Commonplace Book: Ronald Blythe on Laurie Lee

Here’s a bit of a beautifully done TLS review of books by Laurie Lee, the British walker and writer who would have been 100 this year.

Read the full review at:

And so it would go on all through his life, the writing down of his vision of things, the careful affair he had with prose, the mapping of his territory. And also the shifting on from idyll to terror. A Moment of War (1991) finds him in the death cell at Albacete. There is always an element of “walking into it” as well as walking out of it with Lee. Neither politics nor religion provides a reason. The only permanency he feels – and is determined to hold on to – lies in the intensity of “going on”. He was ill and he could have walked away from the war (as some did). But reading him now reveals someone on endless journeys for subjects, from belated parenthood to the firing squad, from wayside flowers to flying visits to Mexico and Barbados. Anywhere, everywhere, and always fresh words to describe them. Lee doesn’t so much wear well as not wear at all. He is prime mid-twentieth century, writing with huge care but also with passion, a very English word-painter.

All around him were those who were sickeningly grateful to be in work but before long a boiling anger would make Lee drop tools and walk off the building site. His descriptions of London in the 1930s, the digs and the back streets, are cinematic and supply a counter-balance to what he found in urban Spain. He couldn’t bear to part with all this for the sake of security. It would be insecurity that would make him thrive. He tried to see London with eight-year-old eyes.

“This London, with its hollow, drum-like name, is neither England nor abroad but something on its own, a walled fantasy of remembered tales . . . . A roar is heard, as of a great pot boiling, chimneys pour sulphur into the heavy sky, banners and gory heads droop from the walls . . . . It is neither night nor day there, but a rouged perpetual twilight, during which notable calamities are all happening at once.”

Writing for Lee was very much about recognizing life’s traps and getting out of them. He is relentlessly observant and original. His first readers would have been nowhere and so he takes enormous trouble to pass on to them unforgettable accounts of his foreign adventures. These began at home when he was a child, when the gooseberry and rhubarb garden became the wastes of Africa. With Lee not a step or mouthful of life must be forgotten. He clings to everything he has touched or seen or heard, hoarding it like a grateful miser, fixing it to the page. His captured small talk is often part of the story which he never ceases to spin about his life. In it he is always unheroic and in his twenties – and rarely at home.

Here he is in Ireland: “The pub in Ireland is still a kind of chapel of ease and shows the Irishman on top of his time. The television, for instance, will usually be kept in a small back room and will be killed when a man is talking”. When Lee played his fiddle in one, “an old man struck the bar with his cap, ‘Englishman’, he said, ‘we forgive you’”. If Lee has a message for today it is to make the most of everything and write it down. Also to read a lot. And to make it up, for some things should have happened but did not have time to. And whatever you do, don’t get old. There is no need to if you are a writer.

The review is by Ronald Blythe, just 9 years short of 100 himself, and still writing his weekly column, termed a treasure by the Guardian. Blythe’s collection of diaries is also a gem. berries

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