Laurie Lee: Author and Poet

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With the death, on 13 May, 1997, of Laurie Lee, English literature has lost a writer of extraordinary fluency and spontaneity, as well as a poet of great sensitivity and creativity. He was born and died in the Gloucestershire village of Slad, and although his books embraced themes of travel, as well as rural life and society, it must always be as a writer about the quintessential countryside of Gloucestershire that Laurie Lee has so distinctively earned and sustained his place in the English literature of the twentieth century. In that capacity, as a literary exponent of a very limited and specific area of England, his place in literature is surely on a par with that of Emily Bronte or Thomas Hardy.

Born on 26 June, 1914, he had a vagabond childhood, rarely far from the orphanage. His formal education was fitful and uncertain. He had no paternal guidance. He learnt most of his poetic sensitivity from encounters with fields and hedgerows. So were formed both his mind and his imagination. It was to be crucial for all his mature work, as both author and poet. He grew up to be extraordinarily responsive to immediate and first-hand experience; a 'child of nature', if ever there were one. He subsequently wrote: 'a day unremembered is like a soul unborn, worse than if it had never been.'

After a brief spell as an office boy in Stroud, at the age of 19 and in the year 1933, equipped with nothing more substantial than a violin, a blanket and a tin of biscuits, he set forth from Gloucestershire to seek his fortune in life. Typically, his knowledge then of even local geography was quite rudimentary: 'I thought Tewkesbury was in Poland.' He walked his way to London: via Salisbury and Southampton. It was at Southampton that he saw the sea for the first time. 'It was green, and heaved gently like the skin of a frog and carried drowsy ships like flies.'

London, understandably, at first frightened and repelled him; it was so big, populous, and urbanized. He complained that it 'smelt of rotting fish and vegetables.' He took simple lodgings in Putney, for the first time in his life having a room of his own. He worked first as a builder's labourer, pushing barrows of wet cement. That was his day job. At night, however, he worked at his poetry, winning a prize for some of it from the Sunday Referee.

Suddenly, using his last [pounds]4, he decided to visit Spain. Arriving at Vigo, on the Atlantic coast, he went right through Spain, from Galicia to Cadiz. He paid his way largely by playing his violin. Spain, in fact - with its rich and endemic 'passion for life' - effectively inspired the young and wandering Laurie Lee as no other location did, apart from Gloucestershire. Already, however, the threat from General Franco was looming, and at the utmost limits of his Spanish travels, Laurie Lee had to be snatched to safety by a British destroyer, which took him to Gibraltar. A few days later, he was back in England, and 'the deep peace' of Gloucestershire.

Unlike so many of the idealistic young men of his times, Laurie Lee had no particular political affiliations or objectives. But his Spanish travels had given him a deep love of the Spanish people. Such was entirely the motivation which, in the winter of 1937, induced him to return to Spain, as a volunteer of the 'International Brigade', 'walking into the country through the high passes of the Pyrenees.' He brought with him his books, violin and saucepan. Although he was once arrested as a spy by the Republicans, and he endured great hardships in the fierce winter of 1937-38, his inherent humanity was fostered and fortified by his experience of the Spanish Civil War: the theme, belatedly, of his eloquent and impressive book, entitled A Moment of War (1991). Written so many years later, this book was described by its author as like 'unpicking a scab.'

For Laurie Lee, this creel and internecine conflict in Spain was merged almost immediately into the Second World War, in which he served in the Ministry of Information, largely working on documentary films. …