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 might be in it would laugh nervously, seek reassurance, or even break cover and ask for cuts. In the end Jim produced twelve volumes of diaries, delivering each new manuscript with the suggestion that readers must surely have had enough of him by now. Every new volume, though, was snapped up as quickly as its predecessors.
Third, he was the author of a delicious memoir, Another Self. In it he looks back from the standpoint of his sixties at his life before he joined the Trust or kept the diary: that is, at his life before he became his fulfilled, and in the very best sense egregious, mature Self. He gives us a kind of idealized autobiography. It’s not idealized of course in the sense that he ever presents himself or his deeds in a flattering light, but it is idealized in that it draws together a perfect mixture of surprise, bathos, absurdity, sadness, embarrassment, indignation and farce, distilled into one infinitely entertaining whole.
Jim himself was always rather deprecating about Another Self. It was hardly more than fiction he would say, before agreeing to a reissue. It is true one would need to be strangely literal-minded to suppose that everything in it was bald fact, but to complain that it was unreal would be to miss the comic precision with which it nails the awful predicaments of childhood and youth – predicaments which, in one form or another, most of us have experienced. I used to wonder whether he worried less about possible accusations of invention, which anyway no one he cared about would have been crass enough to make, than about the excruciating candour with which he had revealed the sorts of failing people generally take a lot of trouble to hide.
In eight short chapters Jim describes a whole sequence of follies, misjudgements, rebuffs, false starts and occasional strokes of undeserved good luck. Some episodes, like his arrival at prep school in a carriage whose bottom has fallen out, or the incident in which he loses a squad of guardsmen in the mist on the edge of a cliff, have almost entered folklore. A favourite of mine is the occasion when he is thrown out of a Mitford house party by Lord Redesdale – ‘Farv’ – for expressing an unwelcome opinion, and then having spent hours trying to start his motor scooter in the pouring rain creeps back to the kitchen door in the middle of the night, ‘petrified and dripping like a statue under a fountain’, to be welcomed in by the same Farv as an old and cherished friend.
Another Self is the sort of book that is usually called a minor classic, but that sounds rather embalmed for something as delightful as this. One envies those who have yet to discover it – yet at the same time one knows that in fact every subsequent reading is just as much fun as the first. I would call it a major treat.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 24 © Grant McIntyre 2009
This article also appears as a preface to Plain Foxed Edition: James Lees-Milne, Another Self
About the contributor
Grant McIntyre was lucky enough to publish the last ten or so of Jim’s books, and so became a junior member of his enormous circle of friends.