Late Worm

Rosemary Hill

  • James Lees-Milne: The Life by Michael Bloch
    Murray, 400 pp, £25.00, September 2009, ISBN 978 0 7195 6034 7

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’.

Michael Bloch, who knew his subject well for many years, is a tactful, sensitive but not an indulgent biographer. His book conveys the contradictions of character and circumstance out of which this complicated, elusive but attractive personality evolved towards late-flowering celebrity. In one of Lees-Milne’s regular pessimistic self-assessments, amid laments about his loss of hair and declining libido at 40, he noted that despite it all his mental faculties, ‘never first-rate, are better than they have ever been’. ‘All my life,’ he adds, ‘I have been a slow developer.’ It is a verdict that Bloch seems to endorse but the impression from the biography is not so much that Lees-Milne was slow, as that he had a lot of ground to cover to get from where he started to somewhere he wanted to be. To the very end he seems to have been unsure that he had arrived.

Born into what he described with forensic precision as the ‘lower upper-class’ in 1908, he was the elder son of a hunting, shooting, philistine father, whom he disliked, and a vague, highly-strung mother whom as a child he adored. The family could claim only to be ‘lower’ because its rapidly diminishing wealth was recent, coming from the cotton trade rather than from land. They still owned a mill in 1908, which Lees-Milne’s brother later ran, for it was soon apparent that Jim, as he was always known, would be useless at it. What he might be useful for, after an undistinguished career at Eton, was a question that puzzled his father to such an extent that when a friend facetiously suggested trying the Useful Women employment agency in Dover Street he duly marched Jim straight there from the Cavalry Club where they were lunching and had him enrolled at Miss Blakeney’s Stenography School for Young Ladies in Chelsea. That at least is what Lees-Milne says in his memoir, Another Self. As Bloch, who has the biographer’s thankless task of spoiling good anecdotes, puts it circumspectly, ‘it is quite possible that . . . events occurred not dissimilar to those described.’ However it came about, Lees-Milne certainly took the secretarial course. After that, to his father’s annoyance, he was wangled by his mother into Magdalen College, Oxford. His Eton housemaster, who was married to a friend of Mrs Lees-Milne, had been persuaded to write assuring the college that her son was ‘charming and attractive’, which was apparently pretty much all that was required.

Oxford was not a great success either. Lees-Milne was no scholar. He read modern history but left with a third-class degree and was all his life defensively unintellectual, ‘ill at ease among the highbrows’. Sexually too he was ambivalent, attracted to both Tom Mitford, with whom he had been at school, and Tom’s sister Diana, with whom he was for years in love. He remained bisexual for most of his life. A further episode of doubtful veracity in Another Self, according to Bloch, is Lees-Milne’s account of falling into conversation with a young man he met at the opera. In the memoir they share an idyllic evening of mutual sympathy and exchange addresses, but it transpires that in their goodbyes the notes are muddled, and Lees-Milne is left with his own address, his soul mate lost for ever. More interesting than whether it is exactly true or not is the incident’s place as part of a pattern of similar anecdotes amounting to a leitmotiv in Lees-Milne’s life. There is ‘the voice’, a woman he never meets and whose name he never knows, having encountered her on a crossed line during the Blitz. He continues a telephone friendship with her until one day the number is cut off and he learns that the address has been bombed. Then there is another ideal young man met on a train whose number he does get, only for it to turn out to be false. These tantalising glimpses of total empathy might be read, perhaps, as sightings of the ‘other self’ of the memoir, flashes of his own reflection in half-imaginary others. Lees-Milne worried at times that that was all he was, the sum of his responses to other people, so chameleon-like that maybe there was nothing at the centre. Yet he found himself, for all these shortcomings, fascinating. Ivy Compton-Burnett, a shrewd if unkind analyst of character, left him a looking-glass in her will.

Possibly the diaries, a kind of literary mirror, were his real soul mates. A journal is after all the narcissist’s perfect literary form, one in which the author can be sure of the undivided attention of an exclusive and sympathetic audience. Yet Lees-Milne, who began his in 1942, was also aware of fulfilling a duty, of chronicling places and people, perhaps an entire civilisation almost certainly doomed to extinction. He was then working for the National Trust, a job he had resumed after a brief and hapless army career that ended with his being invalided out, suffering from epilepsy. Now 34, he had found some certainties in life. He had been received into the Roman Catholic Church and undergone another, secular epiphany, whose effects turned out to be more lasting, in which he experienced a ‘deep atavistic compassion for ancient architecture so vulnerable and transient’, and decided to devote his ‘energies and abilities, such as they were, to preserving the country houses of England’. He was now in the perfect position to do it and his abilities turned out to be considerable. If it was an exaggeration to call him ‘the man who saved England’, he certainly saved a great deal of it. In his work for the Trust he protected what was tangible, while in the diaries he preserved much of what was evanescent in the manners and customs of country-house life.

