Tuesday, May 24, 2016
of houses and humans
The spring weeks fly by. This past weekend held our first truly summery days - hot sun, shorts, flip-flops, a remote empty beach, desultory watercolors, the full picnic basket, a sense of delicious idleness. Long days filled with what feels like all the time in the world. Most welcome around here, after a month of anxiety about house repairs (chimneys rebuilt and roof re-shingled), all finished now. Except for, of course, the paying of the bills.
But let's not dwell on that. Instead, books! I make progress in the diaries of James Lees-Milne. Am nearing the end of volume six - Ancient as the Hills: Diaries 1973-1974 (John Murray 1997). Many thoughts regarding this and all the previous volumes too, mostly involving people and places.
People: Lees-Milne encounters a fascinating cast of characters, and writes about them at length. Some of my favorite passages and turns of phrase in the diaries are his descriptions of people:
"Mrs. Stirling was bedecked in jewels and gems. When she walks across the room it is like a chandelier which has been let down from the ceiling and, without collapsing, mysteriously manages to move." (Diaries 1942-1945 p.83)
"Grandy Jersey lunched but when alone with me is apt to fall asleep like a large and beautiful dormouse." (Diaries 1946-1949 p.7)
"Mary is as majestic as ever, tall, robust, windswept, exceedingly untidy. Her tweed coat and skirt are stained and torn, and the pockets have holes in them. Her breeding and dignity are impeccable; her views are uncompromising, proud and right. Her humour is unimpaired. She is a splendid creature with a massive soul." (ibid p.93)
"She is still quick as lightning, sharp as a packet of needles and capable of seducing God. She is going to invite me to stay at Donnington, which I rather dread and much look forward to. (Daisy Fellowes; ibid p.253)
"Lunched with that fiend Charles Fry at the Ritz.... He is unchanged - detestable. I really dislike him unreservedly. He is utterly untrustworthy, without conscience, moral scruple, or decency." (ibid p.277)
I could go on, Lees-Milne certainly does. His diaries come across as remarkably even-handed in the praise and blame departments, which I honor him for. Clear-eyed descriptions, as far as I can tell, especially of those he knew well. Speaking of whom, I would recommend these diaries for anyone even remotely interested in the doings of the Mitford family. Lees-Milne went to school with Tom Mitford, who died during the war (hence during the course of these diaries), brother of the famous Mitford sisters. Nancy and Debo make many appearances throughout, along with all the rest. Early on Lees-Milne says, "What a catching disease Mitfordism is!" (Diaries 1942-1945 p.66) He considers Tom his oldest friend and loves the whole family. And yet mentions several times their unkind and often cruel wit, especially Nancy's. As a sidelight on the lives and times of the Mitfords, these diaries are invaluable. Ditto the Nicolsons/Sackville-Wests.
Places: Lees-Milne's work for the National Trust has him visiting houses and their owners all over the countryside, all the time. He says of his preservation work, "... my loyalties are first to the houses, second to the donors, and third to the National Trust. I put the Trust last because it is neither a work of art nor a human being but an abstract thing, a convenience." (ibid p.153) Another reason to honor him - his love for art, in the forms of architecture and its details, houses and their contents, especially in the face of war, destruction, and societal change on a massive scale. He and his cohorts saved what they could, when they could. Lees-Milne also says, about the National Trust at that time, "...we are not a bureaucratic team of experts, but a dedicated group of happy-go-lucky enthusiasts, who ought not to be bossed about." (Diaries 1946-1949 p.49)
As I read along in the diaries I find myself taking notes about both houses and owners. They often share names, or not, and sometimes I can't tell which is which until their context becomes apparent. Viz.:
Felbrigg = house
Wyndham Ketton-Cremer = human
Ockwells = house
Compton Beauchamp = house
Monk Hopton = house
Upton Cresset = house
Stafford Cripps = human
Polesden Lacey = house
Lydiard Tregoze = house
Wentworth Woodhouse = house
the Medlycotts = humans
the Grazebrooks = humans
Shardeloes = house
Worplesdon = house
Clumber = house
Swanton Morley = house
Gwynne Ramsey = human
Riette Lamington = human
Mindy Bacon = human
Burnett Pavitt = human
Lytes Cary = house
the Stavordales at Evershot = humans, house
How varied and wonderful the English language is! Lees-Milne's writing certainly highlights the oddities and beauties of it. He is usually straightforward as a writer, in his style, but is also wide awake to poetry and beauty:
"Set off this morning for Norfolk. Lunched at Saffron Walden - a poetic, medieval tapestry, wild-flower name..." (Diaries 1946-1949 p.131)
Enough for today, I've got to catch up in my own diaries - I still haven't copied notes from Lees-Milne's volumes five and six. I did finally find a copy of volume ten (see last post) - it was just a little over forty dollars, and is on approach from a bookseller in the U.K. as we speak. Phew. Glad to have the complete set. My summer reading is taken care of! I say that even as other books encroach, more or less all the time! Well, there are worse problems to have, I know. If anyone feels like chiming in, I would love to know your summer reading plans. Meanwhile, enjoy lilac-time. Which is so fleeting it must be savored as it happens.
