31 May 2014

Laurie Lee (26 June 1914 – 13 May 1997)

Cider with Laurie....

Laurie Lee's Life has gone missing!  Last Autumn, preparing for a trip to the Cotswolds and mindful of the impending centenary of Laurie Lee's birth, I read Valerie Grove's biography, entitled The Well-Loved Stranger.  I then laid it aside on a shelf, intending to revisit it when I had reread Cider with Rosie, etc.  Then, just the other day, another trip to the Cotswolds about to happen, I simply couldn't find the book.  I've searched high, and low, and behind and above, and it is nowhere to be found.  Laurie Lee's Life has gone missing!

Which, actually, is not a bad metaphor for the truth.  Lee might have been well-loved, but I think he almost certainly remained a stranger to all, including his wife and daughter(s).  The barman of The Woolpack, the pub in Lee's village of Slad only metres above the house where Lee died on May 13th 1997, and where his widow, Katherine, still lives, recounted to me how Lee would telephone his wife to drive round and pick him up when he had drunk enough.  Katherine still visits the pub herself, preferring a daily half pint of Old Spot with a shot of gin in it to the lengthy sessions her late husband held dear.  

Jessy, their daughter, who now manages Lee's estate, living next door to her mother, had a very troubled upbringing, leading to two breakdowns and a failed marriage.  She then trained as a psychotherapist and until her father's final illness worked with homeless people in Gloucester.  Now she is fully engaged in the Lee heritage, and, as she told Costwold Life in an interview last year, I was so overwhelmed by being out of control of my world, but I’ve learned to take back my control and that has enabled me to have this passion, now, for bringing Laurie back for his centenary - and for ever.

The centenary will be well-celebrated, for Lee is still well-loved, and Slad is a beautiful place, and The Woolpack is a beautiful pub, even though the life is missing.....

Lee attained the status of National Treasure during his lifetime because he was the author of two slim books, though he also published some poetry and other prose pieces, worked for the BBC, and moved in exalted literary and cinematic circles (his brother Jack was a film director, responsible for The Wooden Horse and A Town Like Alice among others).  His most famous publication was Cider with Rosie, which came out in 1959, which for many years became compulsory reading in schools, recreating, as it does, an English world which will still gladden the heart of many a UKIP voter.  It tells the story of Laurie's childhood in Slad, brought up by an indefatigable mother in a traditional stone cottage, surrounded by three older half-sisters and two brothers.  He never really knew his father, who had started a new life in London after the first World War, and he was confined to the village, and the valley, scored by seasons, and punctuated by events such as a trip to the distant seaside, or an outing to Stroud.....


In First Love Lee says I don't think I ever discovered sex, it seemed to be always there.....  This was probably due to my English country upbringing, where life was open as a cucumber frame, and sex a constant force, like the national grid, occasionally boosted by thundery weather.....  This may go some way to explaining how sex seemed to permeate his life, a vague pink streak running through his lifescape.....  Jessy tells of him as an incorrigible flirt. Up until the day he died, aged 82, he had an eye for an attractive woman. When his sight began to fail, he would simply clutch his stick and wait for the first pretty girl to come along and get her to escort him over the road (quoted by Beth Hale in The Mail Online, 23/2/2013).  

Having read every word of Valerie Grove's more than 560 pages, this is putting it nicely.  Part of Jessy's problem was that the very day she was born so was her half-sister's daughter, so while she was born in the autumn and was a late fall in my life, and lay purple and dented like a little bruised plum.....  she was not really The Firstborn, and she had to compete with someone [Yasmin] who she thought of as an unusually kind and generous cousin (ibid).  It would not be until many years later, when Jessy was a young woman, that her father would tell her that Yasmin was also her half-sister, even though he had recorded in his diary, on the day they both were born: Monday Sept 30, 1963, two girls, daughter & granddaughter.

Rosebank - the early home

In itself, to the casual reader, this may not seem so difficult, but when the entire catalogue of dalliances is unveiled, a pattern emerges, and one cannot help but think of the recent fallen stars whose weaknesses may not have been so dissimilar to those of Laurence Edward Alan "Laurie" Lee, MBE (26 June 1914 - 13 May 1997)....

The back of the Woolpack, with Kathy and Jessy's homes in the foreground

But back to Slad, and the England we have perhaps, as the Penguin blurb writer suggested, traded for the petrol engineRecalling life in a remote Cotswold village some fifty (now one hundred) years ago, Laurie Lee conveys the semi-peasant spirit of a thousand-year-old tradition.  And it is for this we give thanks.  My paternal grandmother, though a Sussex girl, lived in very much the same milieu, with the seasons constantly chivvying the well-worn folk, driving the patterns of the days, and dictating the menus, the clothing, the habits, of all who lived the daily life of rural, pre-commercial, pre-digital England. 

