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Laurie Lee (1914-1997)


English poet, memoirist, and novelist, best-known for his autobiographical trilogy Cider with Rosie (1959), As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning (1969), and A Moment of War (1991). The trilogy depicts Laurie  Lee's boyhood in the country, his journey to London to seek his fortune and see the world, and his experiences in the Spanish Civil War.

"But our waking life, and our growing years, were for the most part spent in the kitchen, and until we married, or ran away, it was the common room we shared. Here we lived and fed in a family fug, not minding the little space, trod on each other like birds in a hole, elbowed our ways without spite, all talking at once or silent at once, or crying against each other, but never I think feeling overcrowded, being as separate as notes in a scale." (in Cider with Rose by Laurie Lee)

Laurie Lee was born in Stroud, a small town in Gloucestershire. He moved with his family in 1917 to the village of Slad, where life had followed its traditional course for centuries. The families were large, they lived in overcrowded cottages; there were no modern conveniences and it was accepted as a normal pattern of life and death that many children died young. Lee's father, Reginald Joseph Lee, worked in London as a civil servant – his first wife had died and he had married Lee's mother, Annie Emily Light,  who took care of his two families and believed that one day he would return to her. Lee was educated at the village school and at Stroud Central School. When he was fifteen he left formal education, which was not for his taste, and earned his living an errand-boy. Lee also gave lectures on the violin.

In his teens Lee had already began to write poems. He had met two sisters who encouraged him in his writing aspirations. Both sisters were passionately involved with him. At the age of twenty Lee left for London. For a year he was employed as a builder's labourer. On on day in 1934 he set forth from Cotswold village of Slad to walk to Spain. He spent four years travelling in Spain and the eastern Mediterranean. During these years he met a woman who helped him financially and sent him to university to study art.

According to many biographical sources, Lee fought in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) in the Republican army against Franco's Nationalists. However, there have been controversial claims that Lee's involvement in the war was a fantasy. (see Valerie Grove's biography Laurie Lee: The Well-Loved Stranger, 1999) According to Dr Richard Baxell, Lee did join the International Brigades, but due to his epilepsy, he did not serve within the frontlines of the British Battalion. (InternationaL Brigade Memorial Trust, Issue eight / July 2004; see also British Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War: The British Battalion in the International Brigades 1936-1939 by Richard Baxell, 2007) On his return from Spain, Lee began to move in the literary circles of London. His friends included Cecil Day-Lewis; they both had an affair with the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard. "I only had one row with Laurie, when he kicked my cat out of his way, and took offence when I objected. Eventually I said sorry. Years later, I got a postcard of a Mathew Smith painting on the back of which he'd written, 'I still think of you with rapture." (Slipstream: A Memoir by Elizabeth Jane Howard, 2003, p. 281) He had a six-year affair with Lorna Garman Wishart, who left him for the painter Lucian Freud. Their daughter Yasmin, born in 1939, became also a painter. She has described her mother as "a dream for any creative artist because she got them going. She was a natural Muse, catalyst and an inspiration." (Laurie Lee: The Well-Loved Stranger by Valerie Grove, 1999, p. 181)

Before devoting himself entirely to writing in 1951, Lee worked as a journalist and as a scriptwriter. During World War II he made documentary films for the General Post Office film unit (1939-40), and the Crown Film Unit (1941-43), and then worked as an editor at the Ministry of Information Publications. From 1950 to 1951 he was caption-writer-in-chief for the Festival of Britain, for which service he was awarded the MBE. In 1950 Lee married Catherine Francesca Polge, the daughter of a Martigues fisherman; they had one daughter, Jesse Frances.

Lee's first poem appeared in Horizon in 1940, and his first collection, The Sun My Monument, was published in 1944. Lee's work show the influence of Federico García Lorca. Of his poem Lee said that they "were written by someone I once was and who is so distant to me now that I scarcely recognize him anymore." ('Note,' in Selected Poems by Laurie Lee, 2014) Several poems dating from the early 1940s reflect the atmosphere of the war, but also capture the beauty of the English countryside.

With A Rose for Winter (1955) Lee started his autobiographical production. It tells of Lee's trip to Spain 15 years after his first visit, finding a country ravaged by war, but where people enjoyed bullfights and he could earn his living by playing the violin.

"I was set down from the carrier's cart at the age of three; and there with a sense of bewilderment and terror my life in the village began. The June grass, amongst which I stood, was taller than I was, and I wept." So opens Lee's Cider with Rosie. The book focused with a series of sketches on the author's childhood in the Gloucestershire village Slad. Parts of the work were published earlier in the magazines Orion, Encounter, The Queen, The Cornhill, Leader Magazine, and The Geographical. The lyrical and sensuous work avoided social or political comments about the hardships of poverty, but presented a variety of memorable, temperamental figures, among them Lee's mother. Lee learns to play the violin, his sister Frances dies, and he has his first early, tentative sexual experiences at the age of 10-11 with Jo, and later with Rosie Burdock, with whom he drinks cider under a hay wagon, and is never the same again. Rosie's identity was kept secret for 25 years. She was in Rose Buckland, Lee's cousin by marriage.

In an interview the author later said that the book was not a novel and not an autobiography. "... it is not so much about me as about the world that I observed from my earliest years. It was a world that I wanted to record because it was such a miracle visitation to me. I wanted to communicate what I had seen, so that others could see it." (Laurie Lee in The New York Times, February 24, 1985) The memoir, which has sold more than six million copies, was published by Chatto & Windus. According to Diana Athill, "Laurie must already have been dabbling in the manipulative games with publishers that he was to play with increasing zest in the future..." (Stet: An Editor's Life by Diana Athill, 2002, p. 68) With the success of Cider with Rosie, Lee was able to buy his childhood home in Slad, where he settled permanently.

