Truth of Laurie Lee in Beauty of His Writing; BOOK REVIEWS

Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England), November 7, 1999 | Go to article overview

Truth of Laurie Lee in Beauty of His Writing; BOOK REVIEWS


Byline: Richard Williamson

LAURIE Lee was one of the best-loved of all English writers and we all thought we knew him inside out.

After all, just about everything he ever wrote was about himself.

He was the boy who grew up in Slad, a village tucked under the lip of the Cotswolds, where he famously enjoyed his Cider With Rosie.

The book has become a classic of village life, with its small tragedies, high dramas and a cast of memorable characters like the two warring grannies who shared the same house, one upstairs one down. Or the braggart from New Zealand who came home flashing his money and was mysteriously murdered.

It was all very different from most of our lives and yet the boyhood of Laurie Lee has somehow come to be an account of everybody's childhood.

Yet Lee was anxious not to paint it all as a rural idyll in a poppy-strewn landscape. He knew poverty, and life was tough in the countryside between the wars.

Then, clutching his violin and with a knapsack on his back he walked out one midsummer's morning and headed for Spain.

But the books only told his life up to the age of 23 and there were those who wondered if much of what he wrote was more fiction than fact, especially his experiences in the Spanish Civil War.

As Valerie Grove shows in her biography Laurie Lee - The Well-Loved Stranger (Viking pounds 20) there was a great deal about the poet that we did not know.

In fact, his friends and acquaintances seem to have been queuing up to say how secretive and devious he could be.

Laurie certainly changed many of the details, large and small.

He gave the impression of an isolated childhood lost in the country, never straying far from the parish boundaries. In fact, there were trips to Worcester and Malvern and as a teenager with a bicycle he went as far as Birmingham where he discovered "the biggest Woolworths I have ever seen."

Rosie may have been the first but it seems Laurie had a way with women.

He said of himself: "I had a golden blond, vulnerable, idealistic face. Women cossetted me. I had an open face that said 'love me' and I was enveloped by love."

He once cycled 30 miles to Worcester just to sit under a girl's window all night.

But what made Laurie so irresistible was not his sex life, nor his adventures at home and in Spain.

What matters is that he wrote with spellbinding beauty and wonderful insight.

A biography, and this is a good one, can fill in much of the fascinating detail of a man's life, it can uncover secrets and scandals.

But it doesn't matter that Rosie could have been one of half-a-dozen girls, or a little bit of all of them.

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