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March 14, 2007

Making Discreet Hay: James Lees-Milne's Diaries 1942-54

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Diaries 1942-54
by James Lees-Milne
first published 1975
Abridged and introduced by Michael Bloch
Pp. 496. John Murray, 2006
Hardback, 25

There was a boy whose name was Jim . . . . He was tall, elegant, posh, sensitive, artistic, bisexual and became a Roman Catholic in his mid-twenties. He was born in 1908, attended Eton and Oxford and worked mainly for the National Trust, assessing the value of stately homes and negotiating their takeover by the Trust, retiring from full time work in his forties to write books on architectural history. He died in 1997.

His true fame, however, his potential immortality, lies in these diaries: he has been described as the greatest diarist of the twentieth century and as the latter-day Pepys. A particular similarity to Pepys (I write within sight of seven volumes of Pepys' diaries, but I've hardly ever opened them) was that both had their part to play in setting up an important British institution: Pepys the Royal Navy and Lees-Milne the National Trust. Both lived through particularly fraught periods in our history.

I don't have much in common with Jim, as his friends knew him. I don't think I would have liked him much, nor he me. I guess he was one of those waspish, upper-class figures who seems to carry a permanent grievance against the age he's living in and whose natural reticence seems indistinguishable from an air of superiority. But from his diary we learn that Jim derived a good deal of misery from his inability to say things to people which he would like to say and which they would like to hear - parents, lovers, friends and members of the lower classes whom he comes across such as a fellow fire warden in the Blitz whom he snubs and is mortified when he realises whom he has snubbed.

And he is, like most of us, a fake, giving the outward appearance of being from some ancient recusant family when he is a catholic convert whose parents were Oldham mill owners who moved to the country and assumed the styles of the gentry two years before he was born. His younger brother still had to run the mill which presumably would have been his job had he been less artistic and more practical.

And that's the brilliance of a diary, that you can get to know someone long after they are dead that you probably would never have got to know in life. I was given this book by a friend and only dipped into it slowly at first, but towards the end I couldn't wait to get back to my friend Jim. I now agree entirely with those who have lavished praise on him. There are so many dimensions.

The first and the lowest common denominator is summed up by one of his friends along the lines of "meeting all the famous people and writing it down". In terms of the celeb factor Jim has a flying start with his background and job: Astors, Aclands and Actons flit across the pages and he meets the bigger stars, too: Winston Churchill, Bernard Shaw, Hilaire Belloc, Oswald Mosley, all the Mitfords, members of the royal family, Malcolm Sargent et al. Naturally, when you're in the business of taking over stately homes (and keeping them out of the hands of the much-loathed Min. of Works) then the aristocracy are going to feature prominently.

They are at their lowest ebb, battered by war, tax and agricultural depression (though not in that order) and are normally trying to persuade Jim, with varying degrees of hauteur and pathos, to get the Trust to take over their ancestral pile and still let them live in it. For his part, he is often secretly contemptuous of their ignorance of their own homes and possessions and has a much lower estimate of the worth of those things than they do. (I often cycle past Charlecote and will now reflect that, far from the harmonious negotiations with a distinguished family - the Fairfax-Lucys - which the guides imply was the background to its acquisition by the Trust, there was actually more than a decade of fraught negotiations between the Trust and a family which the relevant Trust official thought were completely loopy.) A composite, atmospheric scene has Jim turning up at some decaying pile in the winter snows of wartime to be greeted by a single remaining retainer and an eccentric owner, being fed ceremoniously on one egg and two potatoes and having to listen to a good deal of abuse of the Trust for not falling in with the family's plans.

Politically, Jim is all over the place. "Conservative", yes, but in the vaguest and most mystical way. "Against" the war, as are most of his friends, but without a clue as to what other options might have been taken. Much franker than the official propaganda about the levels of patriotism, courage and honesty shown by Londoners during the Blitz. Gloomily prescient, though, in his belief that, given American stupidity, the real beneficiaries of the war will be the Soviet Union. Vividly narrative in his descriptions of the various German airborne attacks on London (he had been wounded in the original blitz). Preferring fascism to socialism, as he remarks when dining with the Mosleys, who are, after all, fellow South East Lancashire bourgeoisie in origin. An extra dimension comes into the book when the war ends and at last he is able to travel - to Sweden, Ireland, France, Italy and Switzerland, all of which seem to be in much better nick than poor old England. An interesting dimension here is the details and perils of air travel in the 1940s.

