James Lees-Milne: The Life by Michael Bloch - review by Jeremy Lewis

Jeremy Lewis

‘What is the Point of these Lees-Milnes?’

James Lees-Milne: The Life


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James Lees-Milne’s Another Self may well be the funniest memoir ever written, and one of its finest moments tells of how he took his revenge on a particularly detestable boss. Not long after he left Oxford, Lees-Milne went to work as a private secretary to Sir Roderick Jones, the chairman of Reuters. Sir Roderick was a waspish little martinet, keen on barking out orders and a stickler for detail, and Lees-Milne loathed every moment. On the verge of getting the sack, he met Stanley Baldwin at a country house weekend. He poured out his woes to his fellow guest, who urged him to confront Sir Roderick first thing on Monday morning and hand in his notice at once. Next day, before Sir Roderick could open his mouth, Lees-Milne told him how ‘exceedingly much’ he had disliked working for him, and that he was leaving at once. A stupefied Sir Roderick asked ‘Mr Milne’ who had given him such foolish advice. ‘The Prime Minister, Sir Roderick,’ Lees-Milne replied. ‘And if you don’t believe me, you can ask him.’ Lees-Milne’s besting of Sir Roderick is a heartening tale for office workers who have suffered under the tyrant’s lash, but according to this scrupulous and affectionate biography it needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. In letters to Anne Gathorne-Hardy, written shortly after the event, Lees-Milne confessed that Sir Roderick not only got in first, but gave him the sack in the kindest possible way, wished him well, and even invited him to dinner. 

Like many of the most entertaining memoir and travel writers, Lees-Milne embellished the truth to make a good story better still; like many another before and since, he also appropriated other people’s anecdotes and came to believe, quite genuinely, that the events described had happened to him. As

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