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Susie B
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Bernard Buffet: The Invention of the Modern Mega-artist
Bernard Buffet: The Invention of the Modern Mega-artist
by Nicholas Foulkes
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £19.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The Rise and Fall of Bernard Buffet, 17 Feb. 2016
French artist Bernard Buffet (1928-1999) was born into a rather dysfunctional family (his father divided his time scrupulously between his mistress and his wife and children) and was brought up in a second-floor apartment in the Batignolles district of Paris. His childhood was not a very happy one due to the difficult atmosphere at home, and his adolescent years were spent in a city under the occupation of the Nazis. Academically Buffet struggled, but he could certainly draw and his work was so impressive that at the age of fifteen he was accepted into the famous École des Beaux-Arts. Affected by the years of wartime deprivation and haunted by disturbing images, Buffet's post-war art was 'spare and cheerless', his colour palette various shades of greys and browns, his lines angular, and his characters emaciated, stick-like beings often caught in moments of disenchantment or despair. His bleak images captured the feeling of the times, and before Buffet was in his mid-twenties, he was famous. A hugely prolific painter whose canvases fetched very large sums of money, Buffet was soon part of the Saint-Tropez scene and one of the Gallic 'Fabulous Five' - the others being Francoise Sagan, Roger Vadim, Brigitte Bardot and Yves St Laurent. After a short and unsuccessful first marriage, Buffet's lover and constant companion for eight years was Pierre Bergé (who later became the long-term partner of Yves St Laurent) and it was Bergé who helped Buffet make the transition from scruffy, paint-splattered young artist to the suave and elegantly groomed celebrity painter he rapidly became. Several Rolls Royces, various chateaux, his own island and a beautiful second wife later, Bernard Buffet experienced a complete fall from favour when he fell foul of the art establishment, and Nicholas Foulkes' detailed biography informs the reader how this huge change of fortune came about.

Mr Foulkes, who writes for 'Country Life', 'Vanity Fair' and 'GQ', is obviously fascinated by Bernard Buffet and he has certainly researched his subject well carrying out interviews with (amongst others) Juliet Greco, Sir John Richardson (the art historian and biographer of Picasso) and Bernard Buffet's son, Nicolas. And some of the information revealed in this biography is fascinating - although I should add that what we learn is delivered in a rather informal, journalese style with additional 'titbits' of information added in parentheses, and the text is sometimes padded out with unnecessary additions (for instance one of his interviewees is described as: "a slight young woman with soulful eyes and delicate features" and another as: "His features are creased and folded with the years. His eyes are rheumy; perhaps with age, perhaps with memories of those years in Provence when he and Buffet were young, energetic and beautiful.."). That said, this attractively presented biography - and rather cautionary tale - is an accessible and readable account where the author is evidently very much at home when writing about fashionable society and of the lives of the rich and famous of the 1950s and '60s, and in reading this book I discovered a good deal of information about a painter I had heard of, but of whom I previously knew very little.

3 Stars.


Privileged Children
Privileged Children
by Frances Vernon
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.00

3.0 out of 5 stars Privileged Children, 13 Feb. 2016
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This review is from: Privileged Children (Paperback)
Diana Molloy, an attractive and spirited young widow lives in Red Lion Square in Bloomsbury where she is a 'kept' woman. Her daughter, Alice, grows up aware of her mother's unconventional lifestyle and enjoys being part of Diana's coterie of free thinking, bohemian friends. In 1912, when Alice is fourteen years old, Diana dies, leaving Alice the proceeds from the sale of the Bloomsbury house, some wisely chosen shares and her books. Alice (who has already lost her virginity to a friend of her mother's) is sent to Dorset to live with her uncle, the Reverend Roderick Blentham and his wife, Cicely, who find Alice intractable and difficult and threaten to send her to school - a threat that Alice cannot allow them to carry out. In order to escape from the restrictions placed on her, Alice becomes friendly with her uncle's groom and soon falls pregnant, a situation which results in her being returned to London to be cared for by her mother's old friends, Augustus and Clementina, who later adopt Alice's son. Alice, happy to be back in Bloomsbury, shrugs off the events of her recent past, begins an affair with a Frenchman, whom she later agrees to marry (under the proviso that he resign every single right a married man has over his wife) just before the birth of their daughter, and then becomes an artist noted for her portraits of adolescent girls, towards one of whom she is particularly sexually attracted and begins a love affair. There is more, of course, including mention of what happens to the group of friends who surround Alice over the years, and also a little about the life of Alice's somewhat neglected daughter as she grows up, but I shall leave that for others to discover should they decide to read the book.

