BOOK REVIEW / Links with the professor of nothing: A Mingled measure: Diaries 1953-1972 by James Lees-Milne John Murray pounds 19.99

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The Independent Culture
JAMES LEES-MILNE is the most feline of contemporary diarists, though he is not often catty. It is his special quality to be both involved and detached. He understands and relishes comfort but is not taken in by it; he is affectionate but able to describe the subjects and objects of his affection wryly; he has a sure, light touch; most essentially, he knows himself. Like a cat, he does not need to strike attitudes to be elegant. Since, though, he falls short of perfect felicity by being human, it is striking how two of the deepest strands in this diary are not cat-like at all. Genuine modesty and deep connubial devotion link the years covered here. The assumption of self-deprecation can be nothing but a gentleman's tic; here it is a boy's raw sense of his shortcomings that recurs.

Lees-Milne's wife, Alvilde, who died this year, was a maker of beautiful gardens. They married in middle age. Writing in 1971, her husband describes the profusion of roses 'sizzling' outside, and says 'she has created something which, if ephemeral, is a work of art. It is more than I have yet done.' His wife's gift for calling profusion from nature was matched by her passion for giving presents: 'From mid-November she spends days and nights tying up parcels in Xmas paper . . . I don't like getting presents.' He cannot bear her to be harmed in any way: 'She is accident prone. Yesterday she fell off her ladder in the garden. One day she will injure herself badly. It worries me. It is very, very dreadful to me to see her off balance, so to speak. She ought never to be hurt or injured. I can't bear the thought.' He writes the day after one of Alvilde's birthdays: 'I think with dread of the awful possibility that she may die before me . . . all day I have worried about the roads.'

Lees-Milne repudiates possessiveness in marriage and is frank about his irritation when his wife has enjoyed a day that has bored him. None the less, the impression of a shared life, free of the lobotomising effect of passion (of a friend he writes, 'like all people deeply in love he is mad'), emancipated from domestic smugness but instinct with domestic happiness, fills these diaries.

In a life devoted to the rescue and conservation of buildings and to writing about them, James Lees-Milne has been fighting against the 'appalling declension' of time itself. At his bleakest moments he contemplates the possible eventual pointlessness of what he has done; 'The fact that one has existed means that one has trod on and killed an insect, which has deprived another insect or bird of sustenance, which has affected another bird or insect and so on, ad infinitum. In these attenuated hypotheses lies our chance of immortality.' Angst, too, attacks him: 'Some days, usually mornings, I am so conscious of my own hideousness, my absurdity, my dour presence that I dread encountering people I know, and having to speak to and be recognised by them. I move in a capsule of self-consciousness.' He remembers a time when he would have dismissed someone of his age as too ugly to talk to.

Such moments of introspection are scattered among more forays into neglected country houses lived in by wild eccentrics; recollections of friends like William Plomer, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Kenneth Clark ('In spite of everything the greatest man we know'), Randolph Churchill and Bruce Chatwin ('so much sex appeal with so comparatively little niceness'). Though by no means free of some of the unattractive prejudices of his milieu - he admits to never having felt as opposed to Fascists as to Stalinists - Lees-Milne is tartly allergic to cant. He is deeply conservative by nature, but sees and teases the trait in his dogs, and reviles the effect of 'Tory complacency' on Bath. Observing the relations between fathers and sons, he says 'money is the root cause of power claims'. His conservatism is closely related to his passion for what he calls 'links', individuals who embody relationships between then and now, such as the 99-year-old mistress of the last Tsar. He is himself by now such a link, but he never carries on like one, calling himself, when asked to join a distinguished committee set up to authenticate the Throne of St Peter, 'J L-M, professor of nothing'.

Self-knowledge, so much more attractive than dignity maintained, ensures that these diaries read fresh. At the Coronation in June 1953, Lees-Milne writes 'I was choking with emotion and unable to speak or cheer. Am neither proud nor ashamed of this.' Defining what is so irritating about the friendliness of doctors, he records that his own has told him to 'Put your tootsies on that stool.' He loves the discrepancy between position and fact. In the roof of St Peter's, he is amused to see that the four Fathers of the Church are 'hollow behind'. This doesn't shake his impulse to belief, which shimmers, sinks and revives through the diaries, whose communicative openness and rapt recording of beauty, both natural and manmade, suggests that his prayers are worth hearing.

'Quick to tears goes with quick to cruelty; and is Teutonic and reprehensible,' he writes of himself. But he can't dim his other profound ocular impulse - to look with what he calls 'the tips of his eyes' and to make his reader do so too. It is a commonplace that technology has killed letter-writing; the days of the diary, by definition numbered, may be shortening too. It is hard to imagine a better reporter from this particular world and generation than James Lees-Milne.

(Photograph omitted)

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