The longest goodbye

What did the most famous cider-drinker do with his life after those youthful adventures? He tippled, he loved, he joked - but now the charming miniaturist has a tombstone of a biography.
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Laurie Lee: the well-loved stranger by Valerie Grove (Viking £20, 560pp)

Laurie Lee: the well-loved stranger by Valerie Grove (Viking £20, 560pp)

I last saw Laurie Lee late in life at a favoured haunt, the bar of the Chelsea Arts Club. One fist grasped a mug of beer, so in greeting I put my hand on the other which was clenched. "Trying to pinch my change?" he said in his sly burr, protest tinged with humour, as he turned away. In that brief encounter lurked much of the old charmer: a lifelong tightness of fist from early poverty in the Cotswolds, a defensive watch on his privacy, pawkiness, the ever-present hint of "such a dear little boy, loving and dreamy," as his mother Annie put it and as Valerie Grove goes on to prove in her strictly accurate biography.

We thousands of fans who have doted on Laurie Lee's luscious, if not audacious fantasies of a happy and heroic life, chasing the genie of freedom from Slad (in Cider with Rosie , 1959) to Spain ( As I Set Out One Midsummer Morning , 1969) are in for a shock. Valerie Grove's biography reveals him as secretive, depressed, drunken, moody and ill. Jilly Cooper once caught him looking gloomy, "as if he didn't want to drink cider with anyone," and he was quite cross. "I'm a melancholic man who likes to be thought merry," he told his diary, from which ample source Grove has the wisdom to quote so richly that her book all but enshrines an unpublished memoir by Lee himself.

"Nothing much happened, but life was crowded with incident," she writes of a certain year: true of most years for any writer, truer still of this arch procrastinator, this non-chronicler of wasted time. What on earth, cried his friends, did Laurie do all day?

In London, he went from pub to lunch to club to dinner to pub with hardly a pause for work. He and Kathy were at everybody's party. The only writing he did was to note down the number of drinks he consumed. In the country he lay in bed listening to magnified birdsong from a mike in the trees, for he was forced to watch his health with a close eye. More on than off he suffered from fevers, often described as pneumonia to put people off the track of his epilepsy. (After an operation he referred to himself as Wun Lung Lee, the famous Chinese poet; he also became, when honoured, Laurie Lee Mbe, the well-known East African grocer.) He drew up graphs of his temperature and the rainfall as if they were connected. When paid for a poem with a case of wine he devised a chart showing how 12 bottles produced two poems, which in turn, when sold, must produce..." I write on wine," he said elsewhere of his literary fuel.

By such evasive means he was rewarded with a maximum of reputation for a minimum of work; "he has not a great deal to say," wrote Cyril Connolly, but a delicious way of saying it. "Including his tally of 57 short poems, his oeuvre in toto is somewhat lighter a burden for posterity to bear than Grove's biography, which it is no contradiction to say is wholly admirable and far too long. She has entombed a magic miniaturist in a cathedral of a tome, which in no matter of detail or point of style can be faulted.

But in the end you have to put the story together for yourself. You pick highlights from her archive to illuminate your own pocket biography. Lee's diaries are immediate, impish and impenetrable, and Grove works them into her text with skill, taming their excesses with dry commentary, yet letting them run. It's her account of the war years that really lets us into Laurie's essential spirit. In 1937 he was bewitched by the ravishing Lorna Wishart. Their affair lasted well into the war, raked by machine-gun fire, under attack from bombers as well as friends. Hunched in a lonely caravan or the back bedroom of a Bognor semi, Laurie waited in misery - "oh, the hopeless acid in the mouth, the fear, the madness, the anger" - for his married mistress to descend with champagne and plunge him into insatiable sex, only to snatch it away by racing back to her life of domesticity and chic.

The two had a daughter, effectively kidnapped by Lorna, whose husband insisted on taking the baby into his family. "We all make such a mess of our lives," a friend wrote, hoping to be helpful. Given that by 1947 his life's work had already been commissioned by publishers, Grove's hundred or so pages in these war-torn chapters read so deliciously that they seem to say all that needs to be said about Laurie Lee. By then he had collected all his material: infancy, teenage rebellion, a civil war. He had half a century left to write at long intervals, ending with A Moment of War (1992) the three volumes of modified truth that enslaved our imaginations.

"I cannot think why lovers ever leave their beds," Laurie typically muttered. He learnt that love survived only if you rarely saw the beloved. All his self-knowledge came from a war in which he was never a combatant except with women. Lorna Wishart led him the dance which later he led everyone else. No wonder he liked girls at 14; he could entrance, lure, then mould them. He was annoyed when he discovered that Cider with Rosie was published on the same day as Lolita .

Valerie Grove fails to pan his puns as they deserve. His soft wit was best expressed in age when he said, "I'm still a going concern, but a little concerned about going." Like his puns, indeed his charm, his life does not work too well on paper. It lacks plot. "Charm is the ultimate weapon, the supreme seduction" he said in 1978. It never emerges whether his life and work go beyond charm.

Valerie Grove holds back from judgement. Did she warm to her subject, falling at his feet while showing them to be of clay? She protects everyone from his wiles; his wife, daughters, mistresses, friends, benefactors. She never utters a word of direct criticism, but by tone she genially puts Laurie in the dock. With the utmost kindness she makes the "purveyor of purple prose" (as he appears in a novel by his friend Cecil Day-Lewis) fight for his place in history. She gives this "seesaw of doctors, drugs, dumps and doubts" every chance to justify his existence. If something of a tragedy - despite his believing "mere happiness to be one of life's shallower experiences" - Laurie's life has made very many people happy. Valerie Grove enlightens rather than disillusions us.