A friend of mine, Julian David, has married Yasmin, the beautiful natural daughter of Laurie Lee the poet.
For this reason and because increasingly I am coming to love his poetry, I decide, one day, to pay him a visit.
I know that he is a Cotswolds man. Later he ‘walked away from home’ and lived in Spain, and later again roosted in an attic flat in a vast grey square off the Fulham Road in London. Yasmin told me that he’d now returned to the Cotswolds, to the village of Slad.
Many things about the man attracted me. He seemed to me to be a pure poet who, except in wartime, had never worked at anything but his writing and his music, preferring to starve rather than waste time on second-rate pursuits. I was interested, too, in discovering his feelings on returning to a village whose every feature, remembered from thirty years back, he had so poignantly described in ‘Cider with Rosie’, and whose magic, so he claimed therein, had now gone, traded for the petrol engine.
Through the stations of Purton, Kemble, Chalford, Brimscombe, through an immensely long tunnel, gathering speed down the narrow green reaches of a valley, down to Stroud. Into a taxi here, and after what seemed a very short drive up into the hills, the driver pointed downwards into the valley.
Down the slope, beyond a grey stone pub, a cottage. I left the taxi and scrambled down a rough path, between coarse grass and saplings. I looked back as the hillside opened out behind me, revealing woods piled up towards the horizon. The scrub cleared, my feet rested on a little grass plot outside the front of the cottage. My head was just below the sills of the tiny first floor windows which were shiny, dark and secret, giving little away as to what might be inside them.
From the interior of the cottage I now heard the sound of a violin playing. The music came to an end. By some change in the reflected light on his ceiling, possibly, the performer had become aware that someone stood outside. Then the solid wood door swung open and Laurie Lee, violin in hand, stood before me. He wore corduroys, an army surplus khaki shirt, and a baggy pleasant tweed coat and these combined to give an effect of rustic grace. His light blue eyes in his bronzed gentle face looked out at me with a type of whimsical domesticity, in which there was a touch of wildness. He invited me in and I stepped down after him inside into a room like a sweet-scented cavern. Not much light came through the minute windows in the foot-thick walls and at first I could see very little. Cathy, Laurie’s wife, appeared from the shadows, a robust feline woman with a fine abundant mass of tawny hair.
Introducing her, Laurie explained that while he works at his poetry, Cathy makes wines from nettles and elderseed, and other country recipes.
Laurie Lee and I sat down to either side of an old iron range with its crackling fire and swinging smoke-blackened kettle. I asked him whether the cottage was, as it seemed, medieval.
Laurie said, ‘Oh yes, it’s medieval all right. It’s got its date scratched over the doorway, you nearly banged your head when you came in. But most of the furnishings are Victorian. We were lucky. We got it just as it was left by the old lady who used to live here. She’d just packed up one morning and gone off to live by the seaside and left everything behind, everything she’d got, including her books and photographs, and her corsets, thinking I suppose that soon she’d return. But she never did, and we took over the lot.
‘She was one of the village people that I’d known since I was a child. I used to look down the bank at her from the school up the top there.
‘The geraniums in the window, and that old clock which strikes every two days, all those used to be hers, and that bible, that big old family bible on the lectern, stuck on the wall there. It’s full of old texts, sort of illuminated, cross-stitched texts she must have worked herself in her younger days, texts like: “I Am Your Constant Friend” and “Be True To Me”. They’re very useful. I’ve got one of them hanging on the doorpost so that tall men like you don’t bash your heads. And that text over the fire, she did that, and things like up in the bedroom, “While Shepherds Watched” and “Be Careful Where You Go” and “Look Out!” and “God First” and all that. She did them all in gorgeous cross-stitch colours.’
‘This old stone fireplace was hers too, I’m sure?’
‘Yes, and we can still sit inside it practically and roast our foreheads and our knees. And that dresser over there, that was hers, and all that bluish china we found in drawers stuck up there. I remember when I was only about four seeing that old dear crawling about among her roses and sticking these texts up. I never dreamed I’d one day be here myself.’
I asked him about the rugged rough-hewn but varnished wood pillar that stood in the middle of the room, holding up the beams of the ceiling.
‘Well, that used to be in the wall when this floor was two rooms, and I saw a bulge there one day, and we ripped out a bit of this old wall, and found that it must have all been one room at one time. Probably this end was where the family gathered round the fire, and the other was where the cows and the chickens and the pigs slept. But this pillar is early Tudor, and has been here as long as the cottage has been here.’
Upstairs, Laurie pointed out to me the old lady’s bed, covered with lace and black iron and brass knobs. Then he beckoned me through a low door and said, ‘Now look, come just through here, there’s two more low beams and there’s low doors at the end. All these cottages were built for four foot men, the rooms are so low, I don’t know why, I think they must have lived most of their time in the eaves.’
