As he prepares to take High Vis to the Stroud Theatre Festival, Robert Cohen recalls a prophetic meeting with Laurie Lee, Gloucestershire poet and author of Cider with Rosie
“You’re much more handsome than me. You look more like a playwright”.
My wife won’t believe it, of course, but there was a time in my life when such compliments came all too rarely. 25 years later, however, it’s not so much the blush-making flattery that sticks in my mind, as the fact that the words were uttered by a literary legend who, at that moment, was in the process of taking my picture.
Though my meeting with Laurie Lee (for it was he) had been unplanned, it was not, perhaps, entirely unordained, for, as I explained to the great man, it was in pursuit of official Lee-related business that I was treading his home turf. Back then in ’91, long before I made the leap to the other side of the proscenium, I was employed by a theatrical publishing house, and my mission that day was to write an article about Slad, the village immortalised in Lee’s classic rural memoir Cider With Rosie. Birmingham Rep were rehearsing a stage adaptation of the book, and the results of my research were to go into the programme.
So, on that late May Sunday (Sunday, indeed – I was new in the job, and keen), I drove up from Bristol to pick the brains of John Tarrott, landlord of the village pub. John, as well as running the Woolpack Inn, acted as a sort of lightning conductor for much
of the botherment attracted by his most celebrated customer’s most celebrated literary work. Thus, though I wouldn’t get to meet Laurie Lee himself, I was assured that John could tell me all I needed to know about the history of the village – and so he did, giving most generously of his time.
Job done, I wandered off to get some pics of the village and the surrounding fields, which, at that point in the early summer, were covered with flowers of white and blazing yellow. Finally, towards the end of the day, I got in my stylish Skoda Estelle (a box on wheels, it was, probably one of the last out of Soviet Czechoslovakia), and headed back out of the village.
As I once again passed the Woolpack, however, I noticed a white-haired man sat in a chair outside the pub. Surely not...?
I stopped the car and wandered timidly back along the village’s hill-hugging high street.
“Um, are you... Laurie Lee?”
“No,” he said. “He’s over there in the churchyard.”
I knew I’d found my man, though, and he knew I knew. Though he declined to engage in a formal interview, he bade me join him at his table, and went inside to get us a couple of drinks. I don’t know what he had himself – nice (if corny) to think it was cider – but whatever it was, I recall he had it in his own metal cup, which they kept for him behind the bar.
The conversation, upon his return, focused at least as much on myself as on him. Perhaps he was one of those people, like my grandparents, with a kind and flattering curiosity about the young; or perhaps he was just tired of answering the same old questions about himself. Anyway, I talked about my past and my future, revealing my ambitions as a playwright and my hopefully temporary status as a journalist of sorts.
Appropriate, I guess, that, some 25 years after that meeting with Laurie Lee, I should be returning to the neighbourhood with a play about a traffic warden – for when I did eventually get him to talk about the village where he’d spent so much of his life, it was clear that the main instrument of change, both for good and ill, had been the internal combustion engine. As he’d written in Cider With Rosie, “Soon the village would break, dissolve and scatter, become no more than a place for pensioners”, and at this point in the early ’90s, his words were looking especially prophetic; along with the freedom to roam, cars had brought the freedom to commute, and Slad, like many a rural community, was waking up to the phenomenon of houses priced beyond the reach of young people who had grown up there.
Though he must himself have derived benefits from motor transport (in his middle years, for instance, he divided his time between Slad and London), it was clear that even as a penniless youth he was unconstrained by a lack of gadgetry; when our conversation chanced to touch on Malvern (where I’d
earlier lunched with a friend), my companion recalled a time when he used to cycle to said town every Sunday to see a particular girl. According to the internet (still very much newly fangled back in ’91), Slad to Malvern would have been something in the region of an 80-mile round trip.
But then, this was also the boy who “walked out one midsummer morning” and kept on walking all the way to Spain. That was just before the civil war. He went back again a bit later, to fight against the fascists, and, like Orwell, narrowly escaped being a victim of factional paranoia on his own side.
Sitting outside the Woolpack a half-century later, he reflected on the fact that he’d travelled the whole world but had always ended up back in this village: here he would end his days, he said, and be buried in the grounds of the church across the road. So it would indeed come to pass some six years later, but in the meantime it was without the slightest trace of morbidity or regret that he told me, “I’ve got one foot in the pub and one foot in the grave”.
He talked too of the trials of celebrity, of being “bullied” by people – by me, for instance. Me? No, he said, I was OK really; what he really objected to was the kind of thing he’d lately endured, where four people had accosted him, as he sat in his favourite spot outside the pub, and demanded of him, “Are you Graham Greene?” It was, one might assume, the alliteration that confused them.
Though reluctant to be comparably intrusive, I was also keen for a scoop (if “scoop” may be applied to the world of theatre programmes).
“Can I take your picture?”
“No,” he said, firmly but unmaliciously, I couldn’t take his picture. Why? Because, he explained, Cider With Rosie was a book about youth, and a portrait of the author as an old man would spoil the whole thing.
“I’ll take one of you, though,” he said, “if you like.”
Well, I could hardly refuse – especially when he started with the flattery: that thing about me being more handsome and playwrighty than him.
He picked up my camera. “Probably won’t be very good,” he warned, as he put an eye to the viewfinder. “I’m almost blind.”
In fact, it turned out rather well. He took two pictures, both of them in perfect focus. My mum used to like the one with the cheeky grin – she even put it in a frame. I prefer the other one he took, though I admit it looks more posed. Whether or not he made me look “handsome”, it’s really not for me to say, even at the remove of half a lifetime. One thing’s for sure, though: I definitely look like a playwright.