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Exclusive interview with Jessy Lee

PUBLISHED: 12:51 21 February 2013 | UPDATED: 22:18 26 February 2013

Exclusive interview with Jessy Lee

Exclusive interview with Jessy Lee

Jessy Lee, daughter of writer and poet Laurie Lee, talks to Katie Jarvis about her love for Slad, her father's legacy, and why she's selling the woods he bought more than 40 years ago

She was born in the autumn and was a late fall in my life, and lay purple and dented like a little bruised plum, as though she'd been lightly trodden inthe grass and forgotten.
Laurie Lee, The Firstborn

Jessy Lee, daughter of writer and poet Laurie Lee, talks to Katie Jarvis about her love for Slad, her fathers legacy, and why shes selling the woods he bought more than 40 years ago.

Its one of her earliest memories: being lifted, semi-conscious and sleep-warmed from bed, and waking to the earthy smell of grass, the background buzz of insects, the blue of a promising sky and the rays of an early sun. Swifts Hill, Jessy Lee reminisces. One of my favourite places in the world. Laurie and mum would pack a bag of scrambled egg, and coffee in a thermos, and wed go up to Swifts Hill. I remember as a very tiny child waking up on the top of the hill in the morning sunlight. She laughs: It sounds rather idealistic, but it really was lovely.

If we were to look out of the windows now, we would see the green slopes rising around the cottage in which were sitting, deep in the Slad Valley. Swifts Hill is one of them: ancient grassland, untouched by the plough, unmenaced by bulldozers or diggers. The only homes here belong to snails, adders, small mammals, bugs and beetles; the splashes of colour are provided neither by Dulux nor Farrow & Ball only imitated by them in an attempt to replicate Slads summer spread of creamy lilac scabious, violet-blue harebells and buttery cowslips between which dances the small blue butterfly.

Its a scene that crosses the decades, back to her father, Laurie Lees, much-loved classic, Cider with Rosie. In tumbling words of poetic prose, he painted a picture of arriving in this very valley in 1917, aged just three. He described standing bewildered in the tall June grass: knife-edged, dark, and a wicked green, thick as a forest and alive with grasshoppers that chirped and chattered and leapt through the air like monkeys; a small boy, wide-eyed in the midst of a Cotswold wilderness.

************

I never met Laurie Lee sadly but I like his daughter tremendously. Shes vivacious, with a ready laugh, full of honesty and vitality; brimming with life. It hasnt always been the easiest of lives people born to legacies such as Jessys never have easy paths to follow. But not everyone confronts their battles in the way that Jessy Lee has done.

Where to start?

Well, for one thing, there are the woods: Tranters Hill woods, which abut the Swifts Hill nature reserve that Jessy loves so much. Her father bought them in the late 60s, determined to save them from developers. And like so much of his life, theyve brought his daughter both pleasure and pain.

Laurie often had very grand ideas but this was a particularly good one because, at the time, there were a lot of questions around the developers being able to put buildings pretty much where they wanted, Jessy says. He didnt want the woods built on but neither did he want people chopping down trees which, in Lauries mind, would have wrecked the view from Slad.

Over the years, wed speak to John Workman [late owner of the Ebworth Estate and a forestry advisor to the National Trust], who told us it was a wild wood and that the best thing we could do was to leave it to look after itself. I was all for people foraging, though; I didnt mind that at all.

The problem was that, in the last few years, people did a lot more than forage. It became clear that someone was hacking their way through Tranters Hill with a chainsaw, uncaring about damage to plants or wildlife. Jessy doesnt want to dwell too much on what happened next. Suffice to say, Its a terrible shame because youd love to be able to give out wood to people who are really in need to heat their houses, but this wasnt the case. The gossip was that this person was selling our wood.

She pauses. And the hurt is clear. Ive grown up here Ive been here all my life and its my home. And the fact that somebody, right under my nose, was prepared to do something like this had a profound effect on me and my mother. Then the customary humour resurfaces. I dread to think what would have happened if Laurie had come face to face with the perpetrator, as I did, she half-grins.