From the bedroom we passed to his study, a small room rather like a little aeroplane cockpit, and Laurie explained that what he liked especially about it was the window just by his desk. ‘I can sit here and stare out my hours of blankness, I can look out on that quarry over there, with those great holes cut in it, Swiss Hill it’s called, and it’s from the great gashes in the side of that hill that the stones were taken to build the village and probably this cottage too.’
I stood behind the poet, looking past his lined bronzed neck, as he pointed out other landmarks. ‘Down on the left there is old Flatcher’s farm, and in that field, if I just turn my neck, is the field where I used to go haymaking as a boy, with my brother.’
Noticing a warm and oily incensed presence hanging amid the old beams of the chamber, I questioned him about this and he replied, ‘Well, from some of the evidence I’ve found under the carpets and the kind of oily aroma in the air, which I’m very fond of, I have certainly drawn the conclusion that it may in part have been used to store onions. Yes, there is definitely a smell of onions.’
He turned back into his study. ‘Yes, I have a lot of fun up here. I can see everything that’s going on. I can see the bus coming up to the village, chaps going to work, old man hanging out the washing, postmen coming to and fro. Also I can keep my eye on the birds when they get up to mischief in the garden.
‘That nice stretch of lawn I’ve just got growing, I had a lot of trouble with that when I planted it, and I used to string bells out across it, strings of bells, and I had a long rope coming up through the window and tied to the edge of my desk, so that during the pauses when I was writing I used to either sharpen my pencil or scratch my head, or tug on this rope to chase the birds away, stop them from eating the seeds.’
I mentioned that I supposed that it might be difficult to work here amidst these distractions, and he replied, ‘I tell you how I work. Work to me is a long and prolonged and elaborate thing. Writing doesn’t come to me, perhaps it doesn’t come to any writer in a flash of light and sound of golden trumpets in the sky, and I have to work hard at it. I get down to the job about ten o’clock in the morning, earlier if possible, and once I get started, and I must get started soon if the day is to be valuable, I must then go right on through the day until about four or five, that is until the letters on the paper begin to turn into Chinese. And I must not stop during that day. I don’t have any lunch, I don’t even have a biscuit, because work to me is a flow, an actual flow, of physical writing on a paper. The idea of coming out for lunch or walking up and down, or anything like that to me is just a break in that flow. When I don’t work, and there are days when I don’t work, I don’t even start, but once I start I’m set for six or seven hours solid flow.
‘I’ve also got a room in Stroud. So if I don’t feel the rhythms are right here in the cottage I just go down there, stick myself away at the back of an old solicitor’s office, with a view of the brewery and a nice whiff of hops, and I write there too. I also go there, of course, if there happens to be too much going on in this village, too much tree-felling or swine killing, stone breaking or visitors, that sort of thing.’
Only one object in the room we were standing in was new and that was a tape recorder.
‘Well, I haven’t had it very long. But it’s a marvellous toy, I have endless fun with that thing. It’s got three speeds, you see. It plays very slow. One of those tapes lasts several hours. Sometimes I dream of poems, and I know I talk aloud in my sleep. So sometimes I switch it on last thing at night and let it go on recording through the night, in case I say something during the hours of unconsciousness. And I play it back in the morning and hear nothing but the owls.
‘Also I record the birds round here. They’re fascinating I think. When I came back to this village after being about twenty years away, I was struck by the fact that I’d heard some of these exactly the same blackbird songs before. They reminded me of here, and that must be because the birds taught each other their songs, I think they’ve got a Gloucestershire accent.
‘I’ve also got my own back on the birds too with the use of this tape recorder, at least I think so, because when I got back here in the spring after being away for about twenty years, I found they used to start sort of belting away about five o’clock in the morning and this would wake me up. They seemed to be singing in the room; they seemed to be perched on the end of my bed, I couldn’t sleep a wink, so what I used to do was to set the tape recorder going, hang the microphone out in the bush just outside the window and record that first sort of trumpeting yell and cacophony of them, and I could usually sort of snooze through it while they were singing away, and then they would click off. And in the afternoon when they were all asleep in the orchard I used suddenly to turn it on very loud and play it back to them and wake the lot up again.
‘I also record my fiddle. I record one part and play it back, and play another part, and play duets with myself, and have a lot of sort of intra-mural music that way. I found that by a little jiggery pokery on this machine I can record two or three sounds one on top of the other. It’s rather like cooking because you never quite know which sound is going to marry with which, which flavour or what the flavour is going to be like, whether there’s too much minor key, too much salt, too much treble, too much bass, and so I sort of put one on top of the other, and rather in the dark, rather specially to try and see what sort of effect I can make. The other day I did a Scots Wha Ha tune, with the guitar as a background and the violin making a sort of low Scots boggy drone. The first recordings tend to get submerged by the later ones, so that they fade into the distance to give a kind of crystal perspective, like lights in a cave going away, away. This is something I think which even old Archer Street and Tin Pot Alley, clever as they are with their electronics, haven’t quite been able to reproduce yet.’
