Beneath a Waning Moon: Diaries 1985-1987 by James Lees-Milne

A rueful wit amid the lengthening shadows
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The Independent Culture

James Lees-Milne is considered by many to be the funniest, most feline and most agreeably self-deprecating of modern diarists, wielding a rapier to Alan Clark's cudgel. This 10th instalment ends 10 years before his death in 1997. Those eager to dismiss him as a snob and arch-reactionary will find ample fuel as he rages against the damage "left-wing sentimentalists are inflicting upon the world" after The Times refused to print a letter in which he suggested that each parcel of aid to Ethiopia should also carry the Pill. Even his keenest admirers may reel when, contemplating the boycott by African states of the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, he remarks: "Awful that we, a once great country, have to submit to insults from savages."

A product of Eton and Magdalen, Oxford who devoted much of his working life to saving English country houses, concealing diligence and scholarship behind a facade of bumbling ineptitude, Lees-Milne was in his late seventies when this volume opens. An autumnal, valedictory note prevails. "We both look too ancient and hideous for words," he observes after examining a photograph of himself with John Sparrow. Old friends pop off, among them Lord David Cecil, Penelope Betjeman and Osbert Lancaster; others, like Rosamond Lehmann, seem mere shadows of themselves.

With his wife, Alvilde, he makes the occasional trip abroad, and rides in a helicopter; but although he continues to move between Gloucestershire, Bath, Brooks's, the London Library and assorted country houses, he seems to inhabit an increasingly empty and alien world. Driving through the Cotwolds with a freind, he spots a "coal-black negro" in the garden of a country house; when they ask him to whom the house belongs, "With exquisite courtesy the blackamoor replied, 'I am the owner and have been these forty years'."

Lees-Milne's observations are as sharp as ever but he seems more dependent than before on other people's anecdotes: on the man who remembered meeting a very old lady who said "Ah, Oliver Cromwell! My first husband's first wife's first husband knew him well," or the grandee who, grumbling how hard it was to get reliable staff these days, revealed that "Gerry" Wellington's butler had wet the bed for the third time, "and the dining-room ceiling is in a serious condition".

"You can't take the slightest liberty with royals, which makes their presence a bore and a blight at social gatherings," he notes after learning that the Queen Mother was unamused when Lord Drogheda took her by the elbow and urged her to "give her famous wave".

Like his friend Harold Nicolson, Lees-Milne combined homosexuality with matrimony. After quoting AJA Symons - "The great crime of my life was my marriage" - he confesses that "I felt this remark suited me. Alas, alas. But we are so deeply fond of one another now. Yet I can never make amends. I shall always be haunted by this." His waspishness and antediluvian political opinions are counterpointed by wit and rueful self-awareness. For all the lengthening shadows, one longs to learn what happened next.

The reviewer's life of Tobias Smollett is published by Cape