Nevertheless, the worry was keeping her awake at night. It was in the small hours that I suddenly thought of asking the advice of Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust. I rang them at 8am the next morning!

The trust - a charity - is a much-respected manager of important natural sites, including Swifts Hill. Much as shed have liked to, Jessy wasnt in a position to donate the woods - they belong not to her personally, but to the Laurie Lee estate: But I did make a plea to be able to sell them for the minimum. And the wildlife trust were fantastic; theyre raising the money to buy them, as well as extra to put into place a five-year plan to keep the woods managed. Indeed: these ancient eight acres contain some stunning flora and fauna, including the wild orchid white helleborine, bluebells, and rare trees; the trust has launched a 35,000 appeal to secure them.

A weight lifted from her shoulders?

Yes, it is. And it renewed my passion and interest in the area again. I imagine well probably end up volunteering Ill be spending more time in the woods than I did before! Theyre in good hands, and Laurie would have been absolutely delighted knowing that their future is secured in this way.

And proud of the way his daughter has dealt with such a sensitive issue?

I dont know about that, she says.

But, yes, proud; and possibly watching over her still. It might be fanciful (and why not? Laurie had a soft spot for things fanciful) but it does seem as if somebody is busy pulling disparate strands together. And with consummate timing.

Next year marks the centenary of Lauries birth; the birth of an extraordinary man. Born in Stroud at the beginning of the Great War, he moved fatherless to Slad with his mother, his brothers and protective half-sisters, who scooped him up and swaddled him with love. His semi-autobiographical, hauntingly lyrical Cider with Rosie tells the story of those years, alongside the story of a rural England about to be squashed and remoulded by the grip of war. A pupil at the relatively humble Slad village school, followed by Marling in Stroud, it was Lauries own fertile mind not an expensive or expansive education - that offered up the descriptions which have captivated readers all over the world.

That the centenary of that terrible war and of Lauries own birth should dovetail is curiously fitting. Death and devotion. Torture and beauty. Dark and light.

Laurie wasnt just a pastoral writer, his daughter gently points out. Cider with Rosie was a deeper and darker book than some people perhaps understand. He himself was sometimes a very tormented and deep person; a personality made up of so many aspects.

His complexity is something Jessy has always been aware of; but its a side of him shes been able to explore more fully recently, strangely enough. It started when she and her mum, Cathy, came across a suitcase tucked under a bed. It was covered in dust. Mum and I stumbled over it when we were tidying up.

In fact, it was a treasure-trove: perhaps a hundred previously-unknown drawings by Laurie, some dating back to his days at the village school. ("They said: `You're Laurie Lee, aren't you? Well just you sit there for the present.' I sat there all day but I never got it. I ain't going back there again," he wrote of his first days education.) There are wonderful maps and tracings, a warrior, and various cartoons from his school art, Jessy says. Luckily, he was such a hoarder: he kept most of his things. Then, of course, theres the work he did at Reading [where he studied art for a time]; he was obviously influenced by Mir and Picasso, which will become clear when these are exhibited or printed. But theyve all got Lauries stamp on them. His line is really astonishing.

Id always thought Laurie was so measured and very sensitive about how he appeared in the world, but his younger self comes across as much more spontaneous. I think we see so much more of Laurie, the man, by looking at his artwork.

Interestingly, this artwork, (which is mainly being kept under wraps until next year), has allowed her to look at him with new eyes, both as a man and as a father. I intersperse Laurie with dad in order to keep a certain distance and be professional when I need to. But I always called him dad, she explains.

And it allows her to see him in a third way, too: as the highly skilled psychotherapist that she is.

I think he would have worried about me being a psychotherapist because he was so private. And, of course, the psychotherapist is a detective. The work is about investigating what it is that makes people tick and why people suffer.