The most important dimension, the one which pulls you into continuous reading rather than dipping, is Jim's own story, which is a tale of sex, love and religion. His Catholicism seems to be primarily aesthetic with its roots in a love of Italy and of classical styles combined, perhaps, with a desire to get up the noses of tediously "English" folk like his parents. It is clear that he would not have converted to Catholicism if the only Catholics he had met were Irish. While visiting Ireland he comments:

I do not like Ireland . . . My dislike is almost intuitive, certainly temperamental and racial. I feel the native hostility under the mask of deceit. At Mass the church here is so crowded one cannot worship. Irish Catholicism is like a vice, crushing the congregation like nuts. The Irish God is not loving. He is a tyrant. The people are tight within his grasp. Unlike Latins they are subdued by the Church, not elevated by it. They derive from it no inspiration, recreation or romance. Here it is grey and puritanical.
(Sunday May 2nd, 1948)
The problem would seem to be that the Irish take all those rules against not having sex with everybody literally, which Jim certainly doesn't. Given that he is attracted to both genders and to God (at least in his Italian baroque version) then we might expect a certain amount of agonising, but none of it really worries him. I would not attempt to count the sexual encounters related here (pointless since it is an abridged edition) or to balance the score between ladies and gents, though a friend does come back from the US claiming forty partners in eleven weeks, just to suggest some idea of scale. There is nothing explicit, of course, no throbbing penises or quivering whatsits per se. I, for one, would have preferred more detail because knowing exactly what went on when a night passed without a wink of sleep with this young man or that lady d'un certain age might explain quite a lot.

But of the call of conscience there is virtually nothing, no contradiction to my ancient protestant prejudice that Catholicism is a kind of aphrodisiac with a built in "get out of Hell free" card. Even when he is newly and happily married and in his forties he gets into a tiz about a young man on a train, not because it would be wrong to sleep with him, but because he blows the assignation. This is, I suppose and en passant, an insight into the actions of the sort of politician, married and ambitious, who gets caught with a rent boy. We all tend to think he's mad or self-destructive, but the probability is that, like Jim, he has another "side" which cannot be denied any more than his first side can. The nearest we get to an attempt to reconcile what most people would regard as contradictions is when Jim advises a young man who is agonising over his sexuality:

He is a strange, unbalanced youth with whom the world should be careful for he is sensitive and neurotic, torn between religious mysticism and the usual lusts of the flesh which he subliminates to his own unhappiness. Since he is handsome and engaging and intelligent I am tempted to advise him to make discreet hay while the sun of youth still smiles upon him, yet I do not want to influence him.
(January 31st, 1948)
Lust, according to Jim, is a kind of joke God has played upon us; He doesn't really expect us to resist its temptations unless we want to be saints and saints are really, to be honest, loonies. I have come across the odd Catholic lady who takes a similar view and it's an interpretation of religion which I find simpatico, as Jim might say. It has an interesting class dimension: in that generation and that class there seemed to be many marriages which were bisexual, "open" and successful, including the Mountbattens, the Nicolsons and, eventually, the Lees-Milnes. Jim is probably an extreme case as his circles overlap artistic and aristocratic sets and he lived through what has been politely called "the unusual social life of the Blitz". Many, maybe most, people lived by middle-class morality, but Jim's milieu did not. Thus the often remarked phenomenon that George V and his successors have been essentially middle-class monarchs:
Talking of pederasty, Roy said that the late King George V, when told of Lord Beauchamp's trouble, exclaimed, "I thought people like that shot themselves." "Heavens," said Billa, "I hope the poor darlings won't start doing that. It would be like living through a permanent air raid."
(April 23rd, 1944)
Jim's account of his own sex life is a reminder that the trickle-down effect of upper-class permissiveness has been limited and rather joyless and has somehow missed the point. We seem to be increasingly puritanical and in an American style: if a young man has a homosexual experience and enjoys it he solemnly declares himself to be "gay" and troops off to some coastal ghetto. Lees-Milne, by contrast, finds himself on several occasions advising young men who have only had homosexual experiences, but who now have to go to bed with a lady, for whatever reason, usually financial or dynastic or both. They usually report back that it was surprisingly easy and actually quite pleasant (though one finds the softness of female flesh rather difficult to put up with). Whereas now in fiction or in other kinds of narrative we find the idea of a married person having homosexual contact tragic and terminal.

The biggest story in the diaries is of Jim's marriage to Alvilde Chaplin (nee Bridges). It is problematic. Her husband, Anthony (later, Lord) Chaplin is not the problem because he carries on collecting toads and offers them friendly encouragement. The problem is that she won't live in England and he works for the National Trust: they end up living on the Provencal-Italian border with him working part time. It is largely the events leading up to the marriage which feature here: there are no diaries for some time after and the considerable correspondence between the two has been destroyed. The story of the marriage will be covered in Marc Bloch's forthcoming biography of James Lees-Milne, which I, for one, will read.

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career in 2004 to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton. His previous Retrospective Reviews can be read here.

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Allison may not have liked Milne, nor he him, but to suggest that they have nothing in common is patently absurd.

Posted by: Ardis at September 6, 2008 07:49 AM

Hi - just a minor correction. I believe JLM's literary executor is Michael Bloch, not Marc.

Posted by: Michael at May 26, 2009 01:53 PM
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