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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Nothing beats the stately homos of England

I love a diary. I'm just reading the second volume of James Lees-Milne's.

I'm not greatly bothered about the professional world he operated in - he was one of the prime movers behind the National Trust - but I find his dogged old-fashionedness cracking fun. Even in the 1970s he's still using the words "motor" and "lunch" as verbs. He talks about the ringing of the "telephone bell" and describes his struggles with a "self-photographic box" at the Passport Office. His concerns are refreshingly out of sync with his age, let alone ours. He describes, in painful detail, a dinner with Princess Margaret's circle and lists everyone at the table with the exception of one woman he describes only as "a film star". That's what today they would call "cool".

One of the famous stately homos of old England, Lees-Milne and his old pal, the no-less married John Betjeman, get together in old age and chuckle over who used to "tuck up" with whom back at Oxford. I wonder if publishers are going to fight shy of paras like this in the post-Savile era: "
Walking to church he said, I wonder what the bell-ringer will look like. I said boy bell-ringers should be plain, spotty and wear spectacles. Yes, he said, men don't make passes at boys wearing glasses. We were mistaken, our bell-ringer was a very pretty boy with a cream complexion.....At Westonbirt, where I took him during the afternoon, he was sent into ecstasies by a girl with flaming red hair and blue jeans who was lolling lasciviously over a table in the library. These thrills and what he calls "letchings" are sheer fantasy, I presume.
But what I most like about him is also what I think I most like about great diaries. These are the moments when he says things to his diary that are simply too bleak to say to another person. When an old friend dies he thinks about them for a few seconds and then turns the page of his paper. That, he reflects, is what happens when you die. Your friends think about you and then turn the page. And then this:
Have been pondering over what someone said the other day, that when one is awake at 3 a.m. then one sees life and death, as they truly are, in their stark, terrible, hopeless reality; that at all other times of the day, one sees these infinite thing through rose-tinted spectacles...
Worth reading.