Lees-Milne’s career coincided, as he realised at the time, with a profound shift in social attitudes and structures. He saw it as a tragic decline, ‘a long, losing battle’ in which the Trust itself was not always on his side. It might equally be seen as the latest round in the struggle between land and trade, national and private interests of which his family had been part since the previous century and which Lees-Milne was therefore peculiarly well placed to understand. The flow of working people to the cities had always been matched by a small but steady trickle in the opposite direction of manufacturers made good seeking to clamber onto the lower-upper-class rung of society with the purchase of a country estate. Country houses continued to grow in number as the way of life that was needed to support them diminished. After the First World War it was apparent that a crisis loomed. Yet even then there was little serious thought of state intervention. Britain had no equivalent of the French concept of patrimoine. Private property was sacrosanct and the attachment to land ownership, which persists in a more democratic form in the national obsession with home ownership, overrode every other concern, then as now with mixed results. Despite threats to the preservation of Hadrian’s Wall and Stonehenge, both Houses of Parliament fiercely resisted the first Ancient Monuments Protection Bill, which took nine years and a change of government to reach the statute book. Only in 1908, the year of Lees-Milne’s birth, was the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments established as an acknowledgment that the nation might take some responsibility for later antiquities.

The National Trust, which had been founded by admirers of Ruskin and William Morris to preserve threatened areas of countryside, had, at first, no remit to take on buildings. With its ethos of inspired amateurism, however, this ‘dedicated group of happy-go-lucky enthusiasts’, as Lees-Milne called them, was more acceptable, when the time came, to beleaguered house owners faced first with wartime requisitioning and then, after the war, with high taxation, death duties and staff shortages, than a state body would have been. Handsome, charming, tactful and determined, Lees-Milne was brilliant at ‘wheedling’ his way into owners’ confidence. Some of them fell in love with him. Even so, and despite his willingness to go to lengths and indeed ‘depths’ which, he hinted darkly, might shock the Trust if they knew the full extent of the ‘extreme zeal’ with which he pursued its interests, the land-owning classes were often unreceptive or simply baffled.

The difficulties, if bad for the preservation of the country house, were good for the diary. At Charlcote, Sir Henry Fairfax-Lucy showed Lees-Milne the park but refused to let him into the house on the grounds that it was unnecessary, since it was ‘known to be one of the great, the greatest houses of England’. At Longleat, after a ‘fruitless interview’ Lord Bath ordered Lees-Milne’s motor car to be brought round. When a footman wheeled out the bicycle on which he had in fact arrived, the marquess stood, ‘in the old-world manner of true hospitality’, flanked by his smirking staff, and watched until Lees-Milne’s diminishing figure had covered the entire length of the drive to the gates.

Where owners were interested or even keen for the Trust to take on their homes, it was still a complicated business. Not all the houses were significant enough. If they were, then there were heirs and entails to be considered as well as endowments, which, it was soon realised, would need to be substantial in order to ensure the continued existence of the houses once the Trust had acquired them. At a more abstract level there was also the question of what, exactly, that existence would be. The historian G.M. Trevelyan, whose brother Charles bequeathed Wallington House in Northumberland to the National Trust, wrote the introduction to Lees-Milne’s book on the Trust, published in 1945. Asking Lees-Milne what he should say in conclusion, he got a categorical answer: ‘Please stress the Trust’s opposition to museumisation and its wish to preserve the face of England as it was under private ownership.’ This, as Lees-Milne knew, was impossible. It is the paradox of conservation that in order to preserve anything, landscape or artefact, as it is, the last thing you can do is leave it alone. With time the radical line of Morris and Ruskin, that ‘all restoration is a lie’ and that entropy must take its course, is as destructive as the most draconian intervention.

