BOOK REVIEW / Bloomsbury in the age of flower power: 'Good Company: Diaries 1967-1970' - Frances Partridge: HarperCollins, 18 pounds

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What a time it was. Students rioted, the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia, Robert Kennedy was assassinated and a man landed on the moon. Frances Partridge noted these events. Then she was back behind the wheel of her latest beloved Mini, hurtling round the countryside, intent on being - and finding - 'good company'.

Her diaries are the perfect antidote to all those heady 'child of the Sixties' memoirs, written by one of the grown- ups of that decade. Frances Partridge was 60 in 1960, keeping time with the century but sadly into extra time as a survivor of the Bloomsbury set. She was a grandmother - but she had outlived her husband Ralph and even her son Burgo.

She was living in the flower-power generation but still operating on Bloomsbury rules. Words such as 'contemporary' were beastly to her and she disdained to own a 'telly', preferring her wireless set. When she ventured into a kaftan it was to hide a bandaged leg after a fall.

She saw herself now as a 'stray cat' of a house guest, left to cultivate old friends and promising new acquaintances, fiercely aware of her duty to be pleasant. The scene shifts from country house to town house, and even to foreign cottage, as she gives and receives hospitality. The index bursts with literary names, introduced by concise 'dines with', 'to opera with', or 'letter from' tags.

But while many may be called, few are chosen. Her stringent test is whether or not they measure up to what she considered the best of Bloomsbury qualities: 'reasonableness, courage, realism and high spirits'. Her three favourites, who must have done that, in spite of some tart comments on their shortcomings, are Julia Strachey, one of Lytton's neices; Julian, the grandson of Hilaire Belloc; and the writer and broadcaster Robert Kee.

Partridge is so agnostic, sternly truthful and indefatigable that it's a wonder what they made of her at times. 'The prig and the hedonist battle away inside me,' she realises as she immerses herself in the social and sexual tangles of her friends, her sharp eye taking in every detail.

There's Cyril Connolly settling himself into a chair 'like an egg in an egg cup' and an ageing beauty with dyed blonde hair, thick make-up and pink slacks, is 'dished up like a trifle'. One of the most endearing episodes is when the supremely practical Frances tours Sicily with the superstitious Rosamond Lehmann. Frances makes travel arrangements while 'Ros' dyes her hair varying shades of pink and lilac.

Conversation is the main lubricant. There is much speculation about 'the drug-taking, flower-loving Zen Buddhist young'. Frances finds them too passive. In her late sixties she was still playing in an orchestra and working her passage as a translator. When she comments on the prejudices and chilly homes of her rich hosts, it is from the work table they have provided for her.

As the young Frances Marshall, she fell in love with the artist Dora Carrington's husband Ralph and was caught up in their menage with Lytton Strachey. Soon after Frances became Ralph's second wife Lytton died and Carrington committed suicide. It is the most sensitive period of her life.

So the one Sixties happening that merits more than a passing comment from her is the publication of Michael Holroyd's biography of Lytton. Its serialisation in the Sunday Times distressed her, especially as she was feeling the strain of trying to survive on friendship alone.

In spite of the diverting pageant of Good Company, named from a song attributed to Henry VIII, these pages are full of the ghosts of absent friends and lovers. A more timely theme tune comes to mind, from a source she dismissed easily: 'I see little talent or originality, no power to excite in them,' Frances Partridge wrote of the Beatles. Yet their words might easily be her theme song: '. . . with lovers and friends I still can recall, some are dead and some are living, in my life I've loved them all.'

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