Friday Book: Older but thankfully not wiser

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DIARIES, 1975-1978


IN 1941, James Lees-Milne was invalided out of the army and returned to his civilian job as secretary of the National Trust's "Country House Scheme". This involved touring the country and making recommendations as to whether houses were suitable for adoption by the Trust. On 1 January 1942, he began keeping a diary, which provided a fascinating record of the decline and fall of the landed gentry.

The diary was not only poignant, but also very funny, for Lees-Milne (who had grown up with the Mitfords and had a sharp but affectionate eye for English eccentricity) was as interested in people as he was in places. Two volumes of his wartime diary, Ancestral Voices and Prophesying Peace, published in the Seventies, were recognised at once as classics of the genre. Since then there have been several further volumes, of which Through Wood and Dale is the fifth.

The diaries are somewhat reminiscent of Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time, and we are now nearing the end of the sequence. (Lees- Milne died last year, but at least one more volume is promised.) A great many of the characters we first met as slightly tarnished young things in the Forties have already left the stage, while others are tottering into senescence alongside the dispirited author, who was in fact in his late sixties when he wrote these pages but carries on as though he were several decades older.

Every morning, it seems, The Times or the telephone bring news of yet another death, and the book sometimes reads like an anthology of obituaries. Those who remain alive appear to be in terminal decline. "There is little or nothing, beyond the large bright blue eyes, of the young Stephen I remember," he records on meeting the 68-year-old Spender. "As an ephebe he had fine, strong features. Today his face and body have subsided."

Other contemporaries are faring no better. Anthony Powell "has an enormous behind, much in evidence, and badly fitting teeth"; Eardley Knollys, surprised topless, has "flabby muscles, pendulous breasts, looking like Picasso aged 90"; John Betjeman walks "like Charlie Chaplin, as though his legs did not belong to him"; Rosamond Lehmann has "collapsed into mountainous landslides of stomach, neck and cheeks"; Graham Sutherland is "barely recognisable" and Osbert Lancaster is "looking a million". "Lots of old friends but oh so depressing!" Lees-Milne exclaims at a 70th birthday party, and some readers will echo that sentiment.

Lees-Milne himself has become somewhat absurd and querulous in old age, and his writing is, in places, rather more arthritic than we might expect. There are references, for example, to "a regular matutinal procedure" and "oscular favours". At its best, however, his prose combines wit and lyricism in a style that seems quintessentially English. Like many English people, he appears to prefer animals (in particular, his beloved whippets) to humans, but he still finds people absorbing and retains his ability to characterise them with a few well-chosen sentences.

There are longer, but equally astute, portraits of such friends as Nigel Nicolson and Diana Cooper, and appreciative glimpses of "pretty" young things such as Bruce Chatwin. Of one old friend, regretfully described as "a bore", Lees-Milne writes: "Harry's conversation is limited to discussing who people are. Never what they are." This is a distinction Lees-Milne himself understands, and although most of those he describes belong to the upper reaches of society, he sensibly concentrates upon their personalities, relegating titles and family relationships to footnotes.

As a portrait of the age, this volume is less revealing than earlier ones - though it is extraordinary to discover that in the late Seventies, under the Callaghan government, people such as Lees-Milne believed that Britain would be "a full Communist state within 10 years". Lord De L'Isle takes the author into the library at Penshurst Place and declares that at their time of life they "have nothing to lose in fighting [Communism] to the death". He exhorts his guest to place himself on some sort of military register kept by David Stirling, founder of the SAS (though we may wonder what use Lees-Milne and his decrepit friends would be in this final battle of the great class war).

Despite the pep talk, Lees-Milne confines his political activism to rubber- stamping envelopes with the slogan "Down with Marxists".

Lees-Milne characterises the younger self who wrote his Forties diaries as "an ingenu", and this latest volume shows that while he has grown a good deal older, he has certainly become no wiser. If the late Seventies find him a little sadder in his outlook and a little shriller in his opinions, he nevertheless remains one of the most observant and amusing elegists of the post-war world.