Through My Window
Radio 4 Extra
An archive recording of Laurie Lee casually considering the view from his study across his hallowed Gloucestershire valley of Slad (21 June, 7.20am), said more about the working of the writer’s mind than the full week of readings from As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, also programmed to mark the centenary of Lee’s birth.
Recorded in 1981 (Lee was 67) the nine-minute, unscripted monologue began with Lee’s delicately West Country-accented voice sounding supremely relaxed – here was someone used to being considered interesting, even when talking in an off-the-cuff, minor way (Lee had years of practice in cheap, postwar restaurants around the BBC, and later at the Chelsea Arts Club). “The view dominates my comfort,” Lee insisted, gazing out of his window, “it’s like looking at the sea; as far as I’m concerned it’s never the same.” When Lee described the “voluptuous claustrophobia” of living in a green valley as one might “inside a bean pod”, all his lush-pretty observations were nicely undercut with his slightly laboured, pipe-smoker’s breathing.
After a while, now and again his voice altered entirely, becoming far more self-consciously expressive and dulcet. This shift always came about when he was casting himself in the light of his own personal legend: the corn-haired country teenager who in 1934 took his violin and walked to London (he could just have easily jumped on a bus). “I was in exile for 20 years,” mused Lee, in this new, liquid voice, “I was wandering the world.” It was fascinating to hear Lee enchanting himself like this.
Back and forth he went between these two distinct vocal melodies, one moment a prose writer simply giving information, the next a prose writer talking like an actor playing a poet. “Who are the wild men living there?” he asked at one point, firmly in enchanted mode, nodding towards the direction of Wales. “As a child I’d see distant plumes of smoke and hear terrible tales . . .” Did those living in the Cotswold hills really fear the Welsh in the 1920s, or was Lee rapturously, romantically muddling his centuries? Does it matter? On radio, these shifts in tone had the quality of a kind of slow motion – waves of strange resonance expanding.