Magazine article The Spectator

Happy Knack, Less Happy Disposition

Magazine article The Spectator

Happy Knack, Less Happy Disposition

Article excerpt

HOLY DREAD: DIARIES, 1982-1984 by James Lees-Milne, edited by Michael Bloch John Murray, 22.50, pp. 251, ISBN 0719562058

The very first entry in this new selection from the Lees-Milne diaries reveals at once their gentle, unflashy nature and compulsive readability. He attends the funeral of an entirely unremarkable old retainer at Cheltenham Crematorium and transforms this ordinary experience into a tiny essay on mood and human sensitivity. We have all been to such banal ceremonies, but not many of us bother to notice the profundity they all but obliterate. Lees-Milne's perceptions are always alert, yet so lightly displayed as to seem practically apologetic.

Pepys is doubtless more historically important, Creevey more bitchy, Greville and Nicolson more political, but for sheer friendliness of tone and gossip cunningly disguised as rumination, there is nothing to touch these diaries, of which this is the ninth volume. Alan Clark's much-lauded splutterings seem vain and meretricious by comparison. These, one fancies, are destined to endure.

Lees-Milne finds all people interesting, and can put them before us in a half-- sentence of pithy epithets. Mrs Nicholas Ridley is 'a chirpy little trout'; the indefatigable biographer Joanna Richardson `like a huge man-of-war in full sail'; Betjeman in decline `moved to the table in a kind of dancing movement like an old bear'; and Randolph Churchill, though frequently berated before, can never recover from his description here as `bombastic, lecherous, insensitive, wrong-headed and rude, rude such as can never have been evinced before in a civilised society', the repetition of 'rude' betokening an almost embarrassed indignation.

On the royals he is refreshingly honest. The Queen is `extremely natural, and rather funny', whereas in the Queen Mother he detects `sugary insincerity'. Princess Michael of Kent is `large, handsome, Valkyrian, effusive, friendly, charming', and moreover flirtatious, vouchsafing that when she squabbles with her husband she tells him he is no better than his grandfather (George V). On the whole, however, 'I hate meeting royalty. One gets absolutely nowhere ... they cause constraint.' But there is a delicious vignette of the Prince of Wales who, having visited and admired Alvide Lees-Milne's garden, counselled her in a hand-written note, `When you write to me, put "To Himself' on the envelope.'

His eye for pictures and places is as discerning as one would expect from a man who virtually invented the National Trust, noticing that Pompeo Batoni's portraits of aristocratic men showed they all swigged ale too freely, and that Van Dyck was guilty of `pot-boiling'. …

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