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.

Summer reading plans: re-read the Mississippi Sexton mysteries by the original author. Finish reading Helen Macinnes. How did I miss reading all her books. She is wonderful. And read my beekeeping and weaving books. Much to look forward to this summer.
Sounds terrific, Kim. I have never read anything by H.M. and have always wondered about her (since I love Mary Stewart's romantic suspense novels, and they were contemporaries). Also, H.M.'s husband was classicist and intelligence agent Gilbert Highet, and I *have* read some of his work. Would be interesting to read their books side by side, I think. Thanks for checking in - hope your bees are happy amidst the spring flowers!
Some ideas (not a very strict reading program, I must admit!).
June: The Journals of Fr. Alexander Schmemann. Christopher Morley I KNOW A SECRET, again. Poetry of Loukas Kousoulas. Finish Rasselas by the beloved Dr.
July: Kitty Foyle (again), the Diaries anthology edited by Blythe, the 7th volume and on, of Alexandros Papadiamantis works (Vima edition). Some poetry of Manos Elefteriou.
August: Hm, a few new essays by Maro Douka. Then, Nikos Triantafillopoulos book on Zisimos Lorentzatos and a book on Typography dedicated to the printer Manos Manousaridis. Plus poems by CDM.
Summer is –almost- here.

Well, I must say this is a fabulous list, Antony! I hope you enjoy the Ronald Blythe anthology - his brief introductory essays I think are very good, and the selections too. Love all the CDM of course - it has been too long since I read him and I want to revisit. My collection gathers dust, as other books have asked for attention over the past few years. That's the way it is, like the tide coming in and going out, then coming in again, with literary obsessions!

p.s. love seeing all your facebook likes and posts - they make me want to study Greek.

p.p.s in the James Lees-Milne diaries I have been reading about his numerous visits to Mount Athos - fascinating.
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