First published in 1982 'Privileged Children' was the debut novel of seventeen-year-old Frances Vernon (who tragically committed suicide nine years later) and this novel earned her the Author's Club Award for Best First Novel. As a first novel from a writer not yet eighteen, this is an impressive debut and, if it had been written at a period of time nearer to its setting, it would also have been a very daring one.  However, Alice is not a very sympathetic heroine and neither she, nor the characters around her, are particularly well-developed which means that I did not find it easy to become as invested in the story or its protagonists as I would have liked. That said, Frances Vernon (who writes in a direct, no-nonsense manner) obviously had a strong feeling for the past and she recreates bohemian Bloomsbury life well, which made the period settings easy to envisage. I do have to comment, however, that I found it difficult to separate this book from its very young author, and although I can well see why this was an award winning novel, I have to say that, for me, this was not an entirely satisfying read. However, I will add that Frances Vernon wrote five further novels during her tragically short life (Gentlemen and Players; A Desirable Husband; The Bohemian Girl; The Marquis of Westmarch and The Fall of Doctor Onslow) and I am certainly interested in reading more from this author to see how her writing developed during that time.

3 Stars 


Exposure
Exposure
by Helen Dunmore
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £11.89

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Exposure, 9 Feb. 2016
This review is from: Exposure (Hardcover)
It is 1960 and we are in England where, after the defection of the spies Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, even the average man and woman in the street is aware of Cold War espionage and KGB double agents. In London, Simon Callington, an unambitious but reliable civil servant working at the Admiralty, is at home with his wife, Lily, and their three children when he receives a telephone call from a colleague, Giles Holloway. Giles (who the reader learns almost immediately is in league with the Russians) is in hospital suffering with concussion and a broken leg after a bad fall at his home. Giles asks Simon to go to his flat and pick up a file that he has left lying on his desk - a file that should never have been removed from the office - and return it to their place of work unobserved. Simon is reluctant to oblige, but Giles sounds desperate and as he owes Giles a favour, he agrees to carry out his wishes - however when Simon notices the file is marked 'Top Secret' and he assesses the nature of its contents, his suspicions about Giles are aroused.

Instead of returning the file to the office, Simon hides it in his own home in order to give him time to think about his discovery, but when Giles's boss, the ruthless, double-dealing Julian Clowde, is made aware of the missing file, both Giles and Simon soon realize that there is a heavy price to pay for Giles's blunder. (No spoilers, we learn all of this and more early on in the story). However, it is not just Simon and Giles who are involved in this intrigue, there is Simon's wife, Lily - a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, still suffering from traumatic events from her past - who has to cope with the repercussions and who has to bravely protect their children from the fallout which follows. There is, of course, more to this story than I have mentioned in this review, including the reason that Simon cannot reveal all he knows about Giles, but that is for prospective readers to discover for themselves.

Moving between the perspectives of the main characters and with particular emphasis on the situation from Lily's aspect, this novel is, in many ways, a domestic drama of a family at crisis point and, amongst the more unsettling moments of her story, the author displays how good she is at period detail - especially that of the home, where we read of kitchen ranges and coal scuttles, twin-tubs and clothes horses and hot water bottles and eiderdowns. As a poet as well as a novelist, Helen Dunmore's writing is often lyrical and poetically rich, yet where necessary she can be more direct and this novel certainly has its moments of increasing tension and menace - however, this is not a conventional spy thriller, but a carefully layered exploration of family and of the need to belong, of love and loyalty, and of responsibility and integrity, and when viewed as such, makes for an entertaining and thought-provoking read.

