context of endless matter-of-fact observations on luncheons and dinners and ‘motoring’ hither and thither. (Why is the verb ‘to motor’ upper-class, while the noun ‘motor’ is plebeian?)
Among these marginal observations there are some that are truly endearing. Driving a small car on the motorway at 70 mph with another car alongside him, he is impelled to imagine himself in a dodgem, wanting to bounce cheerfully off this other vehicle. He enjoys recording not only his own oddities and gaffes but those of others. A Greek (class not specified) is heard to say to Caroline Somerset, ‘I say, your breath smells beastly,’ when in fact he had merely remarked: ‘I saw your best friend lately.’ There are other bright moments of this kind.
It can’t be denied that much of the fun arises from his knowing everybody. There is an excellently observed portrait of Colette, her odd choices of food at luncheon: ‘she talked of fish and the superior intelligence of the pike. Her mother, she said, had a tortoise called Charlotte, which slept throughout the winter. There came a day every year when she heard her mother call out: ‘Charlotte s’éveille. C’est le printemps.’ Perhaps she was thinking of the tortoise when kissed by Somerset Maugham. This writer is informative on many other subjects; he tells, with apparent authority, the story of how Keats’s tomb was broken open and the coffins of Keats and Severn smashed when workmen, told to cut down two nearby pines, tore them out instead. Lees-Milne was a member of the Keats-Shelley committee, but his informant urged him not to tell them about it. The culture of secrecy was no secret to this diarist and his circle.
So one begins to acquire some understanding of him. He was wonderfully learned and terse about furniture, churches, bibelots, houses (‘Later 18th-century houses must be kept up. They do not decay well’). He liked music (or knew what he liked) and where he was not expert he was still interested. He was fond of beauty in both men and women and sketched them neatly (Graham Sutherland’s wife had ‘raven black hair as smooth as a gramophone record’). Himself calmly bisexual, he was sympathetic to homosexuals (‘buggers are so vulnerable’). His general views on sexual conduct and misconduct are liberal, though no doubt he was making allowances for himself; he valued circumspection more than abstinence. He admired the journalist Patrick O’Donovan, at the time an officer in the Irish Guards, who ‘while he stood at the salute of the King and Queen in the Victory Parade, the upper part of his body out of his tank, his soldier servant was fellating him below.’ But he distinguished between lust (unimportant) and love (vital). He imagined that in A.C. Benson’s day at Cambridge ‘every don was in love with practically every undergraduate.’
The new volume, Deep Romantic Chasm, being a work of relatively old age, is in danger, as the author remarks, of turning into an obituary column. Yet he is throughout deep in love with the young man who is now his editor, and enviably active. Here, appended to the normal diary, are accounts of his travels to Normandy, Calabria and Mount Athos, the last pretty arduous. It would be mean to withhold admiration for an old man so accustomed to comfort who cheerfully dines on sardines and Kendal mint cake while roughing it in bleak monasteries.
This may cause one to reflect on a certain omission from the diaries: amid all the grand luncheons, the motoring hither and thither, the great houses, the London clubs, the funerals and memorial services, hardly anything is said about the labours of a writer who produced a great many successful books as well as these diaries: a writer who might well have claimed the Renaissance quality of sprezzatura, of doing things well yet seeming to do them without pain or care, indeed hardly to be seen doing them at all.
The snobbery can be appalling and comes from deep in the personality (black people have a disagreeable smell). To behave like members of a higher class than one’s own is disgusting; it is easier to tell whether a person has ancestors than to guess his age. And it takes a super snob to write that ‘it is astonishing how snobbish the English gentry are. Wherever we go to lunch or dine we are placed at table according to rank’ – which presumably means that people intrinsically less interesting or important than oneself are given preference on account of their superior ancestors. So it goes on, volume after volume; all in the dialect of a still powerful tribe. And we pathetic bedints can’t help thinking it rather wonderful.