So much of Laurie was private and hidden from the world and from me. He tried to protect me all my life as best he could, and protect me from himself as well. But this [the art] was a side of him I could immediately relate to.

**************

The legacy of a famous parent is always a double-edged sword; no one needs a psychologist to tell them that. For Jessy, I can imagine its been harder than for many, though she wouldnt say as much. An only child, that legacy was on her mothers side too, packed, as it is, with members of the Bloomsbury set. Thats a whole other story, Jessy laughs.

But it has been tricky, she understates. I embarked on my training [as a psychotherapist] in 1998, the year after Laurie died, because I found myself in therapy and discovered the value of it. Im sure thats true of most people who train as therapists.

I did feel that Id been left with this extraordinary legacy, and my mother and I felt rather alone with it. Inevitably, theres a Laurie Lee estate: I felt very overwhelmed and wondered how I would cope. Psychotherapy was the way forward for me to try and make sense of my background; to understand the world differently.

So when did she first become conscious of who she was?

I think very young - when I was about seven or so - because I used to go to two schools at once. Not the most stable of upbringings. Id be at Painswick School half the year and Park Walk School [in Chelsea] the other. I never really knew where I was from.

If she was already two people the sophisticated Bloomsbury girl on one side and the country girl who wakes up on Swifts Hill the other - then this existence further separated the two.

I didnt know my place in the world and it really came to a head when Laurie died. It was through psychotherapy that I began to integrate these two aspects, difficult as it was. Its 15 years on and Im still working at it, but Im now nearly 50 and I can see how I can take value from both parts of this existence.

It also means I can have a different relationship with Laurie. It gives me control where I never had it before. The distance has given me more humour and I can recall him in whatever way I like.

So what was he like as a person; a father?

I dont know if I want to say anything about that, she says, with a wry smile. Though this will come out at some point. It was very difficult, being his daughter, and he did suffer with his epilepsy.

His moods could be extreme and, of course, he liked a drink or two, so I never knew how he was going to be from one minute to the next. When youre younger, you tend to think, What have I done to provoke this?

She pauses. I want to think carefully about what I say but I dont want to have to hide from it, either.

I did some interesting work on only children, as a therapist. People talk about sibling rivalry but very little has been done about the only child, except to say they tend to grow up much more quickly because they often have to be the mediator between both parents. I often felt like I was looking after both parents.

Which must be an irony, considering shes had to look after Lauries estate since he died?

Yes. But Laurie didnt want me to grow up, either. He wanted to keep me where he could control me. I think theres no secret there.

Theres such a dignity in the way she talks about these issues that I dont want to push her into saying anything shell regret. I can see the courage and sheer hard work its taken to get to this point. And I admire her for it.

I was so overwhelmed by being out of control of my world, she says, finally. But Ive learned to take back my control; and that has enabled me to have this passion, now, for bringing Laurie back for his centenary - and for ever.

I just feel so grateful that Ive been able to embrace it.

Shes excited at all thats planned for next year. Theres a new hardback edition of Cider with Rosie on the cards, and another film. The local community will be staging events, as well as commissioning a Laurie Lee mural for Stroud. And Jessy is hoping to focus attention on her fathers poetry, which, she rightly feels, is under-appreciated.

Apart from celebrating Laurie, she also hopes the centenary will help protect the area from the ever-encroaching threat of developers, many of whom seem immune to the heritage theyre intent on exploiting. I think that Government minister whose name Ive deliberately forgotten was thoughtless and unintelligent to say that new buildings could be more beautiful than landscape. Such an affectation! Have you ever seen a Barratt house thats beautiful, because I havent!

My hopes are that Laurie and his work can give us a platform on which to fight for our countryside.

So would Laurie welcome his centenary?

She smiles. I think hed rather like it. Id love to be able to talk to him about it all; to say, Listen, dad; Im doing this and Im doing that. I just wish he was still here.

For more information on the work of Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust and its plans for Tranters Hill, visit www.gloucestershirewildlifetrust.co.uk

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