Autobiographical writing, according to British writer Laurie Lee, is both “laying to bed the ghosts and ordering of the mind.” We are fortunate to live in a time when the autobiographical essays of Laurie Lee (1914 – 1997), like I Can’t Stay Long, are being republished at a considerable rate.
A wasting memory is not only a destroyer; it can deny one’s very existence. A day unremembered is like a soul unborn, worse than if it had never been. What indeed is that summer if it is not recalled? That journey? That act of love? To whom did it happen if it has left you with nothing?
This handsome, charming man, romantic to a fault, longs to sweep back to the days of oranges in Christmas stockings and small cottages dotting tree-lined lanes.
Lee grew up in a Cotswold farming community, which he first left at age nineteen and didn’t return to until twenty-five years later. Yet, he circles his past continuously, and a deep longing to return to “what once was” sustains each essay.
My eight-year-old world has no language problems, no passports, no barriers, no restraint, and no money. It is as flat as a ribbon, about a million miles long, and scarcely wider than the garden path. It begins in the corner of the bedroom, among stuffed elephants and German helmets, and throws into space a gaudy coloured line.
Lee possessed a writer’s gifts: sensitivity, humor, a love for language, and an infectious desire to observe and love of memory. Still, Lee knew “the widest pitfall in autobiography is the writer’s censorship of self,” i.e., the difference between memory and reality.1
British poet A. E. Housman wrote from a place of longing, much like Lee. He was also “apart,” being homosexual when it was illegal in Britain and considered a moral failing. Housman’s longing centred on impossible love, however, not memory. But, like Lee, his poems are full of the feeling of “what will never be.” And like Lee, (and many others) Housman felt this longing most deeply when walking the countryside.2
Unlike Housman’s, Lee’s writing is, to use his own words, a “celebration of living.” Topics range from travels to first love, appetite, pleasure, writing, and contrasting city and country personalities.
One of my earliest memories is that of a small boy sitting in our village street surrounded by a group of grey-whiskered old men. Bored and fidgety, his mind clearly elsewhere, he is reading aloud in fluent sing-song the war news from a tattered newspaper. […] It was through this practice that I first knew the printed word, its power, and its glory.
The most exceptional piece is a 1967 essay about Aberfan, a Welsh town that lost one hundred and forty-four people, mostly children, when coal sludge buried the local school in a landslide. The Village That Lost Its Children is simply that. Lee returns a year after the tragedy to interview individuals, scope the remnants, and offer insight into this great unhealed wound.
Returning to Aberfan almost a year after the disaster, this was the first voice I heard, coming from an old Welsh miner who stood alone with his dog on the embankment looking over the ruins. ‘Nobody was to blame,” he went on, ‘—or all of us . . .” The rain dropped black from his cap. His lilting chapel voice seemed to be addressed to the air or to anyone who cared to stop and listen.
It is compelling writing and, in a cruel way, the perfect challenge for someone of Lee’s talent and sensitivity.
In his autobiography, British novelist Graham Greene said “these emotions are true now because I felt them then.” Lee observed similarly that autobiography is the laying down of our story and saying “this mattered once, so it matters now.”
With an eye to caring, to meaning and observation, read Marianne Moore’s delightful poetry or the Odes to Common Things by Pablo Neruda. Both use exceptional language to help us see basic things anew. To continue this theme of autobiographical self-celebration, there is no better than Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, an epic poem that clenches life.