The Milk of Paradise: Diaries 1993-1997, by James Lees-Milne

Aristos through a sawn-off telescope
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Yes, Eton has a lot to answer for. Both good and maybe bad. Good in that James Lees-Milne became a great and candid diarist handing us his inside knowledge of staying in the noble houses as if we are there with him. Here he is at Chatsworth. "Lay on my bed in the Centre Dressing Room, not even reading but listening to Pizetti's seductive incidental music to d'Annunzio, and admiring the curtains of rich, pea-green moiré silk, fringed with appliqué galloon three inches broad..." Okay, enough of this artistic masturbation, where is Andrew? Breakfast the following day: "Knock half-full glass of orange juice over Andrew's place. Mop up with napkin and bolt to the drawing-room. Read at window. Andrew passes through at 10 and out again at 10.45 without recognising me ... Andrew weighed down by newspapers of which he reads every line through his sawn-off telescope. I give him as wide a berth as possible, knowing his disinclination for early morning chat."

There are times, though, when he feels Chatsworth is "just too grand for me. I cannot live up to it. I am inadequate, not withstanding the ineffable kindness I receive." Yet Andrew and Debo both clearly adore "Jim", the Duke sending his Bentley embossed with ducal insignia to fetch him from his Badminton home and drop him back there. He has known Debo and her Mitford sisters - Diana, Nancy and Pamela - since he made friends with their brother Tom at, of course... Eton. They are a part of him and he is quick to tell you when someone is not.

His class/behaviour detector lets off a terrible sound on his one encounter with Ted Heath. He observes Heath stuffing two sacks full of CDs formerly belonging to the late music critic Desmond Shaw-Taylor, when Shaw-Taylor had bequeathed him the choice of "a few". Lees-Milne remarks of this former prime minister: "Appearance suggests a beer barrel aboard deck poised on two inadequate supports... Is utterly without charm or grace. Shakes hands perfunctorily. No word of greeting... A man of no breeding, spoilt by circumstances and arrogant."

Lees-Milne was to die at the close of 1997, some months into his 90th year. The diaries brought him fame in a way he never expected. At the same time he has been dubbed a snob in that the ground he covers over and again is of a set of friends immensely privileged and not available to many. Is this the downside of an Eton education in his time that those of yeoman stock like Lees-Milne were driven to seek refuge from their humble origins in the arms of the socially mighty?

Yet it takes a man of different class credentials to observe in detail the ways of aristocracy, just as only Proust could tether the absurdities of the French noblesse. And neither is over-awed by what they find. Lees-Milne: "I have come to the conclusion that the aristocracy have always been shits, and that in my youth I was too beguiled by them." But it is only lessened here by his conviction, possibly over-egged, that "the decent and educated ones attain a standard of well-being and good-doing which has never been transcended by any other class in the world."

Considering the years that are on him - "the weight of my rolled umbrella and overcoat almost too much for my feeble shoulders and stick-like arms" - his mental camera is still astoundingly focused. He can look at a recently unearthed Caravaggio of Christ and note: "his hands tormented and so far away from his body that at first I thought they must belong to somebody else". And of himself: "There is an evil in old men's faces. I catch a glimpse of my own in shop windows when not expecting to, and take a step backwards in horror and fear."

You want to be irritated by his diaries and the annoyance is that you aren't. And it is his appealingly genuine tone of self-deprecation at what he has done that makes so many of his entries endearing. "I am no more than the Godfrey Winn de nos jours," he writes of the diary. And, yes, knowing him as I did, I think he really means it.

The footnotes to this present volume are as informative and anecdotal as previously under the editing by Michael Bloch. But flattered as I am to find myself footnoted as "an Old Etonian writer" I must make clear that I was at Stowe, not Eton. That privilege belongs to Mr Lees-Milne.