Wednesday, September 08, 2010

James Lees-Milne

Michael Dirda’s piece from the Barnes and Noble Review in praise of the diaries of James Lees-Milne--which I wrote about briefly here--led me happily to Lees-Milne’s brief memoir, Another Self (1970). Described by Dirda as “hilarious, half-true, half-fantastic,” it is a wonderfully entertaining little book, full of stories of upper-class strangeness--especially involving Lees-Milne’s parents.

Lees-Milne’s father carries shades of the Mitford sisters’ father, Lord Redesdale: unpredictable, slightly tyrannical, and dismissive of his unmanly son, while his mother is flighty, flirty, and vague, characteristics that infuriated the father when they appeared in the son:
”What on earth d’you suppose you two would do, I would like to know, if you found yourselves alone on a desert island? In the Indian Ocean?” my father once yelled at us during a picnic He was incensed by our inability to open a box of preserved fruits. “Rot,” my mother answered with a little smile. “It isn’t,” he snapped back, misunderstanding her meaning. “I asked what would you do?” To which she languidly repeated, “Rot. We would just rot.”
My favorite portrait in the book, however, isn’t of one of Lees-Milne’s parents, but of the crammer they hired to prepare him for Oxford, Reverend H. B. Allen. For a one-sentence description, Lees-Milne quotes Herbert Asquith’s diary, which would be hard to better:
At a very advanced age, he was a testament to the preservative powers of whisky and a firm believer in free love, and continued in a chronic state of insolvency because of the kindness of heart which led him to maintain a retinue of sick horses and donkeys.
From there Lees-Milne builds a picture of a gentle, preoccupied old man, obsessed with the classics, which he imagined played about him on the Cotswolds:
Hopelessly unpractical, improvident and vague, the Priest was a dedicated classical scholar with an ability to instill enthusiasm into his pupils. . . . He would sit on the window seat of his study with his arms round the neck of whichever pony happened to be grazing on the garden bed outside. In between kissing the pony’s nose and stuffing its mouth with carrots he attended to us. Hesitant and giggling, slushing and adjusting his ill-fitting false teeth he would recite and translate for our benefit the Idylls, Eclogues, and Metamorphoses from beginning to end.
Unexpectedly, this strange performance was effective: Lees-Milne wrote that he and the other boys fell completely under the Reverend’s spell, enchanted by his obvious love of his material.

If those passages amuse you like they amused me, you’ll enjoy Another Self, as its gently meandering narrative is full of them, alongside thoughts on architecture, Oxford, and growing up, and a strikingly vivid account of a bad night during the Blitz. The only wrong notes in the book come when Lees-Milne regrets not having been brave enough to go fight for Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Lees-Milne was a staunch conservative and anti-communist, and anyone who reads about the Spanish Civil War knows that neither side was anything like blameless, but it’s rare these days (or even, I suspect, in 1970) to encounter someone who openly laments not having put his life on the line for Franco.

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed Another Self if I remember rightly - of course some of his views and his general mindset made me bubble a bit - it was not just the specific opinions - but the tone was so snobby... that having been said, I found the entries funny and interesting. It did not make me nostalgic for his era but I do think that I got a good look at it if you know what I mean. Great post - thanks for sharing