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The Perils of Biography

Way back, a long time ago, at high school we had to study a play by Bertold Brecht; Life of Galileo I think it was. There was line along the lines of “Poor is the country without heroes; poorer still the country that needs them.” That's a bit cynical but it one of the few things from English class that I remember. It seems that not only are heroes not a great idea but it doesn't exactly pay to take too close a look at them. I don't have many heroes, but I do have some people I admire. A writer I always had a lot of time for was Laurie Lee. His account of his walk across Spain in the mid-1930s “As I walked Out One Midsummer Morning” was long one of my favourite books. I also got a kick out of his collection of essays “I Can't Stay Long”. So when I saw the biography of him by Valerie Grove for the bargain price of $2.99, I made the mistake of buying it. I was particularly interested in what she had to say about his time with the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War. His account of shooting a fascist soldier just never rang true to me. I also wanted to know what Ms Groves had to say about suggestions that Lee hadn't, as he claimed, walked all the way across Spain, north to south in the 1930s. One of the favourite Lee essays is called First Born. It's about his hopes for his new born daughter.  It always struck me as eminently sensible. The problem, as Grove reveals, is that the baby in question was not his first born. He'd had a daughter by a married woman about 20 years before and had little, if any contact, with her. In fact, his real first born had to track him down to a bar where it sounds as though he tried to chat her up when she first approached him. So, “First Born” is a lie. I can never read, or enjoy, that beautiful essay in the same way again. It's not that I condemn, or indeed pass any moral judgement on, the fact that he already had a teenage daughter; it's the lie that bothers me.  I was also appalled to learn that he forced his young wife, and the mother of his supposed “first born” to change the spelling of her Christian name. Can a man who bullies his wife like that really mean everything he says he wants for his newborn baby daughter? She changed the spelling back to the original after he died. The light of truth can be unforgiving when it shines into the dark crevices of our lives. I sometimes think of The Truth as a light so bright and harsh that, like the sun, we should never look never look directly at it. But like the Sun, we cannot live without Truth. It's a strange old world, ain't it?

 

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