Literary Notes: Cupboard loves of a club man and pub man

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The Independent Culture
LIKE ALL inveterate writers, Laurie Lee hoarded words. The cupboards of his locked study - his wife and daughter were forbidden to venture inside - "fluttered with letters exhaling the heated breath of girls", as he said. From the age of 17, when he wrote a resume of "the maiden situation" in his journal, young Laurie was cosseted, nurtured and encouraged by female friends.

Already blessed with an inspiring mother and three adoring half-sisters, he never had difficulties with girls - and those who latched on to him were unusually literary and intelligent. His elder brother Jack (the film director of A Town Like Alice, now 87 and living in Sydney) found him a tough rival. "He was an artist, a musician, and a poet," Jack recalls. "It gives you an aura, doesn't it, to be a poet. Laurie lived on a wave of effervescence."

When Laurie walked out of his rural Gloucestershire backwater, one midsummer morning in 1934, he said it was because girls were closing in on him, whispering, "Marry me, and settle down." It was easier to leave than to stay behind and love. After a year in London he walked on through Spain, and here met a true mentor: the middle-aged, left-wing, well-connected Somerville graduate Wilma Gregory seized upon "the English boy poet . . . living as a vagrant" and took him in hand.

It was for Wilma that a British destroyer came to rescue them from the coast of Spain after the Civil War broke out. He never mentioned her in print, but it was Wilma who sent him to Reading University to study art, and showed his poems to T.S. Eliot. She also enabled him to meet, in Cornwall, the woman who dominated his life for a decade: Lorna Wishart, bewitching wife of the rich Communist publisher Ernest Wishart. To impress Lorna, Laurie went back to Spain.

And it was Lorna who sent Laurie's poems to Stephen Spender. How else could the lad from Slad, without education or contacts, have got published in Horizon? When Lorna left him for Lucian Freud, in 1943, he was scarred for life. She had been his inspiration, his muse. Thirty years later, he no longer wrote poetry, but he was still dreaming of her.

By the time Laurie Lee died at 82, he was seen principally as the Cider with Rosie man, a pub man and a club man, an old codger of Chelsea Arts Club, the Queen's Elm and the Woolpack: a man's man who loved women - chronically flirtatious, writing lyrically of his wife and daughter but keeping them firmly under his thumb. Twelve men spoke fondly at his memorial service. Only the letters and diaries he had left in his study revealed the much more important women who had formed and nurtured him into a legendary writer.

To write a biography of a writer who has published nothing but autobiography may seem superfluous. But the unpublished words a writer leaves behind are often as important as those in print. Writers as a breed find themselves interesting: they note down portents, recall the past in vivid moment, express and expose their feelings, live the examined life.

Laurie Lee once wrote a New York Times essay on autobiography: "A day unremembered is like a child unborn . . . What indeed was that summer, if not recalled? That journey? That act of love? . . . Any bits of warm life preserved by the pen are trophies snatched from the dark." A life cannot be pieced together by fallible hearsay.

My feelings of gratitude to Laurie overflowed when I opened those cupboards of his. All was explained; no living person could have filled the glaring gaps in his story. Biography faces a bleakly undocumented future if letters, journals and commonplace books are jettisoned; if pen, paper and postmark are obliterated by electronic communication, voice-mail and the fast- fading fax.

Valerie Grove is the author of `Laurie Lee: the well-loved stranger' (Viking, pounds 20)