Friday, September 18, 2009

Dear Diaries

As previously mentioned, I have been on something of a journal-tear of late, digging into a variety of diaries, mostly mid-twentieth century, and all quite, in very different ways, fascinating. The latest are early ones of one James Lees-Milne, an utterly English creation, great expert on country houses, a dabbler in louche adventures, and a friend of any number of fascinating creatures, many if not most titled, talented, or terrifying.

Among the last, if not all three, would have to be the late Queen Mary, who was more in the nature of an acquaintance. Having met the regal personage in the course of showing her around a charity exhibition, he describes her as "contradictory, splendid, and awful" even as he acknowledges her tremendous expertise in antiques and royal bibelots.

This first installment of his journals (which precede by several decades the more famous ones he wrote with publication very much in mind from the 1970s) start with a bang in the midst of the War and end up in the mid-fifties, after his highly advantageous and apparently quite happy marriage to a lady of means, the Viscountess Chaplin (herself hardly a dull creature and sometime intime of Vita Sackville-West, among others). As a result, we begin with air-raids, accounts of food shortages and wartime privations and end with our hero diving into bed with his wife in their villa on the Côte d'Azur. In between there are long stretches describing his travels around England as part of his work for the National Trust and any number of interesting encounters with everyone from the last surviving Edwardian hostesses and dandies to Prince Rainier ("I believe the Prince does not live in the Palace [where the Lees-Milnes have been lunching] but with a film star in a villa in Beaulieu...").

Toward the end of the volume, he reflects on his own character and writes that, with the passing years, he becomes "more and more fascinated by persons, places and things. I am a late developer more than most men of my generation and in some respects still quite adolescent, an opsimath indeed."

I love learning new words. In 1953, when Lees-Milne wrote that, he was just about my age, and now I have a new ambition: to remain, as I think I am now, an opsimath, one who continues to learn and to love and be astonished with new things late in life. Aren't you?


  1. I have to go right out and buy these books right away! Next on the reading list. I would like to think that I too am an opsimath even if i'm not very late in life! :-)

  2. I am one thanks to you, dear Muscato.

  3. I am a gentleman of a certain age & am a resolute opsimath... & Cafe Muscato adds new information to my hard drive everyday.