As I Walked out One Midsummer Morning narrates Lee's first trip to Civil War Spain in 1936 and his walk across the country from Vigo to Granada. In Castillo he works in a hotel, but when the city is taken by Franco's troops, he returns to England, only to realize that the war is not over. Two Women  (1983) was a story of Lee's courtship of his wife Cathy, and the birth and growth of their daughter Jessy. A Moment of War told of a young man's walk over the Pyrenees into Spain to fight in the International Brigades in 1937.  It has been questioned, whether he ever fought on the Republican side, but a document in the British Library proves this. Before joining the colorful company of volunteers from Russia, France, the United States, England, and other countries, he was arrested as a spy and imprisoned for some time.

"Prose and poetry remain my twin obsessions; I find they are equal in their demands. I hope neither one or the other will recede from me. There is nothing else I wish to do." (Laurie Lee in an autobiographical piece, in World Authors 1950-1970, edited by John Wakeman, 1975, p. 849)

Although Lee used a  Corona travel typewriter for his work, he had the habit of scribbling with his 4B pencils on the back of old BBC scripts. Besides fiction and autobiographical accounts, Lee also wrote travel books, essays, scripts and plays. Ralph Keene's documentary film  Journey into Spring, for which he made the script, was nominated for two Hollywood Academy Awards in 1957. "Many sloppy bits in the writing I must say," he commented after seeing the finished film. (The Life and Loves of Laurie Lee by Valerie Grove, 2014, p. 161) Lee received several awards, including the Atlantic Award (1944), Society of Authors travelling award (1951), M.B.E. (Member, Order of the British Empire), William Foyle Poetry Prize (1956), W.H. Smith and Son Award (1960). Laurie Lee died on May 14, 1997, at home in Slad, Gloucestershire. He was buried in the village churchyard.

For further information: Laurie Lee, 1914-1997: a Bibliography, compiled and introduced by Stephen Oliver-Jones (2018); A Thousand Laurie Lees: the Centenary Celebration of a Man and a Valley by Adam Horovitz; with illustrations by Jo Sanders and photographs by Dan Brown (2014); Laurie Lee Country, photographed by Paul Barker,  commentary by James Birdsall (2001); Cider With Laurie: Laurie Lee Remembered by Barbara Hooper (2000); Laurie Lee: The Well-Loved Stranger by Valerie Grove (1999); 'Laurie Lee,' in The Reader's Companion to Twentieth Century Writers, ed. by Peter Parker (1995); Cider with Rosie, Laurie Lee by Jon Andrews and Timothy Clark (1991); Brodie's Notes on Laurie Lee's Cider with Rosie by Kenneth Hardacre (1986); 'Lee, Laurie,' in World Authors 1950-1970, edited by John Wakeman (1975) - Note: Rosie's identity from the novel Cider with Rosie was kept secret for 25 years. She was in Rose Buckland, Lee's cousin by marriage.

Selected works:

  • The Dead Village / Avigdor Dagan, 1943 (translator)
  • The Sun My Monument, 1944
  • Land at War, 1945
  • Cyprus Is an Island, 1946 (screenplay; dir. Ralph Keene, prod. by Greenpark Productions)
  • The Bloom of Candles: Verse from a Poet's Year, 1947
  • A Tale in a Teacup, 1947 (screenplay)
  • We Made a Film in Cyprus, 1947 (with Ralph Keene; illus. with photos, by Ralph Keene and stills from the film)
  • Peasants' Priest, 1948 (play)
  • The Voyage of Magellan: A Dramatic Chronicle for Radio , 1948 (with drawings by Edward Burra; radio play in 1946)
  • An Obstinate Exile , 1951
  • New Poems 1954, 1954 (ed., with C. Hassall, R. Warner)
  • A Rose for Winter: Travels in Andalusia, 1955
  • My Many-Coated Man, 1955
  • Cider with Rosie, 1959 (with drawings by John Ward; US title: The Edge of Day, 1960)
    - Siideriä Rosen kanssa (suom. Markku Lahtela, 1978)
    - TV film in 1971 (one of the BBC's first all-film dramas), dir. by Claude Whatman, starring Rosemary Leach, Stephen Grendon, Philip Hawkes, Peter Chandler; TV film 1998 (UK), dir. by Charles Beeson, starring Juliet Stevenson, Joe Roberts, Dashiell Reece, David Troughton
  • Poems, 1960
  • Laurie Lee Reading His Own Poems, 1960 (recording, with Christopher Logue)
  • Man Must Move: The Story of Transport, 1960, (with D. Lambert; US title: The Wonderful World of Transportation, 1960)
  • The Firstborn, 1964
  • As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, 1969 (drawings by Leonard Rosoman)
    - Niin minä läksin maailmalle keskikesän aamulla (suom. Kersti Juva, 1982)
  • Pergamon Poets 10, 1970 (with C. Causley. ed. by E. Owen)
  • I Can't Stay Long, 1976 (decorations by Susan Campbell, frontispiece by William Thomson)
  • Innocence in the Mirror, 1978
  • Two Women: A Book of Words and Pictures , 1983
  • Selected Poems, 1983
  • A Laurie Lee Selection, 1984 (photographs include some from Laurie Lee’s family album, edited by Chris Buckton)
  • A Moment of War: A Memoir of the Spanish Civil War, 1991
  • Three Plays, 2003 (contains Peasant’s Priest, Black Saturday, Red Sunday and I Call Me Adam; introduced by Jane Mack)
  • Selected Poems, 2014
  • The Laurie Lee Folio, 2014 (by Jessy Lee)
  • Village Christmas: And Other Notes on the English Year, 2016

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