There are three good reasons for taking take Jim [James] Lees-Milne to one’s heart. First there’s his work for the fledgling National Trust. When he joined it before the War, the Trust employed just four people, in a dowdy office in Victoria, and was concerned almost exclusively with countryside and coastline. He was one of the first to see that the country houses of England and Wales needed to be saved just as much as the scenery. They were ‘fragile and transient’ in themselves, and a burden to an aristocracy on the wane, but these houses constituted an art form probably unique in the world and he was passionate about them.
Jim was a tall, slightly etiolated young man, diffidently patrician and dandyish. He must have seemed scarcely part of the real world at all, but rather to have emerged from a photograph by Cecil Beaton or a drawing by Rex Whistler. He visited houses up and down the country and deftly persuaded their owners, suspicious, dotty or even mad as some of them might be, to hand their property over to the Trust for preservation – and of course for visits by a fascinated public. Without Jim, those country houses neither demolished nor made over by the new super-rich would probably almost all by now be corporate headquarters, care institutions or outposts of the Ministry of Defence.
Second, Jim was one of the best and funniest diarists ever to write in English (see SF, No. 8). The worlds in which he moved – mostly vanished now of course – were generous with what John Betjeman called ‘strangely gripping anecdotes’. Jim recounted them with a marvellous brevity, alive to every nuance of character and situation. He was wonderfully perceptive, and though he was never cruelly unsympathetic except at his own expense he had an acute eye for absurd incongruity, or for the comic or unedifying motivation that might underlie some smoothly delivered remark. As publication of each new volume approached, those who thought they mig
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