Since last November George Lyttelton and Rupert Hart-Davis have been my companions at bedtime but all good things come to an end and I have come to the end of their letters. There are more than six hundred and they span some six years.
GL’s health deteriorates in his last letters. At the end, a few days before his death from cancer of the liver, he dictates a short message to his wife for R H-D. It is a sad end to what was such an enjoyable journey.
For a continuation, I toyed with prolific diarist James Agate. There are nine volumes covering his life over fifteen years in the 1930s and 40s. I bought one volume, Ego 2. Agate was drama critic for The Sunday Times so naturally he often writes about theatre in his diaries. I just cannot convince myself that I will enjoy reading so much about a subject of which I know so little. A practical obstacle is sourcing the other eight volumes. I wonder if they are in my club’s library?
Anyway there is a more obvious alternative: James Lees-Milne. There are twelve volumes of his diaries. The first four cover 1942 – 1949; the next eight 1971 – 1997. I already have most of them including a first edition of Ancestral Voices, the first one, published in 1975. It is intensely cold in London in January 1942. There is no central heating and fuel seems scarce. J L-M has been discharged from the Irish Guards on medical grounds and is working for the National Trust. It has been evacuated to the Dashwood house, West Wycombe Park, where Ancestral Voices opens.
The National Trust today is several sizes too big for its boots. It was still a modest affair in 1942. It had been founded in 1895 but only had 6,000 members, six houses open to the public and 75,000 acres. Today it has 4.25 million members, 350 properties and owns 610,000 acres.
I will probably be with J L-M at bedtime well into 2018. Incidentally all the titles in the series are more or less drawn from Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, so an excuse to re-read that with the titles highlighted.
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round;
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:
And mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean;
And ’mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!
The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!
A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ’twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.