The late Pat Kavanagh, his agent, forewarned me that Laurie Lee, the centenary of whose birth fell in June, was something of a mythomane. So when I embarked on his biography (The Life and Loves of Laurie Lee, just reissued by Robson Press) after his death, I expected to uncover elements of fantasy in the legend he created in three volumes of youthful memoir: Cider with Rosie, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning and A Moment of War.
As he told it, he’d left Slad in Gloucestershire at 19 because he was surrounded by girls beseeching, “Marry me, and settle down.” In his study drawers lay the evidence: bundles of rapturous epistolary snares from two Jeffery Farnol-influenced sisters: “Oh Laurie,” each would sigh, “a little cottage with an inglenook, a radiogram and books . . . We were made for each other!”
No wonder he walked out one midsummer morning. But why head for Spain? “A girl in the village who came from Buenos Aires taught me to say ‘Un vaso de agua, por favor’.” Preposterous! An Argentine girl in a West Country backwater in 1934? But here was a letter from “Sufi” containing a “leccion en Español”; and here too was Sufi’s brother from Buenos Aires, who showed up in Slad and explained how their father had gone out from Painswick to work on the Argentine railway, then brought the family home.
Cider with Rosie, published in 1960, eclipsed Laurie’s previous reputation as a poet. Its tales did raise local hackles, but as his disclaimer warned, “some of the facts may be distorted by time.” And as every English teacher testified, once the book entered the school syllabus, children from any background could identify with the boy Laurie: he captured so well the sentiments and sensations of childhood. (“Rosie” was a composite of several girls with plainer names, like Edna. At a local memorial after Laurie died, it was announced that the real Rosie was present and would now stand up, whereupon four old ladies rose from their seats.) As for the view that he idealised country childhood, Laurie was the first to protest that “it wasn’t all cornfields with poppies under blue skies; it was lashing rain, and grinding poverty, men clothed in soaking wet sacking and dying of ordinary diseases like whooping cough.”
Finally, the Spanish Civil War episode proved contentious when (after he died) Bill Alexander and other International Brigade veterans voiced doubts that Laurie had ever joined their ranks. But a historian unearthed for me documentary evidence from Comintern archives in the Kremlin, of the recruitment and “exemplary” behaviour of Lee, Laurence Edward Alan, and (crucially) of the epileptic fits which prompted his speedy release. A Moment of War, his vivid account of the bitter winter of 1937-38 published 50 years later, was an imaginative, impressionistic piece of prose. And fellow writers, including Allan Massie, leapt to Laurie’s defence, comparing it to Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, which gave such a keen sense of what it felt like to be young in Paris: who cared about historical accuracy?