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November 14, 2005

A diarist on a diarist - Harry Phibbs reviews James Lees-Milne's final volume of diaries

Posted by Harry Phibbs

The Milk of Paradise: Diaries 1993-1997
by James Lees-Milne
London: John Murray, 2005
Hardback, 25

I love diaries, that most accessible of literary forms. So satisfying for those with a keenly prurient mind which is most of us. I not only read Diaries for pleasure but find them a rich source of material for my professional work which is as a different sort of "diarist" - a newspaper diary columnist (every food chain needs scavengers). So I am sorry that this 12th volume must be the last volume of Lees-Milne's diaries taking us up to his death at the age of 89.

His thoughts certainly jarred with Modern Britain often enough. This was a man proud to be a snob but ashamed of being gay. He is prepared to aggressively lobby for gentleness. For instance one of his pet hates is The Sun.

He says that Rupert Murdoch's mother Dame Elizabeth Murdoch wrote to him in 1993 saying she regrets "very sincerely and vehemently" the bad publicity The Sun has been giving to "our Queen". JL-M writes:

She constantly points this out to her son Rupert, to whom she is forwarding my letter.
Then, a month later, he continues:
That filthy paper The Sun has apologised to the Queen for leaking her Christmas Day talk and offered to pay 200,000 to her chosen charity. I like to think this may have been brought about by my letter to Dame Elizabeth Murdoch, which she told me she was forwarding to her son.
It is all very well demonising Murdoch but Lees-Milne is altogether more indulgent towards Diana Mosley merely noting her "love of Hitler" as "fascinating".

The constant personal observations about the dress and appearance of those he encounters are immensely readable. At a National Trust reception in Bristol, the Prince of Wales was:

well dressed, wearing the most covetable dark tan shoes with tassels.
Country Life editor Clive Aslet is described as:
a charming young man...and extremely handsome. I could not stop admiring his splendid even teeth.
This has puzzled even admirers of Aslet who do not regard his teeth as his best feature.

The tone of this volume is inevitably down beat. Much time is spent tending to his dying wife and then there is his own decline. One problem was his wife developing deafness:

I have to repeat everything, and shout. I was saying that I had few if any friends left. What? And again: what? I find myself shouting:

"The whole damned lot are dead".

Among those Lees-Milne visits for lunch is Roy Jenkins:
Roy now working on his life of Mr Gladstone. Says he is not so sure that G.'s motives over fallen women quite so innocent as formerly made out. Certainly he suffered much from guilt.
Perhaps the News of the World should have bid for the serialisation of that book. When Roy came over for lunch with him he:
produced the best possible food and claret for Roy, who drank gallons and then drove off in a huge car.
Lees-Milne records his dismay at John Major's call for a classless society:
I am thinking of writing to Mr Major to tell him you can't both go "back to basics" and have "a classless society". For basic politeness and civilised behaviour are the attributes of a gentleman, nurtured in country houses and on the playing fields of Eton. Outside such sanctuaries of good breeding, brutishness and vulgarity flourish. Which is why few things are more distressing than to see aristocrats behaving like louts and swine.
But given all his preaching about civility he does have an unerring knack of putting his foot in it. Here he is having lunch with Roy Jenkins yet again:
Lunched with Jenkinses at East Hendred. Other guests Johnnie Grimond, son of the late Jo but without his cleverness or good looks, and wife, daughter of Peter Fleming. We talked about the disadvantages of being the son of a famous man. I said that Randolph Churchill's life was ruined by this circumstance, adding that, if I had had a famous father, I should undoubtedly have killed myself. Grimond replied:

"My elder brother killed himself".

Ouch.

Happily Lees-Milne is attentive at including even the most trivial detail he gets hold of concerning the Royal Family. This is what he discovers when Gervase Jackson-Stops comes to stay the night:
Gervase has a friend who has a friend who is a telephonist at Buckingham Palace. The telephonist tells G's friend that, every morning, the Queen rings up the Queen Mother. Telephonist says to Q.M.:

Good morning, Your Majesty. Her Majesty is on the line for Your Majesty.

On October 10th 1997 he wrote:
Lunched at Brooks's opposite Merlin Sudeley who on recognising me at once launched into boring talk about Toddington which he has done these last 30 years at least. I fear I can never go to London again. Just not up to it.
Two months later he was dead.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.


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