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!

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