I asked whether ‘music concrete’ would best describe the idiom he was working in. ‘I wouldn’t exactly say musique concrete, no. I think it’s more like something from cooking, you never quite know how the flavour’s going to come out. I’d call it rather musique ragout.’
Laurie played me some of his musique ragout then, a very beautiful slow and strange sound like rushing of distant waters and the gurgling of crowds of birds.
Speaking of Slad, Laurie said, ‘There’s a loss of a particular way of life here, and more personally of course there’s the loss of my own childhood which was associated with that way of life. Much is the same, the great banks of earth and the woods and the colours and the way the cows move up the hills, and the way the sky is, all that’s the same. But there’s some kind of gloss on human life now which used not to be there, and perhaps a gloss on my own life which wasn’t there when I was a child. I felt this very strongly when I was back here last winter, and I wrote a poem about it called “Boy in Ice”. The poem arose from having come back to the village in the winter, and walking down by the old stream, I was looking into the ice and I saw my face reflected there, this slightly shaggy, ragged old face being distorted in the ice so that, flashed by a winter sun, it suddenly looked like myself as a boy, and in it I saw not only myself but my boyhood and the village as it was then, all frozen together, and out of that idea I wrote this poem:
Oh river, green and still, by frost and memory stayed,
Your dumb and stiffened glass divides a shadow and a shade
In air, the shadows face my winter gaze lets fall
To see beneath the stream’s bright bowers that other shade in thrall.
A boy, time-fixed in ice, his cheeks with summer dyed,
His mouth, a rose devouring rose, his bird throat petrified.
Oh fabulous and lost, more distant to me now
Than rock-drawn mammoth, painted stag, or tigers in the snow,
You stare into my face dead as ten thousand years,
Your sparrow tongue sealed in my mouth, your world about my ears
And till our shadows meet, till time burns through the ice,
Thus frozen shall we ever stay, locked in this paradise.’
Later, Laurie spoke of Spain, to which he had run away as a young man. ‘In many ways I found it very like Gloucestershire in that people seemed to be living the same kind of lives, sharing each other’s dreams and passions and gossips, knifings in the back, and so on, but anyway sort of living a coloured, red-blooded life in which they were all involved. I’ve been to quite a lot of other places, but Spain is still to me a sort of second home, and also the place I’ve often gone to in order to get a long view, a long backward view of the place I’ve left, Gloucestershire.
‘I don’t like London in the way I love Spain. I haven’t a passion for London. This valley in Gloucestershire is like a novel in which you’re present throughout the year, a kind of unfolding of a long, long tale, in which you’re conscious of everything that’s happening through spring, summer, autumn, and the lives and the deaths, the childhoods, and the age, and so on. London is more a kind of anthology, almost a bedside book of snippets of life, snippets of gossip. It’s a snippet world, London. And for this reason I don’t have to take it seriously. I can just dip into it and carry a morsel or two away to my room and digest it.’
‘For most of your life you’ve been a complete poet, haven’t you? Unlike many writers you haven’t taken secondary jobs, you’ve not worked at anything other than your poetry and your writing and your music. Was this a conscious policy on your part?’
‘It is really, yes. I hate authority. I hate being told what to do. I decided long ago that I’d if possible never work for a boss. And so I decided that as far as I could, if I was lucky enough, I’d live by writing. And the main thing, this I learned quite early, was to aim low, that is establish a low standard of living, not have too many possessions, and to base one’s freedom on doing what you wanted to do and writing what you wanted to write, and selling what you wanted to sell, and never doing a job merely for the money.
‘I think the main pitfall is that when you are young and fresh, and your brain is tingling and genius is pouring out of every ear and eye and nostril, you think you can get away with murder, you think you can write poetry and work for the advertising agencies and work on television, and work for the radio, and dash off a few television scripts, and come back in a state of purity and sit under the attic roof and write poetry which the gods will acknowledge as your true self. This simply doesn’t work out. If you give five minutes to the advertising world, or five minutes to the commercial television world, and so on, you come back to your attic that much polluted and that much corrupted.
‘It isn’t a deadly sin, it just is that your brain and your aim, your talent is not going to be uncontaminated. You’re not going to give the whole of yourself to the work that you think is most important, you’re only going to give the bit that is left over.’
I asked Laurie whether there was any particular poem in which, more than any other, he felt he’d expressed his philosophy of life. He replied, ‘Yes, I think there’s one. It’s about apples:
Behold the apple’s rounded worlds,
Juice green and July rain
The black pole-star of flower, the rind
Mapped with its crimson stain.
The russet, crab and cottage red
Burn to the sun’s hot brass
Then drop like sweat from every branch
And bubble in the grass.
They lie as wanton as they fall
And where they fall and break,
The stallion clamps his crunching jaws
The starling stabs his beak.
In each plump gourd the cidr’y bite
Of boy’s teeth tears the skin;
The waltzing wasp consumes his share,
The bent worm enters in.
I, with as easy hunger, take
Entire my season’s dole,
And welcome the ripe, the sweet, the sour,
The hollow and the whole.’
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