26 SEPTEMBER 1998, Page 42

Battling for beauty

Diana Mosley

THROUGH WOOD AND VALE by James Lees-Milne John Murray, f20, pp. 325 Are diaries 'true'? Jim Lees-Milne's are a long and fascinating novel, of which he is the charming, companionable and unpretentious hero. As he gives his charac- ters their real names, and is as frank as he is observant, the diaries have probably wounded quite a few readers. They are sometimes true and sometimes invented, just as novels are. This sensitive man seems never to have imagined anyone might mind his strictures and jokes.

Here he is in his late sixties, thinking death is just round the corner. So many friends died, hardly a week without a painful loss. Yet he had 20 years to live. Although fond of them, he never spared his old friends, freely expressing his horror at what age had done to them. Some were shrunken and bent, some immensely fat like collapsed puddings, nearly all smelt rather horrid. He resolved to be very clean, an antidote to inevitable change and decay. He himself remained an elegant figure, and when he was over 80 my sister Pamela, see- ing him stride across a field, said, 'Doesn't Jim look just like an undergraduate when he walks!'

As a young man, working for the Nation- al Trust, he did more to save England's beautiful country houses than anyone else has ever done. He deserved every honour England has to bestow, but, needless to say, he was neglected. Deeply religious, he was a Roman Catholic convert, but returned to the Church of England after Vatican II and because the Pope forbade birth control, as he here explains.

Those who knew him well are aware that he left huge chunks of his life out of his diaries; they are highly selective, like all novels. Pepys wrote his diary in shorthand so that 'my wife, poor wretch' should not know what he did with barmaids. Tolstoy hid his in his boot, he was taken ill, his boots were pulled off, Countess Tolstoy found it and read it and the fat was in the fire. Jim could have left his diary anywhere. If Alvilde had read it she would have found only eulogies and affection, all perfectly genuine. Theirs was a happy marriage; they liked the same things and, almost always, the same people.

All through his diaries Jim relates jokes and oddities, and in this volume is a comic masterpiece: his journey to Mount Athos with Derek Hill. After the usual Greek buses and rocking boats stuffed with peas- ants and their livestock, there were customs and form-filling, Derek telephoning an important monk to little avail. Once on the magic mount the horror of the expedition became clear. Carrying heavy knapsacks, they struggled up steep rocky paths to the monasteries. They slept in dormitories with other pilgrims, in iron beds with dirty, hairy rugs. They washed in a trickle of cold water in a filthy basin with no plug. The lavato- ries were so terrible that Jim remained constipated. The refectories produced beans floating in oil and hunks of dry bread; no butter or eggs because cows and hens are forbidden on the sexist mountain. The few decrepit monks prayed all night, the churches were too dark for a glimpse of Byzantine treasures, and they were not allowed to see Mary Magdalen's left hand, though an icon which had come on a beam from Palestine, taking 300 years, they did see. Tourists were few, and the beauty of Greek mountains and sea and ruins was like living in a Claude. But they squeezed themselves with alacrity into a jeep full of monks, to avoid a, tiring climb. Sharp turns and bumps made the monks fall in heaps, losing their tall hats, their buns of hair coming down; it sounds worse than a vaporetto in the Venice rush hour. One monastery offered lumps of delicious Turk- ish delight: Derek took two. Jim liked the pious atmosphere, unchanged since the sixth century. But what about the jeep and the telephone? Robert Byron loved it 70 years ago despite fleas, but he was in his twenties. In November Jim came for a last visit to me in France with my sister Debo. We had a delightful evening, but next day he felt deathly ill and they had to rush home; he died a few weeks later. He was brave to come. He was nearly 90, and we had been friends since he was 11.

Jim was a pessimist. He predicts here that we shall be living in a Marxist hell within ten years. There will be no more hawthorn in May, no hedgerows, the farm- ers will have bulldozed them. All the trees will have died, not just elms but oaks, beeches, sycamores. Twenty years on, none of these disasters has happened. But he lived for beauty, and his whole life was dedicated to saving what is left.