Monday, May 02, 2016
unscrupulous, nasty, and frivolous?
A rainy day. Here we are. Um, so. Yeah. James Lees-Milne. Have I mentioned him before? ;O)
After several weeks of reading his diaries (the John Murray hardcover reprints) I feel like I am beginning to know him and learn his language. I'm in the thick of it. In volume four, today, it is late April, 1948. I don't want to get ahead of myself, though, and so will begin at the beginning, by saying yet again how much I enjoy reading other people's diaries. Lees-Milne is a conscientious diary-keeper and writes every day, or nearly every day. Most of his entries are not long, just notes with the details of "I did this, I did that, so-and-so was there, and said such-and-such." He does have decided opinions about everything and everyone, and states them often, with long strings of adjectives attached like kite tails. Even so, his diaries are so much less snarky and scandalous than I set out thinking they were going to be. In fact they seem neither snarky nor scandalous at all, really, and not just by today's standards (do we have standards...?). Yet another lesson in abandoning all preconceived notions about anything. So far his diaries are just diaries - observations, notations, records of the day-to-day. But his day-to-day is quite different from ours, and so I read on, fascinated. Through many lunches at many clubs. And many visits to many historic houses for work and for pleasure. Days of action and days of boredom. Books he's reading and writing. Views on politics and religion. Friends wandering in and out (and what friends they are: the Mitfords, Emerald Cunard, Ivy Compton-Burnett, various Sackville-Wests, Harold Nicolson, the Pope-Hennessy family - a veritable waterfall of names). And as an impossible-to-ignore backdrop to everything, in the first two volumes and beyond, the war. Bombs dropping in London, for months on end. Uncertainty and death.
He originally means to write his diaries only during the years of the war, and in fact he quits writing them after peace is declared. But soon starts again:
"Sunday, 6th January.... An explanation is now called for. Why do I resume this diary which three months ago I brought to an end? There is no explanation. I merely missed it like an old friend." (Diaries 1946-1949 p.3)
But I'm getting ahead of myself, jumping right in to volume three like that! How about the earlier ones? Well, the first two alternate in tone between Siegfried Sassoon's memoirs and Edward Gorey screenplays, if he had ever written such things. As I read along, I kept thinking of Gorey's mock-Edwardian-roaring-twenties country house folk, languishing on settees and going mysteriously missing during thunderstorms, etc. Like this, Lees-Milne at a country house for the weekend:
"Sunday, 9th August. The others sail spasmodically on the lake in their beastly boats, but the weather bores me and I don't go near it. When we all meet the fun is not furious and the conversation not sparkling. I feel discontented and unwell. Indeed I wonder why on earth I ever came." (Diaries 1942-1945 p.78)
Most of his writing, however, isn't so self-indulgent. Instead it's a long look at one person's experience during an extraordinary time. He writes about everything, including diary-keeping itself:
"I said that more people ought to keep diaries, but the trouble was that the most unscrupulous diarists were too scrupulous when it came to putting personal truths on paper. James (Pope-Hennessy) said that Cecil (Beaton's) diary would be the chronicle of our age, that we would only live through it. I said Eddy Sackville West kept one. James said, 'We could not be hoisted to posterity on two spikier spikes.'" (ibid p.196)
And he worries about what posterity (us) might think of him, because of the self-portrait he writes:
"I fear that in this diary I disclose the nastier, the more frivolous side of myself. I sincerely believe and fervently hope that I am not as nasty as I may appear. It is difficult to be entirely honest about oneself, because one does not necessarily know oneself. One thinks one knows. The consequence of being as honest as I try to be, must surely be that readers of these lines would pronounce me worse than many of my contemporaries who do not keep frank records of themselves. Frank? Not entirely, because I withhold things." (ibid p.384)