4 Stars.


The Glasshouse
The Glasshouse
by Monique Charlesworth
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars A Dark and Atmospheric Tale, 6 Feb. 2016
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This review is from: The Glasshouse (Hardcover)
Monique Charlesworth's unusual debut novel: 'The Glasshouse', is set in Hamburg during the early 1970s, where we meet business man, Viktor Genscher, a handsome, well-groomed man in his late thirties, who has risen from humble beginnings as a homeless war orphan and is now a partner in the import-export firm of Rommer. Not content with running one business, Viktor is set on achieving his ambition of becoming a newspaper proprietor, and when we first meet him, he is on the verge of acquiring the Hamberg evening paper 'Der Abend' - or at least he was, until someone from his past catches up with him.

Twenty-one-year-old Johanna Rommer has known Viktor since she was a small child, and is in love with him - in fact, at one point, she and Viktor were engaged to be married, until Viktor suddenly called it off. Confused by Viktor's volte-face, Johanna cannot move on until she has discovered the true reason for Viktor's change of heart, even if that means that she has to put her whole future on hold until she is totally sure that he won't change his mind back again - but then she meets the very good-looking Sigi, who although is not at all her type, seems to be deeply attracted to Johanna and appears serious in his intentions towards her.

Ludvig Levinson is a grizzled, ageing judo teacher with a hatchet face and broken teeth who teaches martial arts to disadvantaged young boys in a rundown area in Hamburg - however his 'care' of the boys he teaches is not without strings as Ludvig expects something in return for his efforts. When Ludvig learns that one of his past 'protégés', Viktor, has turned his life around and has left his shady past behind him, Ludvig considers how he can use the information he has on Viktor to his best advantage. And, interestingly, Ludvig also knows Sigi, and Sigi owes him a favour…

Monique Charlesworth describes the situation and setting of her story particularly well and she brings her scenes vividly to life; her depiction of Ludvig, with his thin, wiry body, broken teeth and filthy fingernails is particularly well portrayed, as are many of the other characters, whether they have been allocated a major or minor role in the story. I also found it interesting the way the author gradually reveals Viktor's personality and allows the reader glimpses of the ruthless character beneath his urbane exterior. A dark and unsettling tale, and although like Kate Hopkins writing here, I would have liked to have known more about Johanna's back history and learnt more about what ultimately happened to her, I found this an unusual, gripping and atmospheric story and one that pulled me in from the very first page.

4 Stars.


Something in Disguise
Something in Disguise
Price: £4.68

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining and Very Enjoyable, 4 Feb. 2016
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First published in 1969, Elizabeth Jane Howard's fifth novel 'Something in Disguise' tells the story of May, whose husband was killed during WW2, leaving her a widow with two children: Oliver and Elizabeth, who are now twenty-four and twenty years old respectively. Some years after her husband's death, May married Colonel Herbert Browne-Lacey, a widower with a daughter, Alice; however May is beginning to realize that her decision to marry Herbert was most probably a very unwise one. Herbert, we soon learn, is a pompous bore - May's children, particularly Oliver, tease him whenever the opportunity arises - but Herbert is not just a bore, he is a selfish, domineering and penny-pinching bully. Having coerced May into buying (with her money) a large, rambling and dankly-cold house in the country, he rations the electricity and the heating, keeps their alcohol supply locked up in his firelit study and, when he is not at home, he spends his time at his club or in other 'pursuits' leaving May to cope with the upkeep of the huge house practically on her own - which she finds increasingly difficult, especially as lately she has been feeling rather unwell.

