Laurie Lee

Laurie Lee

Infobox Writer
name = Laurie Lee

caption =
birthdate = June 26, 1914
birthplace = Stroud, Gloucestershire, England
deathdate = May 13, 1997 (aged 82)
deathplace = Slad, Gloucestershire, England
occupation = Author, screenwriter, poet

Laurence Edward Alan "Laurie" Lee, MBE (June 26 1914May 13, 1997) was an English poet, novelist, and screenwriter, raised in the village of Slad, Gloucestershire. His most famous work was an autobiographical trilogy which consisted of "Cider with Rosie" (1959), "As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning" (1969) and "A Moment of War" (1991). While the first volume famously recounts his childhood in the idyllic Slad Valley, the second deals with his leaving home for London and his first visit to Spain in 1934, and the third with his return in December 1937 to join the Republican International Brigade.

Early years

Lee was born on 26 June 1914 at 2 Glenview Terrace, Slad Road, Uplands, Stroud, the third of the four children of Reginald Joseph Lee, a civil servant, and his second wife, Annie Emily (1879–1950), daughter of John Light of Quedgeley, near Gloucester, and his wife, Emma. Reg Lee's first wife, Catherine Critchley, died giving birth to twins, who died six weeks later, leaving him with five children aged between two and nine. Annie Light answered his advertisement for a housekeeper, married him on 11 May 1911. Laurie's father was the manager of the Co-op grocery store in Stroud, served in the Army Pay Corps at Greenwich during the First World War, then joined the civil service and remained in London for the rest of his life, leaving his wife to bring up her children and stepchildren alone. 'I, for one, scarcely missed him' his son later admitted. Although he did not visit them, he sent Annie money for their upkeep.

In June 1917 Annie Lee and the seven younger children moved from Stroud to the small village of Slad, a mile and a half away, where they rented a cheaper cottage 'with rooks in the chimney, frogs in the cellar, mushrooms on the ceiling, and all for three and sixpence a week'. 'My life began on the carrier's cart which brought me up from the long slow hills to the village', Lee wrote in the opening passages of his most famous book, the memoir of his childhood, "Cider with Rosie" (1959), '… then, I feel, was I born'. Between the ages of four and twelve he attended the village school, where he claimed he was 'a natural Infant, content to serve out my time'. Nevertheless, he showed early talent, winning a medal for an essay on dabchicks in a national competition organized by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. By the time he was nine, his family discovered that he was already secretly writing 'very clever and amusing' stories which revealed 'a very strong imagination'.

Life in the cottage was hand-to-mouth, cramped, and chaotic, but Lee was 'perfectly content in this world of women'. His three 'generous, indulgent, warm-blooded, and dotty' half-sisters were 'the good fortune of our lives'. His mother, despite being deserted, debt-ridden, flurried, bewildered, possessed an indestructible gaiety and was a lover of beauty and of books and of solitude'. She introduced Lee to poetry, encouraged him to draw and read, and paid 6d. an hour out of her husband's weekly remittance of £1 for him to have violin lessons. A 'loving and dreamy' boy, he suffered long bouts of debilitating illness throughout his childhood. Frequent attacks of pneumonia and bronchitis left him with permanently weakened lungs — which he graphically describes in the 'Sick Boy' chapter of "Cider with Rosie" — and, after suffering concussion when he was knocked down by a bicycle — he also developed epilepsy.

In 1925 Lee transferred to the Central Boys' School, Stroud, where he developed 'a passion for out-of-school reading' which led to 'indiscriminate gorging' throughout his teens. He graduated from reading thrillers and westerns at Woolworth's book store to Stroud Public Library, where he worked his way through the modern poets and discovered the prose works of Joyce, Huxley and Lawrence. After leaving school two weeks before his sixteenth birthday he joined Messrs Randall and Payne, chartered accountants, of Stroud, as an office junior and took out a subscription from a travelling salesman for 'my own library at a shilling a week'. When the vicar discovered him reading "Sons and Lovers", he confiscated, and burnt it.

As he describes in "As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning", early in the summer of 1934 Lee resigned and, carrying only a small tent, his violin wrapped in a blanket, a change of clothes, a tin of treacle biscuits, and some cheese, he set out to walk to London. Taking a circuitous route so that he could see 'the real sea' (p. 229) for the first time, he busked his way along the south coast, sometimes earning as much in an hour as a farm labourer in a week. In London he took lodgings in Putney, worked as a builder's labourer during the day, and spent his evenings in Soho cafés opening 'the "Heraldo de Madrid", which I couldn't read, and order [ing] Turkish coffee, which I couldn't drink'. He was also enjoying a string of romantic liaisons and 'scribbling poetry'. His poems had already appeared in the "Gloucester Citizen" and the "Birmingham Post", but in October 1934 he won a poetry competition with 'Life', which was published in a national newspaper, the "Sunday Referee".