But isn't this why we read other people's diaries? To encounter the whole person, whether he or she would like us to or not? The writer of diaries always discloses more than originally intended, it seems to me, allowing us to read between the lines, as well as reading the lines themselves. And besides, no one can be nasty and frivolous all the time. Lees-Milne certainly isn't, if he is at all. I think about this when I write in my own diary. Sometimes I even write: this is how I am feeling, even when I wish I wasn't feeling this way, and am not in the least proud to be feeling what I am most certainly feeling. Ugh. It can entail painful self-revelation. But cathartic, too. I truly believe that keeping a diary is an excellent way to get otherwise haunting things off your mind and on to paper, where they belong, so you can get on with your day. I'll have more details about his diaries, not mine, soon. I'm enjoying them mightily, on so many levels - as personal disclosure, as a new language about art and architecture, as literary history, and especially as a record of all those small events which slowly add up to the whole of life. Even with everything happening here, regarding my own life and art, I'm happy that I still managed to read through three volumes of Lees-Milne and begin the fourth. And I only have one errant volume left to buy, out of the twelve-volume set. The hardcover copies I see online for sale are beyond my comfort zone, price-wise, even though there are many copies available (oh how I dislike online used book pricing algorithms and the havoc they engender). So I wait, and hope that someone will list a slightly less expensive hardcover, with a dust jacket, and describe both accurately. Is that too much to ask? Possibly. Beneath a Waning Moon, volume ten, is what I seek, in case anyone reading this knows of a copy for under, say, forty bucks. I have some time before the situation becomes desperate - at least as long as it takes for me to read volumes four through nine. I'm ordinarily a fast reader, but life events of late have me reading at the proverbial snail's pace, so I'm not worried. Yet.
Friday, April 22, 2016
change of season
Holy crackers it's a busy time. My reading life occurs in fits and starts right now, around long days of painting and evenings of collapsing from tiredness after working outside all day. A friend recently said to me, "Oh, I thought painting was just kind of..." and he made some relaxed, eyes-half-closed, slow-motion, arm-wavy movements. I just looked at him. And laughed a bit. There is some of that, to be sure, but much more of it is like anything else. You know, work. Hard work! Sometimes involving power tools (framing) and exercise (stretching canvases, lugging painting supplies to remote locations) and bookkeeping (self-employment tax, sales tax, paperwork about shows). Even standing at an easel in my studio is sometimes difficult. I mean, I painted a large painting recently, which took me three days - seven or eight hours each of the first two days and maybe five hours the third day. Sustaining that level of close attention feels like doing yoga for that long might feel, or running a very slow marathon. It's intense. Sometimes I have to remind myself to breathe.
Does this sound like complaining? I hope not. Because painting is like food and water to me - I love it, it is so necessary to my well-being! Kind of like reading, but not. I think I'm trying to justify not having written here in a few weeks, even though I've wanted to. Because I have read some splendid books, but my rate-of-reading has dwindled since spring truly arrived. Wild horses couldn't keep me from painting outside on these first warm days of the year. It has been both rocky and wonderful. I am also getting ready for my upcoming solo painting show and that has been consuming. I framed over seventy paintings. And put together, with the help of a photographer and a designer, a small catalogue for my show. My first venture into mass printing: a small staple-bound booklet illustrating twenty-three paintings from my show, Postcards from Home. 500 copies. They arrived this week from the printer, in two very heavy boxes. I opened the boxes and there they were. With my name on the front cover, and everything. Like this:
Eeeek! Most of these are destined for the gallery, to be sold during my show, and for some wonderful art lovers who have already purchased paintings from me, and also for friends and family and various other Persons of Interest. During the past few days I've been mailing copies out, to all of the above (speaking of which, if anyone here would like to buy a copy, please email me for details - it's inexpensive and, being quite thin, won't take up much valuable bookshelf space, always a consideration). More joyful work. And more good news: the painting on the cover has already sold, along with a few other paintings shown within. And my show won't even open until June 3rd! I just about cried, about all of that, to tell you the truth.