Oliver, who can't bear Herbert, has left home and lives in London and although a personable and clever young man, has difficulty holding down a job and drifts from one insincere love affair to another; Elizabeth, keen to make a new life for herself soon follows him to London. Even Alice, who tells herself that she loves her father, is desperate to leave home and finds herself accepting a marriage proposal from the very dull and suburban Leslie. In London, Elizabeth (who has spent six months training as a Cordon Bleu cook) takes a job with an agency which sends her to cook supper parties for affluent clients and, through her work, she meets the much older and very wealthy John Cole, with whom she falls in love, and he with her, despite opposition from his needy daughter who does her best to come between them. Oliver, financially strapped and keen to marry a rich debutante, tells himself he has fallen for the beautiful and amoral Ginny, but when he gets to know her better, discovers she is not quite as she appears on the surface. And while Elizabeth and Oliver pursue their own lives, May becomes mysteriously more unwell with each passing day and decides that perhaps she should write her will…

As expected from Elizabeth Jane Howard, this is a beautifully written story peopled with interesting characters and full of marvellous descriptions of situation and setting - even Alice's cat, Claude (who plays a rather significant role in the novel) is wonderfully described, and Herbert - who becomes more unpleasant and sinister as the story progresses - makes the reader (or this one, anyhow) feel increasingly uncomfortable the more we read about him. Wise, perceptive, darkly amusing and with more than one surprise at the end of the tale, I found this an entertaining and very enjoyable novel and one that will go straight back onto one of my bookshelves to be read and enjoyed again.

5 Stars.

Also highly recommended by Elizabeth Jane Howard: The Beautiful Visit; Odd Girl Out; After Julius; Getting It Right; Love All and Falling.


The Prose Factory: Literary Life in Britain Since 1918
The Prose Factory: Literary Life in Britain Since 1918
by D J Taylor
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £19.99

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Prose Factory, 2 Feb. 2016
D.J.Taylor informs the reader in the introduction to his interesting title:'The Prose Factory', that his book is a study of the recent development of literary culture in England and, amongst other issues, an enquiry into the diffusion of taste that was part of that development. He poses questions such as 'Why in the English twentieth century did certain kinds of writing prosper only for others to fall by the wayside? Why did certain critics succeed in forming or altering the opinions of the literary public and others fail? And what assumptions did the reader who picked up a novel in the 1930s, the 1970s, or the 2000s, bring both to the book itself and the figure of the person who wrote it?' Interesting questions indeed and Mr Taylor admits that there are no definite answers to any of those questions - but, he says, in posing them we learn something about the complex process by which a book is brought to its audience and the way in which literature, of whatever kind, works its effect.

Presented in three parts containing chapters with intriguing titles such as: 'Highbrows, Lowbrows and Those In Between'; 'The Pink Decade'; 'Late Bloomsbury'; 'Waiting for the Barbarians' and 'The Unschooled Reader', the author also includes an interesting section in each of the three parts of the book entitled 'Making a Living' where we learn that few writers rely solely on their earnings from their books to survive. In a chronological format the author looks at the decline in popularity of Georgian poetry and the rise of Modernism and of T.S.Eliot; the appearance of the Sitwell siblings: Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell, with mention of Edith's 'Facade' - a series of poems performed to music composed by the young William Walton; we read of Virginia Woolf and other Bloomsbury members and their part in shaping literary taste; we look at Hugh Walpole and the 'Perils of Success' and a whole lot more, including the emergence in the 1950s of the 'angry young men' and, later, the arrival of the 'golden generation' of young male writers such as: Ian McEwan, Martin Amis and Julian Barnes, as well as the ascent of women writers such as: Iris Murdoch and A.S.Byatt. There are, naturally, some omissions and, as commented by another reviewer writing here, there were many mentions of F.R. Leavis, but on the whole, I was caught up in Mr Taylor's enthusiasm for his subject and found this well-researched book an interesting, informative and enjoyable read.

