Anyone who knew or knew of James Lees-Milne in his later years might have formed the impression of an exquisitely polished round peg in a perfectly round hole. Aesthete, diarist, wit, he had known everyone from the Mitfords to Mick Jagger and wrote about them amusingly. His work for the National Trust over three decades had made him personally and professionally familiar with most of the great houses of England. In some he was a regular guest, while many more owed their continued existence wholly or partly to him. If it had all really been so smooth he would probably have been an intolerable person and certainly a bad diarist, for the stuff of diaries is the uneven texture of the everyday and the comedy, or tragedy, of contrasts. But Lees-Milne, as he emerges from his diaries and memoirs, is decidedly unpolished, the anti-hero of his own life. From January 1942, when he describes breaking down in the National Trust's Austin, only to be told at the garage that the 'curious knocking sound' was due to his having let the radiator boil dry, to December 1985, when, at the age of 77 and en route to deliver a manuscript to his publisher, he fell 'headlong into the gutter', he was 'constantly being humiliated'.
LRB 10 September 2009 | PDF Download