I should be writing about this on my painting website blog, and I will soon, I'm sure, but I started writing here first because I really want to talk about books! I meant to talk about books today, in fact, because I am reading the diaries of James Lees-Milne, I'm already well into volume three, and they are tremendous, and I do want to write about them at great length! Not to mention a few other remarkable books that have come my way recently. But the season beckons me, and spring is so fleeting, and so very sweet. It's not a time for reading or writing the days away, tempting though those prospects always are. Well, all I can say is that if we have a few rainy days in a row, I'll make the most of them, and meet you back here to talk books. Until then...
Saturday, April 02, 2016
all in a day's work
Lately I find myself with a welcome, renewed sense of optimism about the book business. Not that optimism ever left me completely, I am too much of a romantic for that, but I will admit to wondering if, well, you know. The book business - new and used both - doomed? Over? Obsolete...? How I've hoped it wasn't so! And, you know, it isn't - books have always been, are, and will continue to be simply awesome! A perfect portable spiritual interface between like minds, or unlike minds, whatever your reading preferences happen to be. I was reminded of this again yesterday - I spent time working in my booth in the antiques mall where my books await (and often find) new owners. It was the first of the month so I was also there to receive a paycheck and a printout of books sold last month. At this quiet time of year I was pleasantly surprised by both pieces of paper. People are still buying interesting, useful, entertaining, meaningful books of all kinds.
Me, too! Optimism intact, I ventured forth this morning to a local friends-of-the-library sale. I thought the sale started at 10 a.m. It started at 9 a.m. Ruh-roh. However the friends were restocking the shelves when I ambled in at 9:59, so I still found some books to buy - general stock, nothing fancy or rare. I don't think I've ever described in detail what I come home with from book sales, other than to say "good books" - so, today's the day. Pictured below is my complete take-away from this morning's sale. I spent $83 on 56 books, a mix of hardcover and softcover, new and old Even after all these years of book hunting, sales like this still feel like outrageously good deals to me. Will anyone ever buy them from me, in turn? Not always, but often, yes. Most heartening.
House and garden first. Some cookery - John Thorne! - and gardening, and a few art books:
Then five - five! - Alan Bennett books, and some literature and history:
Short stories, and the unclassifiable - Maira Kalman! Joseph Mitchell! - and poetry - Frost, Blake!
More fiction, literary biographies, nonfiction - Doris Grumbach! Patrick O'Brian!
Some Penguin paperbacks - how I love them in orange, blue, black, and pale green. More fiction, and essays, travel, and poetry - Frank O'Hara! Patrick Leigh Fermor!
And the last two, because I like the covers - Pat Conroy's memoir, My Reading Life (Nan A. Talese 2010), which I myself am planning to read, whenever I can tear myself away from James Lees-Milne's diaries for any amount of time, and a Maine art book, Eric Hopkins: Waypoints (Farnsworth Art Museum 2003), which I love and already own a copy of, but not a signed copy, which this is. It was my big purchase of the day, at $8. I will keep the signed one and sell the unsigned.
There are a few other books I'll be keeping out of this long row - either to read and sell, or read and keep indefinitely. The big Alan Bennett collection Untold Stories (Picador 2005) is a doorstop, the first 350-ish pages of which are entries from his diaries. Cannot. Wait. (Will have to. Already over-committed re Lees-Milne.) Also looking forward to 33 Artists in 3 Acts by Sarah Thornton (Norton 2014; read her previous book Seven Days in the Art World, loved it), and Miss Jekyll: Portrait of a Great Gardener by Betty Massingham (David & Charles 1973) about the inimitable garden designer Gertrude Jekyll. There are a few others I may hang on to for the next to-be-read pile - possibly All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (Scribner 2014; so many people have raved about this novel, and I do think his memoir Four Seasons in Rome is splendid, so I'll give it a look-see), but the rest of these books are about to be priced and put into my book booth. By me. Work I truly love.
