As a young man in the 1970s Michael Bloch was the architectural historian and diarist James Lees- Milne’s last (if, we are assured, platonic) attachment, and later became his literary executor.
As a young man in the 1970s Michael Bloch was the architectural historian and diarist James Lees- Milne’s last (if, we are assured, platonic) attachment, and later became his literary executor. Lees-Milne died in 1997, and Bloch has spent much of the last decade editing the remaining diaries and preparing this book. Not only has he had to deal with his own delicate relationship with his admirer and his admirer’s hostile wife, he was faced with the special problems involved in writing about someone who wrote a very great deal, and famously well, but not altogether truthfully, about himself. Bloch’s solution has been to dig deep and tell all about his indiscreet, emotional, wrongheaded, infuriating yet curiously disarming subject.
Lees-Milne (known by all as Jim) disarms because he knew his own faults and weaknesses better than anyone, and wrote them all down. An unapologetic snob, he preferred to call himself ‘lower upper’ rather than ‘upper middle’ class; his own forebears were minor gentry, whose money came from trade. A self-proclaimed late developer, he did not shine at school or at Oxford; a romantic, arty boy, he was close to his flighty mother and disliked his womanising, horsy father, to whom the term ‘artistic’ denoted ‘decadence, disloyalty to crown and unnatural vice.’
Highly susceptible, goodlooking, attracted to, and by, both sexes, Jim was certainly not a late developer where sex was concerned. A schoolboy passion for Tom Mitford, among others, at Eton was followed by a fling with experienced cousin Joan and calf love for Tom’s most beautiful sister Diana; there were to be other girls, and even a half- baked engagement (to Anne Gathorne-Hardy, who later married Heywood Hill), but Jim’s inclinations were really towards his own sex. Brief adventures — what Bloch calls ‘much discreet romping’ — gathered pace, as well as more intense love affairs; drunken dinners with friends like Desmond Parsons, Alan Lennox- Boyd and Robert Byron and acquaintances like Harold Acton, Brian Howard and John Gielgud, usually ended in bed. By the early 1930s Jim had become a favourite, and for a while a lover, of the foremost married homosexual of his day, Harold Nicolson, who became his mentor and lifelong friend. Bloch’s account of the bisexual network around Nicolson and Vita Sackville West makes Bloomsbury seem simple.
After several false starts, including a spell at a Stenography School for Young Ladies, in 1936 Jim found, through Harold and Vita’s useful contacts, the job of his dreams with the National Trust. Small, amateurish and run by ‘enlightened aristocrats,’ the Trust was then just beginning to realise that the country’s great houses, as well as its landscape, needed protection. Self-taught, but passionate and increasingly knowledgable about art and architecture, charming, socially acceptable and adept, his own hilarious account, in his published diaries, of his encounters with eccentric, irascible and devious potential donors could not be bettered, and Bloch wisely does not try. The outbreak of war in 1939 came as a blow; Jim, who had worked briefly, as had Harold Nicolson, for Oswald Mosley, had doubts about whether it should be fought at all, but eventually joined the Irish Guards before a narrow escape in the Blitz precipitated a form of epilepsy and the end of his military career. For the rest of the war and for many years thereafter he resumed his work for the Trust. The great houses he drew into his net included Blickling, Cliveden, Petworth and Knole.
There had been more feverish love affairs during the war, including one with the ubiquitous American Stuart Preston (Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Loot’) and Harold Nicolson’s great love, the volatile James Pope Hennessy (‘a gorgeous creature’, according to Bloch). But in 1949, when he was 41, Jim fell in love with Alvilde Chaplin, and they married in 1951. Bloch tries, perhaps not quite hard enough, to be fair. Her looks are decribed as ‘too equine to be pretty’, her nature as ‘aloof, impatient, dictatorial, querulous, rebarbative and possessive’. She was also bisexual, and had been left a lot of money by a lover, Winnie de Polignac; her money, Bloch suggests, along with her nannyish strength of character, explain why Jim stayed with her when the marriage became a nightmare. Although she was soon conducting a passionate affair with Vita Sackville West, she was ferociously jealous of Jim’s young men, steaming open letters and making hysterical scenes. The arrival in Jim’s life of Michael Bloch, (described by Frances Partridge, on hand when he first visited Jim at home in 1979, as a bit of a snob himself, a dark-eyed dandy evidently under the infuence of Proust, Eddie Sackville West and Oscar Wilde), led to much misery. Nevertheless, the marriage endured, and Jim’s account of finding Alvilde dead on the garden path in 1993 brings tears to the eyes. He chronicled his own decline, including, we learn, the loss of his testicles, with unsparing precision.
Although he longed for literary success, and published a string of books on architectural history as well as a brilliant, unreliable memoir and a handful of rather peculiar novels, it was not until the publication of the first of his diaries in 1975 that Jim began to be celebrated as a writer. Gossipy, candid, sparklingly well-written, the diaries are irresistible, a tragicomic chronicle of the manners and morals of his circle of aristocrats and aesthetes. Like his biography of Harold Nicolson, published in 1980, however, the diaries are evasive; Jim wrote his two-volume life of Nicolson without mentioning his own intimate knowledge of his subject. Michael Bloch has been bolder, making full use of the opportunities opened up for biographers 40 years ago in the wake of Michael Holroyd’s ground-breaking study of Lytton Strachey, hailed (by Harold Nicolson’s great love, Raymond Mortimer, as it happens) as the first post-Wolfenden biography. The result is an absorbing and faintly disquieting example of the contemporary biographer’s art.