Cider with Laurie
The Queens Elm in the Fulham Road has not been a pub for thirty years. But in its day it was one of the literary pubs, being just down the road from the Chelsea Arts Club. Even its landlord Sean was an author. It was also the home pub for my Sunday soccer side the Villagers-named after a casino near Chelsea Bridge.
It was there in the late 70s I met Laurie Lee. Whose centenary is celebrated this year. He was easy to meet. Famously mean, Jeffrey Bernard always said you could tell a decade was coming to an end when Laurie Lee bought you a drink. Fame struck I bought him several. I once used him in an article I wrote for the Sunday Times on how various celebrities celebrate the changing of clocks and the coming of winter. The poet author impishly said he burned love letters to keep himself warm during the winter. That’s worth a pint Laurie.
It is not well known that Laurie Lee when he first left his remote Gloucestershire village and came to London lived in Putney. So we are twice related. When he first came to London as a nineteen year old having walked from Srad he lived on the Upper Richmond Road and worked on the exclusive estate being built on Putney Hill, Manor Fields. He even took part in a strike which may have helped radicalise him.
Anyway all this propelled me to the British Museum where a celebration of his centenary was taking place. Poets PJ Kavanagh, Tim Dee, Brian Patton,Adam Horavitz and best selling novelist Louis de Bernieres all made the point that he was an established poet and his three autobiographical books especially Cider with Rosie are great pieces of lyrical prose.
Having reread these slight books again I have to agree, though whether they will stand the test of time as well (or badly)as say Bruce Chatwins and Leigh Femours equally poetic travelogues remain to be seen. Poets do have a tendency of being like young mums all agreeing to praise each others off spring.
It may well be that his last decades after his “masterpieces” were written were not Laurie Lee’s best and his sensitivity to his reputation and status were understandable. Even his cheer leaders at the British Library could not ignore the” pessimistic silence” of his later years. Or may be the youth who Lee himself describes who was “soft at the edges” at 19 just became brittle in later years. Without dwelling on it too much, his alcohol fuelled life in and around Chelsea may have seemed ideal for the ageing and declining poet but did little to help his family life back in Gloucestershire or give his daughter a secure background.