4 Stars.


Smoulder
Smoulder
by Kim Hargreaves
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars Great Patterns in Gorgeous Yarns, 31 Jan. 2016
This review is from: Smoulder (Paperback)
As I have commented in previous reviews of mine for Kim Hargreaves' knitting books, I have been knitting from Kim's books for many years, including the Rowan Knitting books - where Kim was, until she branched out on her own, one of the main designers. Fortunately, I have always been very pleased with the finished results - her designs and the yarns she uses produce garments that have a stylish hand-crafted appearance, rather than looking like a homemade effort. This particular knitting book: 'Smoulder' contains several patterns that I've promised myself I will find the time to knit: firstly there is 'Kitten' a neat little cardigan in Rowan Angora Haze (I'm going to make it a bit shorter, so it's more of a cropped cardigan); then there is 'Claudia' a lovely tunic with a boat-shaped neckline and side vents knitted in Rowan Kid Classic (I plan on making this longer so that I can wear it as a short dress over opaque tights or with skinny jeans); I am rather taken with 'Wren' which is a denim style jacket - but then on second thoughts I think I might prefer 'Fern' a blazer-style jacket with a back vent which is, like 'Wren', knitted in Felted Tweed. And I have to make 'Rosamund' a close-fitting cropped cardigan with a wide, deep neckline in Rowan Kid Classic and their lovely Kid Silk Haze - this would look great knitted in black and worn in the evening with a floaty skirt and heels or with fitted trousers. There are several other patterns in the book (including 'Ava' an attractive V-neck cardigan in Rowan Angora Haze which is shown on the cover) but as there are only so many knitted garments a person can wear and I have only limited time in which to knit them, I'll have to pass on the others. If you want to see all the patterns contained in this book, do visit Kim's website, alternatively English Yarns based in Shoreham, West Sussex, have a website where you'll be able to see all of the patterns in detail and they also sell the materials needed to knit the designs. John Lewis now also sell a wide range of Rowan Yarns online. Happy knitting.

5 Stars.


The Noise of Time
The Noise of Time
by Julian Barnes
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £9.99

14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Struggle Between Integrity and Survival, 28 Jan. 2016
This review is from: The Noise of Time (Hardcover)
Set mostly in Stalinist Russia, Julian Barnes's 'The Noise of Time' is a brief, but absorbing fictional biography, which provides the reader with an interesting and thought-provoking overview of the life and times of the composer Dmitri Shostakovich. In 1936, Joseph Stalin attended a performance of Shostakovich's opera 'Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk' and was not impressed. Stalin left the performance before the end and shortly afterwards an editorial was published in 'Pravda' strongly criticizing Shostakovich's work and referring to it as 'Muddle Instead of Music', and if that were not worrying enough, further pieces followed denouncing the composer as an enemy of the people. The reader first meets Shostakovich late at night as he waits on the landing outside his apartment, fully clothed and with his suitcase packed, in readiness for the anticipated visit by the NKVD. Having already attended an interview at the 'Big House', where he was invited to denounce certain members of his acquaintance and was then released, he now waits night after night on the landing for the expected visit from the secret police - which doesn't arrive. The crisis passes, but the extreme anxiety caused by the fear of his imminent arrest, coupled with the realization of what he might be prepared to do to avoid imprisonment and its aftermath, never leaves him.

We next meet Shostakovich in 1948, and then in 1949, when Stalin informs him that his presence is required as a representative of the Soviet Union at the Cultural and Scientific Congress for World Peace in New York. Reluctant to attend, Shostakovich points out that it would be difficult to do this when his music has been banned in Russia, only to discover that he has suddenly been reinstated. In New York he is forced to read from a prepared speech criticizing Stravinsky, a composer Shostakovich greatly admires and this, and other incidents, add to his feelings of humiliation and guilt. Our next encounter with the composer is in 1960, after the death of Stalin and with Russia under the leadership of Nikita Khrushchev, when Shostakovich is informed of his imminent appointment as Chairman of the Russian Federation Union of Composers, a position which requires him to become a Communist Party member - something that he has so far managed to avoid and which now causes him yet more inner turmoil as he struggles to cope with feelings of despair and self-contempt.