And I do not pretend that it was cosy, nor gentle, nor as smooth as a chocolate box left on the back shelf of a car in the sun......  This was bucolic to the degree that bucolism, combined with a tendency to enjoy stimulating liquors, became bucoholism, and Laurie Lee, frequently in need of pastoral rehabilitation from the Chelsea Arts Club, and the pubs of Fulham, was the perfect Bucoholic.....

Nor is this a question that in any way intertwines with the phenomenon of UKIP.  No politics disturb the vale of half-forgotten memories.  This was a world of fruitful development within restricted circumstances.  It was different.  As a growing up in Chad, or Patagonia, or Jiangsu Province, would be different to now and to then.  For me the treasure is in the sensuous recreation of a world of a family and a village in phases of active growth and interaction before I came to living myself.  It is a little plastic orb of life that snows when you shake it, but which you cannot enter nor change.  It was.  And Laurie recorded it for us, perhaps in a subtler way than anyone before or since.  Indoors, our mother was cooking pancakes, her face aglow from the fire.  There was a smell of sharp lemon and salty batter, and a burning hiss of oil.  The kitchen was dark and convulsive with shadows, no lights had yet been lit.....

Looking down towards Stroud

I can see, and smell, my grannie in this.  My heart carries traces of this world and I am so grateful that someone has recorded it for me to reach into, like a photograph album without pictures, like a piece of music without instruments.

His later writings succeed in different ways, mainly in mythologizing himself.  A long defunct blurb for As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning says: It was 1934.  The young man walked to London from the security of the Cotswolds to make his fortune.  He was to live by playing the violin and by a year's labouring on a London building site.  Then, knowing one Spanish phrase, he decided to see Spain.....  Thirty years later Laurie Lee has captured the atmosphere of the Spain he saw with all the freshness.....  Blah, Blah, Blah....  It's a lovely book, and when I first read it I wanted to do the same.  But, compared with Cider with Rosie, it is a dead goldfish (even though it is a very entertaining read).

I realise now where Laurie's Life is.....  Having ploughed through the incessant detail of liaison and patronage, having struggled with the telephone directory style and the spiralling streptococcus of second hand self adoration, I think I took the book to the Co-op and laid it on the charity book shelf.  I thought I am not going to read this again, and perhaps someone else will have a week or so with nothing better to do.  So Laurie's Life has been recycled.  I hope it has done some good.....

And I am on Swifts Hill.  In 1967 the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust bought this 25 hectare tract of ancient Cotswold common land from the Elliott family.  From earliest times this free-draining limestone pasture hill would have been grazed by sheep providing for the local wool industry, and this created a rich wildlife habitat for flowers, insects and birds, which now survives thanks to its protection as a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

Swifts Hill

I lie on my back, trying hard not to crush early-purple orchids or cowslips, taking care not to disturb any of the twenty-nine species of butterflies that live here.  I gaze across at Slad, and the Woolpack, and Kathy's cottage, where Laurie expired in a warm shimmering of sunshine seventeen years ago now.  Next to me lies Rosie; she was yellow and dusty with buttercups and seemed to be purring in the gloom.  And I take a sip of cider, never to be forgotten, that first long secret drink of golden fire, juice of those valleys and of that time, wine of wild orchards, of russet summer, of plump red apples, and Rosie's burning cheeks.  Never to be forgotten, or ever tasted again.....

The Sunday Times, March 6th 1977

Laurie's Life may be missing, but his Spirit lives on! Happy Centenary!

24 May 2014


City of the Dead

Edinburgh's Disgrace - The National Monument

Perhaps it was because I was reading Ian Rankin's Standing in Another Man's Grave on the train to Edinburgh that I arrived with thoughts about mortality.  Not gloomy ones; just reflections on rituals of burial, and the finity of life. 

The Dugald Stewart Monument, Calton Hill

The feeling doesn't go away as I walk up Calton Hill, past the Old Calton Burial Ground with its austere obelisk of the Political Martyrs' Monument, dedicated to five Botany Bay deportees punished for their role in the fight for electoral reform in 1793.  Then, atop the hill, there's the incomplete National Monument to the dead in the Napoleonic Wars, with columns that somehow resemble more Battersea Power Station than the Parthenon.  Then there is the inverted telescope of the Nelson Monument, remembering Trafalgar (what will become of this come independence?) and the iconic Dugald Stewart Monument, designed by William Henry Playfair (who also designed the National Monument).  Acropolis: Necropolis!

