Byline: DAVID SEXTON
JAMES Lees-Milne was absurd.
He was an utter snob. He loved to frequent people with ancient titles, living in great houses. His lifetime's achievement was to enable more of these people with ancient titles to carry on living in their great houses through that strange English institution whereby the masses support the nobles - the National Trust.
He was primarily homosexual but he got married, nonetheless, to a lesbian, in an arrangement similar to that created by his hero, Harold Nicolson, with Vita Sackville West (with whom his wife had an affair). He doted on his dog Folly but he loathed children and their noisiness. As an aesthete, he deplored nearly all modern development whatsoever and his politics were far to the right of almost anything else that has ever appeared in respectable print, although probably commonplace enough in the better gentlemen's clubs.
He did not merely despise the growing power of the lower classes in this country, he was obsessed with overpopulation in the world altogether and was keen to see great numbers of superfluous people perish.
"Whenever a radio announcer refers to the millions in East Africa dying of starvation, hoping to wring my heartstrings and get me to send some money, a dreadful elation rises within me.
Fewer people, I say to myself, no bad thing. Then I feel slightly ashamed of myself, though not as much as I should."
Lees-Milne wrote that in September, 1992. It is not quite the Bob Geldof view.
Yet the Diaries of James Lees-Milne are one of the treasures of contemporary English literature. The 11th volume, Ceaseless Turmoil, covering the years 1988-1992, has just been published (John Murray, [pounds sterling]25). One more is promised by his literary executor and editor - biographer to be and longterm love object, the historian Michael Bloch - taking Lees-Milne up to his death in 1997. They make the most strangely addictive reading.
Doubtless, for many, the appeal is precisely the upper-class milieu that Lees-Milne so assiduously frequented. Here are the Devonshires at home at Chatsworth, the Duke of Beaufort at Badminton and countless other aristocrats on an endless circuit of visits to one another. All are carefully footnoted by Bloch and on many pages every single person mentioned boasts a titled lineage and can be said to be "er dau. of Field Marshall 10th Earl of Cavan", or "er s. and heir of 15th Earl of Westmorland", even if they have no other apparent distinction. Moreover, Lees-Milne profoundly believed that "the aristocratic intelligentsia was the most desirable milieu in the civilised world; that it was not snobbish to want an entry, but a sign of sensibility and intelligence". For the customers of Heywood Hill, the posh bookshop in Mayfair, finding so much lordliness, packed so close and treated with such respect, is a treat in itself.
BUT as a diarist, Lees-Milne is equally compelling to readers without any knowledge of, or taste for, these circles whatsoever, just as Kilvert and Pepys are, for those otherwise uninterested in Restoration London or the Welsh Borders of the 1870s. He has the quality that Robert Louis Stevenson praised in Pepys, "that unflinching - I had almost said, that unintelligent - sincerity which makes it a miracle among human books".
Lees-Milne wrote many works of architectural history and biography and strongly fancied himself as a novelist, too. He often expresses frustration that it is not his more finished compositions but his diaries that are in demand and will be remembered. …