Deftly composed, as one would expect from Julian Barnes, this story (the title of which is taken from Osip Mandelstam's memoirs) discusses themes of conscience, self-knowledge and personal integrity, and is a masterclass in brevity. However, despite being brief in length, the author - who presents his story in a series of vignettes revealing insights into the mind of his composer - ably conjures up the oppressive atmosphere of Stalinist Russia and the terror experienced by those who fell foul of the authorities during the purges. And although it may be true, that in terms of physical action, not a huge amount takes place during the course of this novel, Mr Barnes has directed his focus on Shostakovich's inner thoughts, his fears and imaginings and has cleverly condensed his character's life story in order to provide a crystallised and rather unsettling account of one man's struggle between integrity and survival.

4 Stars.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 29, 2016 6:39 PM GMT


The Life and Loves of Laurie Lee
The Life and Loves of Laurie Lee
by Valerie Grove
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.08

4.0 out of 5 stars A Very Readable Account, 24 Jan. 2016
Laurie Lee was an elusive character, who although wrote three autobiographical books ('Cider With Rosie'; 'As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning' and 'A Moment of War') he never revealed the whole truth, and what he did reveal, as Valerie Grove's interesting biography tells us, sometimes lacked veracity. Born in 1914, Laurie Lee was brought up in a small cottage in Slad, Gloucestershire, by his doting mother, Annie - a "scatty,garrulous, emotional" woman, whose husband left her to bring up seven children alone. Wanting to spread his wings, Laurie left Slad one morning in June 1934, and walked to London (he could just as easily have cycled, or caught the train, Valerie Grove comments: "But walking out was the poetic route to the gypsy life…the romantic troubadour's way. Laurie Lee had unwittingly begun creating his legend.") Once settled in London, Laurie, who was already a competent artist and violinist, sent some of his poems to magazines and newspapers, the first of which was published in 'The Sunday Referee' - a national paper which also published some of Dylan Thomas's poems. Before long, however, Laurie was keen to be on the move and although he knew very little about Spain, he decided that that was where he wanted to be and off he went. Whilst busking with his violin through Spain, Laurie met poet, Roy Campbell, and his wife Mary (the eldest of the beautiful Garman sisters - one of whom, the married Lorna Wishart, would later have a significant impact on Laurie's life) and he also met the middle-aged and very well-connected Wilma Gregory, who later became Laurie's patroness.

Whilst Laurie was in Spain the Civil War broke out and, caught up in heavy shellfire, he suffered an epileptic fit - a disorder which, throughout his life, Laurie tried hard to conceal. Wilma persuaded Laurie to return to England with her, but once home Laurie wasn't able to settle and in 1937 (after meeting the "beautiful and fascinating" Lorna Wishart), he managed to find his way back into Spain with plans to join the International Brigade as a volunteer. Although Laurie's intention was to help the Republicans in their fight against Franco's Nationalist army, under the stress of the situation he suffered several more epileptic fits and, after only nine weeks in Spain, Laurie was sent home to England, which caused him lasting embarrassment and shame. However, back again in England, Laurie was now able to focus more on his writing and was also able to spend time with Lorna Wishart, with whom he fell deeply in love and who became his muse. After several years with the very alluring, but self-centred Lorna (who gave birth to their daughter, Yasmin) Lorna ended their liaison, leaving Laurie heartbroken and reluctant to ever again involve himself so wholeheartedly in a relationship. There is, of course, much more to this well-researched 500+ page biography than I have mentioned in this review, where the reader learns of Laurie Lee's love affairs (both before and after his marriage); his courtship of the lovely teenaged Kathy (niece of Lorna Wishart), who later became his much-younger wife - who selflessly devoted herself to Laurie and was remarkably tolerant of his infidelities, his difficult behaviour and his increasing reliance on alcohol; of Laurie's road to fame through his famous memoir 'Cider with Rosie'; of his friendship with Cecil Day-Lewis and Rosamond Lehmann; of his affair with Elizabeth Jane Howard, and a huge amount more.

Valerie Grove, who had the cooperation of Laurie Lee's widow and access to all of his papers, has produced an interesting and very readable account of her subject, and although sympathetic in her approach to a man she describes as effortlessly charming, Ms Grove does not shy away from revealing Laurie Lee's less admirable qualities or from discussing the veracity of his some of his autobiographical material. Interestingly, Laurie Lee was referred to by his brother, Jack, as "The most devious person it is possible to invent" and even after reading this well-researched biography, he still appears somewhat of an enigma, but one that I now know very much more about than I did before. Recommended.

