‘I gasped, confronted by what looked like a ragged doll made out of corrugated paper. … I am so decayed and old as to make children and animals hide in terror,’ James Lees-Milne confides to the twelfth and last volume of his incomparable diary; and elsewhere, spotting himself on the television, he tells us that he ‘was horrified to see a worn-out, drooling old man, hardly able to express himself, like a very ancient bloodhound, bags under lustreless eyes’. Combined with feline wit and powers of observation that put most novelists to shame, self-deprecation and self-mockery were Lees-Milne’s trademarks, both in print and in person: and they were almost entirely misleading. Twenty-five years ago he used to tell us at Chatto & Windus – where the first volume of the diaries was published back in 1975 – that he was far too old and gaga to produce another book, yet he remained the consummate professional, turning out books, reviews and obituaries of old friends, written to length and delivered on time; he was eighty-eight when he died, yet (judging by his diaries) he was writing, travelling and dining with friends every day of the week almost to the end of his life.
When not rushing from one country house to another, lunching in Brooks’s or bumping into old friends in the London Library, Lees-Milne divides his time between the house in Badminton he shares with his wife Alvilde and his flat in Bath. His passion for ‘M’ – the editor of these