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Laurie Lee

I Can't Stay Long

Category: Biography | Published: 1975 | Review Added: 17-04-2019

Rating: 4 - A top read

Laurie Lee acquired fame with his first volume of autobiography, Cider with Rosie, in 1959 - an evocative account of his childhood and youth in the idyllic Gloucestershire hills. I was one of thousands of late-twentieth-century English schoolchildren forced to read it at too young an age. My taste at fifteen was for sweeping drama, abstract ideas, and a hint of tragedy. I couldn't readily identify with Lee's portrayal of his cosy natal home, and of his own self-confident and untroubled persona.

Still, even as a teenager, I could see that Lee was an original writer with a distinctive voice, and when my eye was recently caught in a bookshop by I Can't Stay Long, a collection of Lee's journalistic pieces, I thought I'd give him another try.

It turned out to be a good bet. The volume spans most of Lee's literary career, and runs from lushly sensuous accounts of his childhood, through philosophical musings on themes such as "Love", "Charm" and "Paradise", to thoughtful and perceptive narratives of his travels around the world. One traces clearly the maturation of Lee's voice from carefree, youthful self-absorption to a worldly interest in other people and other lives. The later pieces are enriched by occasional hints of melancholy and the regret of youth's passing. Lee was, one might say, born to be a young man. He was blessed, and cursed, with an irresistable attractiveness to the opposite sex. His travel writing incorporates much expert analysis of the charms of local womanhood, and one wonders if his own charms prevented him - although his marriage lasted, and although he returned to live in his natal village in the Cotswolds - from truly settling down. The overriding impression is of a complex personality that struggled to reconcile the archetypes of nostalgic homebody and eternal wanderer.

Yet this tension is all to the good of the writing. I Can't Stay Long reveals an intellectual range that was a pleasant surprise to me. Lee writes with perspicuity on his own life, abstract themes, and the atmospheres of Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean, Ireland and Beirut.

One piece stands out, in tone and subject, from the others in the book; this is The Village that Lost its Children, which describes his visit to the Welsh village of Aberfan a year after a slag heap collapsed, asphyxiating a school full of children. It is an excellent piece of journalism, sympathetic but detached, and encapsulated so astutely thus:

Earthquake, flood, slaughter by the elements - any of these might have been accepted. But the tip that killed was not an act of God, it was put there by ordinary men, and everyone in the valleys feels somehow involved, and nobody can wholly accuse, or forgive.

Is that not a summary of the human condition?

I Can't Stay Long is a consistently thought-provoking volume, celebrating the richness of the world with a touch of wistfulness, and never blind to the sad and dangerous aspects of life.

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