4 Stars.


Laurie Lee: The Well-loved Stranger
Laurie Lee: The Well-loved Stranger
by Valerie Grove
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Very Readable Account, 24 Jan. 2016
As another reviewer has already commented here, Laurie Lee was an elusive character, who although wrote three autobiographical books ('Cider With Rosie'; 'As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning' and 'A Moment of War') he never revealed the whole truth, and what he did reveal, as Valerie Grove's interesting biography tells us, sometimes lacked veracity. Born in 1914, Laurie Lee was brought up in a small cottage in Slad, Gloucestershire, by his doting mother, Annie - a "scatty,garrulous, emotional" woman, whose husband left her to bring up seven children alone. Wanting to spread his wings, Laurie left Slad one morning in June 1934, and walked to London (he could just as easily have cycled, or caught the train, Valerie Grove comments: "But walking out was the poetic route to the gypsy life…the romantic troubadour's way. Laurie Lee had unwittingly begun creating his legend.") Once settled in London, Laurie, who was already a competent artist and violinist, sent some of his poems to magazines and newspapers, the first of which was published in 'The Sunday Referee' - a national paper which also published some of Dylan Thomas's poems. Before long, however, Laurie was keen to be on the move and although he knew very little about Spain, he decided that that was where he wanted to be and off he went. Whilst busking with his violin through Spain, Laurie met poet, Roy Campbell, and his wife Mary (the eldest of the beautiful Garman sisters - one of whom, the married Lorna Wishart, would later have a significant impact on Laurie's life) and he also met the middle-aged and very well-connected Wilma Gregory, who later became Laurie's patroness.

Whilst Laurie was in Spain the Civil War broke out and, caught up in heavy shellfire, he suffered an epileptic fit - a disorder which, throughout his life, Laurie tried hard to conceal. Wilma persuaded Laurie to return to England with her, but once home Laurie wasn't able to settle and in 1937 (after meeting the "beautiful and fascinating" Lorna Wishart), he managed to find his way back into Spain with plans to join the International Brigade as a volunteer. Although Laurie's intention was to help the Republicans in their fight against Franco's Nationalist army, under the stress of the situation he suffered several more epileptic fits and, after only nine weeks in Spain, Laurie was sent home to England, which caused him lasting embarrassment and shame. However, back again in England, Laurie was now able to focus more on his writing and was also able to spend time with Lorna Wishart, with whom he fell deeply in love and who became his muse. After several years with the very alluring, but self-centred Lorna (who gave birth to their daughter, Yasmin) Lorna ended their liaison, leaving Laurie heartbroken and reluctant to ever again involve himself so wholeheartedly in a relationship. There is, of course, much more to this well-researched 500+ page biography than I have mentioned in this review, where the reader learns of Laurie Lee's love affairs (both before and after his marriage); his courtship of the lovely teenaged Kathy (niece of Lorna Wishart), who later became his much-younger wife - who selflessly devoted herself to Laurie and was remarkably tolerant of his infidelities, his difficult behaviour and his increasing reliance on alcohol; of Laurie's road to fame through his famous memoir 'Cider with Rosie'; of his friendship with Cecil Day-Lewis and Rosamond Lehmann; of his affair with Elizabeth Jane Howard, and a huge amount more.

Valerie Grove, who had the cooperation of Laurie Lee's widow and access to all of his papers, has produced an interesting and very readable account of her subject, and although sympathetic in her approach to a man she describes as effortlessly charming, Ms Grove does not shy away from revealing Laurie Lee's less admirable qualities or from discussing the veracity of his some of his autobiographical material. Interestingly, Laurie Lee was referred to by his brother, Jack, as "The most devious person it is possible to invent" and even after reading this well-researched biography, he still appears somewhat of an enigma, but one that I now know very much more about than I did before. Recommended.

4 Stars.


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