BOOKS; Beware cider-makers bearing gifts

Laurie Lee Hay Festival
Click to follow
The last time I saw Laurie Lee - it couldn't have been more than a couple of weeks ago - he was trying to find the door handle at the Chelsea Arts Club. At this year's Hay Festival, his slow, shuffling entry on to the stage, hand held aloft in a salute of thanks for the tumultuous welcome, was a triumphal procession of one. The audience were applauding a great literary remnant, a man who, for all his present infirmities - deafness, and near blindness, to name but two - had survived the worst that age, drink and general roistering could do. There could not have been a better choice of sponsor for this event than Bulmers Cider.

And yet his greatest triumphs seemed to have happened so long ago, as the old man next to me, himself almost completely deaf, confirmed when we discussed Cider with Rosie. "It was recommended to me, I seem to remember," he said, "by a cousin in the early Fifties..." As we spoke, Lee was gingerly lowering himself into his seat with the help of Peter Florence, the presenter, and a white stick.

Laurie Lee speaks with a slurred eloquence of the kind serious hangovers induce. "Bulmers have been a great consolation to writers over the years," he said. "They gave me Rosie but they took away my hearing. Most of the village wives brewed in order to keep their husbands at home. He'd be about to leave the house of an evening when the wife would say to him, 'It's a wicked night. Have a drink of my home-made cider to keep the cold out.' She'd pour him a decent glass or two. After he'd drained the glass, he'd say, 'Shan't be long, mother,' walk to the door, and fall flat on his face. Speaking for myself, I've had to beware of wives and Bulmers bearing gifts."

No matter how slowly he speaks - and sometimes you wonder whether a sentence will ever be concluded, but it always is - he has the gift of an old-fashioned eloquence, schooled, as he was, on the Prayer Book and the King James Bible.

He also mocks at his infirmities, telling how he uses his white stick to get help crossing the road in Oxford from the most beautiful young women he can half-see. "I grip them," he tells us, "holding on with great craftiness..." His blubbery lips tremble as he describes the scene. "It is... elbows and things that I cling to. And then, when we are safely over, I say, 'Thank you very much, young man, you've been most helpful, and stagger into a lamppost.' Laurie Lee, to use his own words, has reached a stage of "immaculate degeneration".

Michael Glover