A little while later, wandering up the Royal Mile, a sign for the City of the Dead caught my eye, and from then on everyone I met seemed to be dead.  

David Hume, Lawnmarket

David Hume reposing half dressed by the side of the road called out to me, To hate, to love, to think, to feel, to see; all this is nothing but to perceive.....  

David Hume, Old Calton Burial Ground

Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson greeted me, lifelessly, in The Writers' Museum, which is in a seventeenth century building known, appropriately (there is no lift), as Lady Stair's House.  

The Writers' Museum, Lady Stair House (1622)

As I wandered the rooms I heard Scott, seated at his dining table, rambling on about how he invented the clan tartans, 

One Tartan Kilt (Courtesy of Walter Scott)

and organised the visit of George IV to Scotland in 1822; 

George IV was here (courtesy of Walter Scott)

then he invited me to a game of chess.  Robbie Burns, clutching his swordstick, muttered, almost quoting Bob Dylan, My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here;/My heart’s in the Highlands a-chasing the deer..... and Stevenson showed me the ring made from tortoiseshell and silver, inscribed Tusitala (teller of tales), which was given to him by a Samoan chief; he was wearing this ring when he had his fatal cerebral haemorrhage at the age of 44 (in 1894).  Outside, in the flagstones of Makars' Court (which takes its name from the Scots word for a poet or author, and also gives its name to an honorary post for three years for the City's Literary Ambassador) are inscriptions celebrating other Scottish writers, such as the fourteenth century poet, John Barbour, and Sorley MacLean, who died in 1996.

Arthur's Seat, from the Castle

Up the road, the Castle broods, full of weapons of destruction, like Mons Meg, and dead pets.  There are mementoes of glory, to be sure, but the most affecting parts, for me, were the Prisons of War, where in 1781 some 1,000 men were incarcerated, for the most part captured in the American War of Independence.  

At that time, the old tenements of Edinburgh were hardly less crowded, and the swamps that were once known as the Nor' Loch (now Princes Street Gardens) were infamously fetid and fowl.  I am inspired, by the motto over the gate (Nemo mi impune lacessit - watch it, pal) and by the way the great buildings rise from the volcanic rock, a natural glasswork blown in black and grey; and I am inspired by the views, across to the Firth of Forth and out to Arthur's Seat.  Up the Outlook Tower in the Camera Obscura I see distorted films of shadows walking, buildings quivering, traffic shivering.  Hogwarts appears out of the turrets of George Heriot's School, and the gothic pile of the Scott Monument seems about to launch itself skywards to leave Waverley behind.

Hogwarts - in the Camera Obscura

I am guided by Ian Rankin through the Old Town.  Or perhaps I am guided by Rebus.  Whichever, there's a wealth of death!  

Charon will be back in a minute

The gate to the Greyfriars Churchyard stands ajar, and I slip in to pay my respects to  Greyfriars Bobby, one of the more famous dead of this great city. 

The Greyfriar's Bobby

Popularised in a 1912 novel by Eleanor Atkinson, and then sweetened by a Disney film in 1963 (which I went to see under the misapprehension that it was about Billy Bunter?) the story is of a Skye terrier who refused to desert his deceased master, maintaining a vigil over his grave for fourteen years.  Also in the graveyard I note some iridescent plastic flowers at the foot of a monument.  

George Buchanan, tutor to Mary Queen of Scots
and James VI of Scotland and I of England

Who, I wonder, still reveres the memory of George Buchanan, tutor to both Mary Queen of Scots and James VI, who died in 1582?  I must brush up my Latin, and study De Jure Regni apud Scotos, published in 1579, condemned in 1584 and again in 1664, and burned by the University of Oxford in 1684.  Some recommendation!

The Royal's Mile - John Knox's View

At the Netherbow Port, I meet John Knox, a hard man to like.  His house, or that that bears his name, dates from the fifteenth century and, despite many changes, its metre-thick walls, erratic steps, painted ceilings and tiled fireplaces evoke times, and lives, past.  For part of the sixteenth century this was the home of a jeweller and goldsmith by the name of James Mossman (executed 1573 for insurrection), who let parts of the ground floor to other merchants.  Having been ordained a catholic, but then in exile a pupil of Calvin, from 1560 until his death in 1572 John Knox was a Minister at St Giles Cathedral, where his influential preaching led the Scottish Reformation.  He was instrumental in the abdication in 1567 of Mary Queen of Scots, who had resisted his entreaties to leave the Church of Rome and to adopt a more austere lifestyle, though his own second marriage, to a sixteen year old when he was in his fifties, did not impress her favourably.  

