"In London, man is the most secret animal on Earth."
We are in a Laurie Lee mood this month:
"To those who were made to read Cider With Rosie at school, Laurie Lee is English literature's Laura Ashley, an artist, commercialised by success, who branded a slice of English rural experience with an ineradicable pattern. He also had the rather rare distinction of becoming a minor but apparently secure part of the English literary canon while he was still alive. (He died in 1997.)
An 'artist' from his earliest years, the young Laurence Lee was extremely successful, a self-taught country boy who might have stepped from the pages of a Hardy novel, Jude the Obscure perhaps. He was born in 1914 and his story takes us back into a half-forgotten, countrified world of English language and literature bordered by the Great War, a lost paradise to which he would return again and again in his work.
His personal legend begins in 1934 when, in the episode he described in his other contemporary classic As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning he simply upped sticks and went to London. Valerie Grove shows that, in doing this, he was starring quite self-consciously in his own movie. He could have just as easily have taken the train. Once in the city, the good-looking country boy who could write, paint and play the fiddle, led an itinerant existence that was temporarily interrupted when he went off to fight in the Spanish Civil War (a claim some still dispute, though Grove argues that here his self-mythologising propensities were to blame). On his return from Spain, he was quickly taken up by members of the London literary establishment, notably John Lehmann and Stephen Spender.
One of the incidental pleasures of his biography is its portrait of the wartime world of books, a now-dispersed milieu that extended from Bloomsbury, Covent Garden and Soho through Fitzrovia, to Broadcasting House, by way of any number of pubs and cheap restaurants. He also worked for the BBC and that Thirties forcing-house of youthful talent, the GPO Film Unit. Here, although he saw himself as a poet, it was the melody of his documentary prose that marked him out."
Written by Robert McCrum