What a good week - I spent three days at the easel in my painting studio, and two days messing about with books. We paid our income taxes a few weeks ago and the happy news is that both of my business ventures are going concerns. I made money in the book business, which remains slow and steady, and made twice as much from the sales of my paintings as from the sales of my books. A delightful trend. May it continue into the coming year and beyond. Optimism, again - I'm all for it.
Wednesday, March 30, 2016
beginning at the beginning
Gazing at the mailbox for the past week has not been a fruitless endeavor. My set is not yet complete; I am still in pursuit of three volumes. The first two pictured below contain reprints of the first four diaries - I ordered these instead of attempting to find inexpensive copies of those early volumes. What I have thus far I am looking over with great glee, I must say.
I've wanted to read this set for years, YEARS, I'll say it again. And the time has finally arrived, by my own reckoning. In his introduction to the first volume, James Lees-Milne writes about the decision to keep and then print his diaries (p.vii):
"I underwent some anguish lest I might be making a fool of myself by recording in print my jejune opinions and, worse still, by exposing the behaviour of certain friends and acquaintances to random obliquy - or even ridicule.... Indeed when I began keeping a diary I never for an instant imagined it might one day be printed."
Lees-Milne continues setting the stage for us:
"By 1942, when the diaries began, I was thirty-three, out of the Army, and back at work with the National Trust.... In 1936 I had been engaged as secretary to the Country Houses (to become the Historic Buildings) Committee of the National Trust. The preservation of England's historic houses, their architecture, treasures, gardens and parks was a new venture of the Trust. The committee which I served was distinguished and erudite. On the outbreak of war the venture went into cold storage. Country-house owners' minds and energies were absorbed by the war. Their houses, when not requisitioned for troops, schools, emergency hospitals and institutions, were put under dust-sheets. But by 1942 owners had a future of a sort to look to, yet how were they to cope with their massive piles and possessions in the brave new world ahead?... Already they were contending with high taxation, lack of domestic staff and the disesteem of the Zeitgeist. Several returned and many turned to the National Trust for a discussion, if not a solution, of their problems. This explains how I was largely occupied during the last years of the war and the immediate pot-war years." (pp. vii-viii)
Dull as ditchwater you say? Not if you like this sort of thing. Which I do, very much. In fact, the first volume of the first diary, Ancestral Voices, begins with two sentences that would feel right at home in the opening paragraph of a Jane Austen novel:
Thursday, 1st January
"West Wycombe Park is a singularly beautiful eighteenth-century house with one shortcoming. Its principal living-rooms face due north." (p.3)
I have a long quiet evening ahead of me and plan to do nothing with it except read on. Am I happy? Ask me.
Friday, March 25, 2016
As I prepare to begin reading the diaries of James Lees-Milne, I find his name cropping up in other books hither and yon. For instance, I've been browsing again in the writings of Patrick Leigh Fermor, and many of the other books on my shelves of memoirs/biographies/autobiographies contain references to him and his wide literary circle of friends. I am eagerly awaiting the publication of Leigh Fermor's collected letters this fall, entitled Dashing for the Post (many thanks to Antony for the heads-up), especially after reading and re-reading his marvelous letters to Deborah Devonshire and hers to him, In Tearing Haste (nyrb 2010). Lees-Milne is mentioned here and there throughout the latter. So I am hoping to read the Lees-Milne diaries and find that he has reciprocated.
Meanwhile, online, I've also been browsing around various sites devoted to Leigh Fermor, and want to make a note about one item in particular: a transcript of a talk recently given about him, by John Julius Norwich, to members of the Patrick Leigh Fermor Society. The talk is a fascinating long reminiscence, and makes one fairly pine, not to have known any of these fascinating people, except of course on the page. But the main reason I bring it up at all is simply that I read something in that talk that I don't want to forget, and instead of writing it in my diary I'm copying it here instead. It mentions that Leigh Fermor's biographer Artemis Cooper made a list of his personal files.
