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Cherchez Les Femmes

Laurie Lee’s centenary is being lavishly celebrated this month. ‘Laurie Lee is the most enthralling project I have ever undertaken,’ I wrote in my diary on the day I finished writing his biography, ‘so (lest we forget) thank you, Pat.’ Pat was Pat Kavanagh, my agent, who had suggested the book. ‘He’s 82 and deaf and a bit tricky,’ she said, ‘but I think you’d get on.’ He and I did indeed get on – on the telephone. We arranged to have lunch in London soon, at the Chelsea Arts Club, but on the agreed day Laurie was taken to hospital, where he was diagnosed with bowel cancer. He was brought home to his beloved Slad valley and died shortly after in May 1997, watched over by Kathy and Jessy, his wife and daughter.

After his memorial, I met his daughter Yasmin. What, another one? She was born in 1939, 24 years before the longed-for Jessy, about whom Laurie wrote ‘The Firstborn’, his hymn to late fatherhood. Soon I would discover in his diary a lyrical account of his reunion with Yasmin when she was 21, along with a passionate narrative of his affair with Yasmin’s mother, Lorna Wishart, who caused Laurie more ecstasy and more agony than anyone else. She was his first, greatest love; she was also, it turned out, his wife Kathy’s aunt.

This is what makes writing a biography so enthralling: uncovering the past, slotting together the jigsaw pieces. No biographer could wish for a better subject than Laurie Lee: a household name whose papers were left untouched in his locked study; who wrote diaries and hoarded letters; who had often proclaimed himself a man of secrets. Had I written it while he lived, I would never have had that freedom to riffle through his desk and cupboards, which, as he boasted, ‘fluttered with the exhaled breath of girls’. Pat had been right about him being ‘tricky’. Visiting his brother Jack, a film director, in Sydney, I recognised a family trait of sly charm combined with a mischievous inclination to hints and teases.

I labelled my 1998 diary ‘Story of a Biography’. It relates a trail of false leads and surprise discoveries, secrets exploded and myths scotched: something sensational to read on the train. Who would have thought it likely, for instance, that there really had been a girl in Slad from Buenos Aires, as Laurie claimed, who taught him to say ‘un vaso de agua por favor’, inspiring his great career move of sailing to Spain at 21? Preposterous – an Argentine girl in a remote Cotswold village, in 1934? But there she was, in one of the treasured letters, headed ‘lección en español’ and signed ‘Sufi’. One day when I was in Laurie’s study, Kathy mentioned that a bald, moustachioed little man had arrived at her door that week and announced, ‘I am from Buenos Aires. My sister was a friend of your husband.’ A call to Buenos Aires explained it all: Sufi’s engineer father, from Painswick, had gone out to South America to build the railway, married there and brought his family home to Gloucestershire in 1930. So it was all true.

Even after fifty years of marriage, Kathy was mystified by the identities of Sufi and other ladies whose letters Laurie preserved. Who was ‘Mariquita’ (‘ladybird’ in Spanish), who wrote young Laurie rapturous poems? Who was ‘Clio’ from Whiteway? Who on earth was Wilma, later Lady Gregory, whose loquacious letters predominated in his correspondence? Who was ‘The Benefactor’ whose largesse enabled him to return to Spain in 1954? Who was ‘Isabel’, whose long limbs had uncoiled in Spain in 1955? (It was Elizabeth Jane Howard, renamed by Laurie because the Spaniards couldn’t pronounce Jane.)

Above them all, there was Lorna Wishart (née Garman). This ravishing creature – rich, married, bewitchingly seductive – inspired his poems and paved his way to literary London. His first volume, The Sun My Monument, is dedicated to Lorna. As for Yasmin, Lorna said, ‘I wanted a poet’s child, and I got one.’ Laurie’s diaries about Lorna, from their meeting on a Cornish beach in 1937 to her leaving him for Lucian Freud in 1943–4, represent the best prose he ever wrote, in my view: direct, unpurpled, deeply felt. There’s an example in the British Library exhibition ‘Laurie Lee: Memories of War’ (until 20 July). And fantastic to relate, both Laurie Lee and Lucian Freud, two young men whose hearts were broken by Lorna, would later marry her nieces: Laurie married Kathy in 1950, while Freud had married Kitty Garman in 1948.

It was a wonderful life to write, and I now regard 1997–9 as years of intense, fruitful preoccupation. But that kind of obsessive biographical research destroys much else: Laurie Lee gripped my brain in every waking moment, invaded my dreams and possessed me utterly, as I wrote and fretted and rewrote. I was so distracted I missed a daughter’s graduation and other important family events. Generally I liked Laurie (not always the case with biographers and their subjects), but there were things to dislike. Like other writers of genius, he behaved crushingly to his wife and daughter, who long ago forgave him. ( Jessy has now published Laurie Lee: A Folio, a beautiful volume of her father's paintings, drawings and photographs, with her reminiscences.) And there were altercations between us when one of his mistresses insisted on being named, against the family’s wishes. It was all painfully, exhaustingly stressful. Andrew Motion told me one day that he had ‘nearly died’ writing his Larkin, and I could understand.

On 5 December 1999, after the book came out, my diary records: ‘I will draw a line under this biography now. It has taken its toll on family life & friendships & morale & reading habits ... I’m glad I did it – but will not look for another.’

Yet there’s also a postscript, inserted five years later, in 2004. ‘I am on the brink of taking on another biog – John Mortimer.’ Despite the bitter agonies, I would embark on it all again. Biography really is like motherhood: memories of labour pains are shelved and one willingly submits to the next child. r j u n e 2 0 1 4 | Literary Review 1

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