In that sense Lees-Milne was right about the losing battle. He knew, though, how to slow the process down. He understood that a country house, however fine its architecture or its contents, was more than the sum of its parts. It was an organism rooted in the society and the economy around it, the product of the individual lives of the generations that had created it. He was anxious that families should continue where possible to live in the houses the Trust acquired, that not every object should be in perfect keeping or of the right date. He felt, he said, ‘some paternal instinct’ towards the houses, and when there were conflicts of interest between a house, its owners and the Trust, Lees-Milne, in adjudicating the custody battle, always put the interests of his surrogate children first. He defended them, too, against the Ministry of Works, whose involvement had become increasingly unavoidable. Postwar owners were able to leave houses to the government in lieu of death duties and the ministry was not always keen to hand them over to the Trust. Lees-Milne and his colleagues shuddered at the ministry’s heavy-handed approach to monuments, which it tended to surround with municipal-looking outbuildings. It ‘lacks taste and sensitivity’, he noted, ‘in spite of its academic superiority’.

This last, the question of ‘academic superiority’, was a sore point. What Lees-Milne and the Trust did in its postwar heyday might be described as a higher form of muddling through. On 27 March 1945, while under an interesting table in St-Leonard’s-on-Sea – ‘running my fingers in a professional manner up and down the legs, like a horse-coper examining fetlocks’ – to assess its suitability as a possible donation to the Trust, he reflected on his methods: ‘with no pretensions to judge what is genuine and what fake in furniture, I rely upon instinct, sharpened by years of experience, rather than upon imbibed knowledge from textbooks.’ There is no natural opposition between books and experience but book learning, swotting, was felt by Lees-Milne and many of his friends to be worryingly ‘highbrow’ and, like state ownership, un-English. It is remarkable that nowhere in Bloch’s biography or in any of the three volumes of Lees-Milne’s abridged diaries does the name of Nikolaus Pevsner appear. Yet from 1945 onwards, Pevsner was also motoring round the country working on The Buildings of England, his county by county architectural survey that transformed the understanding of English architecture, organising, collating and recording information on tens of thousands of buildings. Pevsner too was an admirer of William Morris, he too believed that design was ‘a social question’, but by ‘society’ he understood something rather different from Lees-Milne, taking no more particular interest in the owners of country houses than he did in the vicars of the churches he described.

Since Lees-Milne does not mention Pevsner, he presumably did not much admire him, while his great friend and ally John Betjeman was vocal about the ‘Herr Doktor Professor’ who, Betjeman claimed, dismissed him as a ‘lightweight wax fruit’ because of his passion for Victoriana. Pevsner, despite recent attempts to suggest that he was engaged in a game of ‘style wars’ with Betjeman, seems in fact to have been largely unaware of and unmoved by the antipathy he aroused in some of the English, which possibly annoyed them even more. Despite which there grew up a fissure in British architectural history, still traceable today, between the gentlemen amateurs on the one hand, who despise the grubby, doctrinaire scholars, and the professionals on the other, who regard Lees-Milne and his kind as intellectually unsound ‘connoisseurs’, preoccupied with duchesses and passementerie. These days the gentlemen get the worst of it. The National Trust, which now operates from an environmentally sustainable modernist block in Swindon, is not as proud of its own history as might be expected of a conservation body. As Bloch discovered, the ‘old guard’ are now viewed as ‘elitist’ and largely purged from memory. When Lees-Milne’s diaries were first published the National Trust shops would not stock them.

This was mere prejudice, for Lees-Milne was always broad in his interests and sympathies. At Chatsworth in 1995 he was irritated by John Cornforth, visiting for Country Life, who appeared to have no interests beyond upholstery, giving ‘one a pitying look if one tries to change the subject from curtain tassels’. What he cared for most was the fragile idyll of a lost England, as fugitive as the ideal lover, an idyll which the country house at its best might have embodied, but which extended far beyond it. Driving to Montacute House in Somerset on a warm July evening with the windows open, he inhaled the smell of ‘new-mown hay and hedgerows, of eglantine and elder . . . How I love these long, gentle, Shakespearean summer evenings.’ That was in 1946 and the immediate postwar period was the best and worst of times for the Trust. There was a flood of applications to transfer houses and although many were lost, many were saved. Lees-Milne and his friend and colleague Eardley Knollys spent happy days arranging furniture, compiling guidebooks and preparing for the arrival of the public, who, as petrol rationing eased, came in growing numbers and enjoyed varied experiences. Where the family remained in situ they or their staff often acted as guides. At Hatchlands in Surrey the Goodhart-Rendel butler, an imposing Wodehousian figure, became an attraction in his own right, while at West Wycombe the châtelaine Helen Dashwood, known, not especially affectionately, as ‘hell-bags’, made her disdain for hoi polloi plain as she shooed them from room to room.