The Royal Smile - Mary, Queen of Scots

She is reputed to have said, I fear the prayers of John Knox more than all the assembled armies of Europe, and indeed  Knox's preference for a King brought up as a Presbyterian had consequences for us all, partly through his effect on the Scottish Covenanters who, in 1638, declared their right to national sovereignty. 

The empty chair - John Knox's House

The house was rescued from its decline as a slum tenement by the Church of Scotland in 1850, and it stands as a memorial to Knox and his circle, which included George Wishart (Wisehart), who was burned at the stake in 1546.  On the wall of an upstairs office a board bears Knox's prayer: And so I end.... Rendering my troubled and sorrowful spirit in the hands of the Eternal God, earnestly trusting at His good pleasure, to be freed from the cares of this miserable life and to rest with Christ Jesus my only hope and life.  

Walter Scott paid 30 shillings to see him die.....

Tripping on the seventh stair as I return to earth, I marvel at how one man alone can have so much influence on a whole populace, though once more I hear the voice of David Hume:  Nothing is more surprising than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few.

Robert Fergusson - not grave

Down Canongate I pause in front of the statue of Robert Fergusson, whose arm is filled with pink flowers.  In his 24 years he achieved such fame that Robbie Burns lamented him as his elder brother in the muse.  His poem, Auld Riekie, caught both the life of eighteenth century Old Town, and the public imagination...
On stair wi tub, or pat in hand,
The barefoot housemaids loo to stand,
That antrin fock may ken how snell
Auld Reikie will at morning smell:

Robert Fergusson's Grave

Following a head injury, perhaps the result of falling downstairs, he was taken from his mother’s house and locked in the Bedlam next to the Edinburgh poorhouse. He died within weeks and was buried here in an unmarked grave.  It was Robert Burns who, thirteen years later, commissioned a headstone for him, and then, later still, Robert Louis Stevenson intended to renew the stone, though he died before this was carried out.  The statue, by David Annand, was unveiled in 2004.  The late poet, Robert Garioch, recalled Fergusson as: faur apairt/in time, but fell alike in hert.....  Touching sympathy.  Adam Smith, political economist and philosopher, best known for his book The Wealth of Nations, was also buried in this Kirkyard, in 1790.

I walk on down, passing the curiously maritime architecture of the Scottish Parliament Building; past the traditional Palace of Holyroodhouse, and up the path above Salisbury Crags towards Arthur's Seat, in Holyrood Park.  

But the weather closes in and soon the city is obscured, a white mist furled across the scene like a sea of porridge.  

The road to Arthur's Seat.....

A figure ahead, walking a dog, reminds me of Rebus, but faint-hearted, I return to the comforting dark of the city streets.

As dusk settles, and rain begins to shine the stones, I seek shelter within the enticing brightness of pubs and bars.  

The HalfWay House

A drink in The Halfway House is a convivial treat, and then a visit to The Cafe Royale reveals a different clientele, surrounded by opulence and fed with style.

Medusa, the Oyster Bar, Cafe Royale

Medusa at the next table turns my scallops to stone, but I only see her through a prism.  

The Gorgon leaves

Outside it is wet now, the cherry blossom plastered to the cobbles, the ochre walls darkened by the rain.

I wander the New Town, to see Prince Albert on his horse, catching his death no doubt, and to admire the neoclassical harmony of Charlotte Square, which Robert Adam designed just before he died in 1791.

On the north side at number 6 is Bute House, the official residence of the First Minister, though it seems deserted just now, and curiously vulnerable.

A few streets away I catch up, eventually, with Ian Rankin, drinking with Jackie Leven in The Oxford Bar, a pub that nicely breathes a bygone air.  It was mid-evening quiet.  Rebus was seated in the back room with an IPA and the Evening News when I arrived.  I asked him if he wanted a refill.  Have I ever been known to refuse?  

Drinking with Rebus - The Oxford Bar

In Standing in Another Man's Grave, John Rebus finished the paper, while sounds of laughter came from the bar area.....  He lifted the empties, preparing to join the throng in the front room.  Then he paused, remembering the drive to Tongue and back: the isolation and stillness, the sense of a world unchanged and unchanging.
Where are you?
Nowhere.  Quite literally.
'But I prefer it here,' he told himself, making for the bar.....

I know how he feels.

Let virtue distinguish the brave
Place riches in lowest degree
Think them poorest who can be a slave
Them richest who dare to be free

Both Sides of the Tweed
Dick Gaughan

Multiple Self Portrait with Marilyn  (World of Illusions)