Counting the virtues of a wide acquaintance

James Joyce gurgled his tea. Peter Scott was spoilt rotten by his mother. James Fergusson admires an acute diarist's eye; Fourteen Friends by James Lees-Milne, John Murray, pounds 19.99
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James Lees-Milne writes of William Plomer: "He was by no means handsome, and resembled the sort of decent, shy man you might hope, after the death of someone near to you, to encounter at the undertaker's."

Lees-Milne was, evidently, born an observer. His public career was with the National Trust in its glory days, when amateurism was still a solid virtue; he was responsible, before and after the Second World War, later as the Trust's Historic Houses Adviser, for identifying properties for acquisition and - most subtly - for negotiating with long-landed squires, their heirs and assignees, the painful transfer of ownership. His eye for buildings is demonstrated in the handsome books he wrote for Batsford on the Baroque in Spain and Italy, on Robert Adam and Inigo Jones, in which he describes architecture as others might paint it.

His clear eye for people, from end-of-dynasty relics to the bright young friends of his Twenties and Thirties, was first revealed much later, in his acute 1970 autobiography Another Self, in which he delivers an extraordinary portrait of his art-hating father, and then in his wartime diaries, beginning with Ancestral Voices (1975), which have achieved the status of minor classics.

Lees-Milne is not to everybody's taste. He appears too patrician for some, too provocatively incorrect. But his strength as an observer is that he has always felt an outsider; he has always had access to that patrician world (Eton, Magdalen, the Irish Guards, Brooks's), but not felt himself of it. Before he went to Oxford his father sent him on a course at a Stenography School for Young Ladies in Chelsea and, after he went down, his first job for four years was as a secretary. The first subject of his new book, the sculptress Kathleen Kennet (Mrs Captain Scott), he met during this time, and in 1937 - whilst she was still alive, and to her intense interest - he was asked by the Times to write her obituary.

The texts for two other of his subjects, Sacheverell Sitwell and Rosamond Lehmann, began as obituaries in the Independent. Lees-Milne has conspicuous strengths as an obituarist - apart from longevity (which could hardly have been apparent in 1937). He has had an astonishingly wide acquaintance, he has a long memory and a deep diary, an old-fashioned breadth of reading and a fine sense of small drama. He can be acerbic (he is occasionally merciless in his diaries), but he writes with love. "Sometimes in the watches of the night," he begins his account of the decorator John Fowler, "I try to induce sleep by counting the virtues of my friends."

Here is a moving portrait of Vita Sackville-West, who retreated into the sherry bottle in old age but won Lees-Milne's "total affection" and for whose poetry, especially The Land, he is an assertive champion; here is Robert Byron, barking with laughter, to whom Lees-Milne's last furious words were "I shall never see you again, Robert. Never! This is the end" - Byron went missing, believed torpedoed, shortly afterwards; here is the versatile but ugly Osbert Lancaster, more wit than humour, and the well-intentioned artist peer Paul Methuen, whose epitaph reads Optimum fecit - "He did his best".

In counting virtues, Lees-Milne is inevitably interested in heredity. Just as his father deplored everything the young Jim stood for, so, he notes, his friends had terrible parental struggles. Henry Green (who refused to return to his family home after his brother inherited) denounces his father on a bus; Vita Sackville-West (who wrote a guidebook to Knole after not having set foot in the place for 20 years) had a mother who embroiled herself in embarrassing court cases - as did Sacheverell Sitwell's; James Pope-Hennessy loathed his major-general father, William Plomer's father bellowed at him for washing grapes; Kathleen Kennet, on the other hand, spoilt her son, Peter Scott, rotten.

In observation, it is the small detail (that diarist's bonus) which tells. Lees-Milne records meeting the slender-fingered James Joyce in Paris, and his gurgling over tea. Most poignantly of all in these rich, sharp, elegant memoirs, he remembers, with Patrick Kinross in Scotland, having to drag a broken-legged stag, a royal, into the sea to drown. It was, he says, "one of the nastiest experiences of my life".