I’ve been reading a new book with Laurie Lee’s name on the cover. Down in the Valley: A Writer’s Landscape is, according to the press release that came with it from Penguin, “A never-before-published collection of essays featuring lyrical, moving memories of Lee’s beloved Cotswold home”. That’s not entirely true. The jacket notes say that it’s “a writer’s tribute to the landscape that shaped him”. That is true, sort of. The chapters of this 101-page book aren’t essays, and Lee didn’t write them.
As an afterword makes clear, the book is a transcription of recordings made in 1994 by David Parker, who was making a film about Lee, then in his 80th year, in and around his home village of Slad in the Cotswolds. Hence the regularity of passages opening with directions — “This lane next to us…”, “Up there…”, and “This is the grave of my old chum…” — as Lee sets the scene.
The text is poorly edited and oddly punctuated. If you’re expecting the rhythmical prose you enjoyed in Cider with Rosie and the books on Spain, you’ll be disappointed. There are passages here, surely, that Lee — who died in 1997 — would have groaned over:
“And this is one of the reasons, apart from its splendour, its beauty, in season and out, it’s one of the reasons that I feel I’ve inherited, just by being here, inherited this ancient, pre-Roman and pre-Iron Age, almost pre-Stone Age civilization. And I do my best to carry it on, with all its ravages and contentments; which are many.”
You do learn a bit more about the Slad Valley and how it shaped him and why it pulled him back, and there’s the odd good joke:
“I was sitting outside the pub recently and two girls came up to me. They were part of a school group, it was about five to eleven. They were doing ‘O’ levels and they said to me, ‘Excuse me sir, can you tell me where Laurie Lee’s buried?’ A certain shiver of mortality ran through me and I said, ‘He’s in the public bar, otherwise he’d be up in the woods.’”
Still, this is far from vintage Lee, and it’s bizarre that it’s appearing with “Penguin Classics” on the front. There’s an audio version, I see, which according to a page on the Audible website is narrated by David Sibley but has “original audio interviews with the author, Laurie Lee”. Maybe that’s the best way to approach Down in the Valley.