- Detached Oddments
- Not Very Important Oddments
- Own Oddments
- Own Unsorted Oddments
- Unsorted but Interesting
- Oldish – Needs Sorting
- Badly Needs Sorting
- Current: Unsorted
- Current: Various
- Vol. III: Odds and Ends
- Crete: Mixed Bag
- Tiring Duplicates
- Disjecta Membra
- Scattered Intractables
- Official bumph
Wednesday, March 23, 2016
pursuits of happiness
I'm SO EXCITED, I can't even say (since it's a quiet, internal, brainy kind of excitement - I mean, I'm not shouting from any rooftops, but I am nevertheless VERY EXCITED). Because earlier this week I made the decision to continue my quest to read more of the books I've always wanted to read. Ars longa, vita brevis and all that. Time's a'wastin', get to it! We just paid our income tax and the amount we owed this year was much less than expected, so, feeling financially expansive, I spent a bit of cash on a set of books I've wanted to get my hands on for years, and I do mean years. They were never published in the U.S., and thus rarely turn up in used book shops, at least none within striking range of me. In fact during all my years of looking I've only ever come across one stray paperback of one of the later volumes. I pounced on it and read it out of sequence since it was all I had. But that was long ago and I've forgotten its contents completely. Thus I am free to begin at the beginning and read the set in sequence.
What is this set? Well, with my love of reading other people's diaries, and with his reputation for being one of the great diarists (if not the great diarist) of the twentieth century, I feel I can no longer postpone reading the diaries of James Lees-Milne: architectural historian, writer, intellectual, bisexual... diarist. Twelve volumes in all. Twelve! I spent a long time toggling back and forth between Biblio, eBay, and Amazon attempting to cobble together a vaguely affordable set of the John Murray U.K. hardcovers, and I've come up with almost all of them, in decent shape, with dust jackets. When they arrive they will closely resemble a matching set.
Underwhelmed? Not I! I think his diaries will be the perfect long-term reading project to follow all the Horace Walpole letters I read over the last year. Frankly I've been yearning for another such author to keep me company for months and help me believe in life. With the terror attacks around the world, and the fear about the political scene here and elsewhere (I'm having awful anxiety dreams about politicians, and then I wake up and remember that the reality is even worse than my terrible dreams), it feels more important than ever to double down with a personal commitment to civilization and its aspects - beauty, art, literature, even frivolity - the pursuits of happiness. Which sounds so high-faultin', not to mention akin to fiddling while Rome burns (and near-pointless to boot), but oh my ever-loving god, we must stand with joy, whenever and however we can! The peaceful, happy life is one to be cherished and tended, if you are lucky enough to have such a thing for any amount of time! I see and read the news and I almost cannot bear it - in many instances I can't bear it - so what are we to do, to be (much less remain) cheerful, peaceful, loving people, in the face of everything? How to expand our humanity instead of contracting with fear? The usual answers are all I have: tend to our gardens, libraries, and neighborhoods, be extra kind to everyone - chin up, heart high. Props help - books, art - as do the meaningful, loving tasks and work of everyday life. The spring crocuses in our garden are showing me the way, too. They were just covered by six inches of killing snow, but today they are melting right through, shining with all their brave and vivid colors. Let's do the same. Even though it feels utterly beside the point to buy books or commit to long-term plans of any kind, let alone self-centered reading, let's do it anyway.
Viz. the books I ordered will start arriving in the mail soon. Within days, perhaps. I feel a little dizzy with anticipation, and yes, happy. That sounds ridiculous, oh well! Small pleasures, they feel more than small to me. They feel like the building blocks of life, without which nothing will stand, or withstand. I was skimming my own diary today and came across a pertinent quote to this end, from Andy Miller, in The Year of Reading Dangerously (see last post for more about this terrific book):
"Families and art, paintings and crowds, books and their troublesome readers: composition, balance, tension, harmony. It is our duty and our privilege to try to resolve these things here and now, with the help of a song or a decent book. Because they will not wait for later." (p.136)
He also writes, about attempting books often regarded as daunting:
"...why should I read War and Peace? It is such a long book and my time is so precious. Why should I ever do anything difficult ever?" (p.269)
Read the book to find out his answer. I already have (and I've given my own answers above, I hope), so I'll be here. Watching the crocuses, and the mailbox.