Throughout these years, Lees-Milne remained ambivalent about everything in his life except the country house and his diary. His Catholic faith, which depended as he admitted on ‘a twilight atmosphere . . . myriads of twinkling candles [and] clouds of incense’, was not of the sort to sustain him through dark times. After years of waning enthusiasm, the Second Vatican Council’s prohibition of the Latin Mass sent him back to the Church of England. His love affairs with men and women came and went while literary success, which he craved above all things, eluded him. His remark that ‘all novels must be wish fantasies’ casts an alarming light on his own efforts, whose improbable plots involved at various times incestuous twins and necrophilia. His poetry was also a failure and if he thought of his diaries as any kind of achievement at this stage, he seems never to have mentioned it. At 40 he longed for ‘some devastating romance’ in his life, a wish that was fulfilled with a vengeance soon afterwards when he met and married Alvilde Chaplin.

Alvilde, a year younger than him, was called, apparently at her mother’s insistence, after a Norwegian ballerina with whom her father had been conducting an affair at the time of her birth. Having been named after one irregular relationship, she grew up to enjoy many more. Like Lees-Milne, who was her second husband, she was bisexual, but unlike him of very determined, possessive character. His friends resented her habit of steaming open his correspondence, although the wittier of them took to including asides addressed to her in the course of their letters to him. Posterity may also blame her for the fact that Lees-Milne either failed to keep or later destroyed his diaries for the middle years of his complicated and often unhappy marriage. His thoughts on the later 1950s and 1960s were lost in a maze of inter and extra-marital affairs in which all roads seem to have led to Vita Sackville-West. Alvilde had a passionate relationship with Vita for several years, Lees-Milne having had one earlier with her husband, Harold Nicolson. The fact that the Lees-Milnes looked to the Nicolsons for marriage guidance in their frequent crises is a fair indicator of the peculiarity of their situation.

At 65, Lees-Milne felt himself a comprehensive failure, ‘as a son, brother, lover, husband, conservationist, committee member, friend, writer . . . everything really’, and ready to die. The confession was made to his recently resumed diary. The diary, that ideal not-quite-other, was now his most consistent love, for even architecture, he said, bored him sometimes and two years later the diary came to his rescue when the first instalment was published, turning him at last into a literary figure and on one front an unquestionable success. As a diarist he combined the wit and charm of his social persona with the integrity and unguardedness, the ‘candour’ as he put it, which he found difficult in the company of others. ‘In writing the devil gets into one at times,’ as he observed, and it is the devil in the details, tactless, sometimes tasteless, always vivid, that makes him a great diarist. Naturally, when they were published some people were offended and typically, Lees-Milne regretted each successive volume: ‘Wish I had never published these bloody diaries. Can’t think what came over me,’ he wrote in 1983. Sometimes he was on the receiving end, but took it in the right spirit, noting as Frances Partridge’s diaries appeared that he and Alvilde were ‘amused to read how much she disliked staying with us’.

There were to be 14 more years of diary-keeping, in which Lees-Milne continued his late development, noting with satisfaction, as contemporaries aged less well, that ‘the late worms change places with the early birds.’ He continued to make new friends and form new and sometimes surprising opinions. Through Alvilde’s work as a garden designer he met Mick Jagger, ‘nice little man, unassuming . . . Figure not good,’ while, ever alert to anything that menaced England, he found he had ‘a curious sympathy with these awful women at Greenham Common’. Having always been in love with an ideal past that he had never known, he was no more nostalgic in old age than he had been in his youth. He lamented the fate of the National Trust, ‘beaten to the ground by its own bureaucracy’, and lost to museumisation, but not the world of the interwar years. Watching his friend Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time on television, he was revolted and thanked God ‘that generation is now extinct.’

For all the self-deprecation there was scant self-pity. As time and illness overtook him and many of his friends he was impatient with those who fussed over the inevitable. ‘It’s just death let’s face it.’ In 1994 death came for Alvilde, to whom, in their last years, he had grown close once more. His grief was recorded like everything else and with painful economy: ‘The evenings alone are agony, and the nights frightening.’ He survived his wife by four years and outlived his diary by less than two months, the last entry, written in hospital, a final comment on his own inadequacy: ‘My handwriting is very shaky. Damn it.’