Spain and civil war (1935–38)

When his building job ended, Lee decided to go to Spain on what he said was little more than a whim (a former girlfriend having taught him one phrase in Spanish). In July 1935 he sailed to Vigo, then walked and made his way to the south coast, passing through Valladolid, Madrid, Toledo, Valdepeñas, Cordova, and Seville. He recognized characters from his own village in the peasants of Galicia and Andalucia; though they led 'hard and semi-starved lives', they welcomed him with almost medieval courtesy and hospitality. 'The violin was a passport of friendship wherever I went', he later reminisced: 'Here was I, a young boy, golden haired and beautiful, appearing from nowhere and bringing music which meant happiness … I couldn't go wrong' (Grove, 57).

Lee spent the winter in Almunecar, a village 60 miles east of Malaga, working as a violinist and odd job man at the Hotel Mediterraneo. There he became the protégé of another temporary resident, Wilma Gregory (1886–1963), a 49-year-old Englishwoman with important left-wing and literary connections. 'I found him living as a vagrant, quite penniless & practically uneducated, with these really remarkable gifts for poetry, & art & music' (Grove, 69). In the preliminary skirmishes of the Spanish Civil War, Almunecar was accidentally bombarded by friendly fire, and when HMS Blanche arrived to evacuate British citizens on 1 August 1936 Lee returned to England with Gregory.

"As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning" refers only to Gregory as "the English writer", and makes no mention of the year he spent living with her as her 'nephew' at Padworth, near Reading, during which she supported him financially and enrolled him as a half-time student in the art department of the University of Reading. In September 1937 she took him to Montpellier, France, intending that he should study at the École des Beaux Arts, but Lee was anxious to return to Spain to join the International Brigades. On 5 December 1937 Lee crossed the Pyrenees in a snowstorm and, with the assistance of Republican sympathizers, re-entered Spain.

There has been some confusion about exactly how long he stayed there and what part he played in the civil war, but he was actively involved and, with other veterans who had fought in the war, was granted Spanish citizenship in 1995. The debate centres on "A Moment of War" (1991), his memoir of this period.

Lee's situation was further complicated by the fact that in August 1937, aged twenty-three, he had fallen passionately in love with a woman he met whilst playing his violin on a Cornish beach. Lorna Wishart ("née" Garman 1911–2000), who was three years his senior and married with two young children, was to become both his muse and his nemesis. She was also, according to Lee, 'rich and demandingly beautiful, extravagantly generous with her emotions but fanatically jealous'; even his former girlfriends found her 'staggeringly beautiful and most unconventional' (Lee, "As I Walked Out", p. 398). They had become lovers almost immediately, and it was because of this 'entanglement' ("As I Walked Out", p. 398), as well as his own altruistic motives, that Lee had decided to return to Spain.


Wishart was waiting for Lee in London when he came back from Spain. They lived together until May 1939, when Wishart returned to her husband, who had undertaken to bring up her daughter by Lee, Jasmine (Yasmin) Margaret (b. 14 March 1939), as his own. Lee's epilepsy again prevented him being drafted for active service during the Second World War, but he worked as a sound technician for the General Post Office film unit (1939–40), then as a scriptwriter with the Crown Film Unit (1941–3) and the Ministry of Information publications division (1944–6).

Poetry and travel books:
Laurie Lee gained recognition as a poet: from 1941 his poems were published in "Horizon" and "Penguin New Writing" and broadcast, read by himself, on the BBC. In 1942 he was photographed looking like 'a rugged and Olympian roué' (Grove, p.151) on Bognor beach by Bill Brandt for a series entitled 'Poets of democracy' in "Lilliput" magazine. His circle of literary friends now included Stephen Spender, Cyril Connolly, Cecil Day-Lewis, and John and Rosamond Lehmann, all of whom encouraged him to become a professional writer.

The day after his thirtieth birthday, Lee's first volume of poetry, "The Sun My Monument" (Hogarth Press, 1944), was published. It was dedicated to Wishart, but their affair was coming to an end as she had formed a relationship with Lucian Freud; however, Lee wore her signet ring until he died. He remained irresistible to women. He was extraordinarily good-looking—5 feet 10 inches tall, slim, with 'a golden blond, vulnerable, idealistic face'—and possessed great charm, 'the ultimate weapon, the supreme seduction … If you've got it, you need almost nothing else, neither money, looks, nor pedigree' ("I Can't Stay Long", p.67) . Children (and adults) were quickly won over by his sense of fun, his love of witty puns, and his ability to perform magic tricks, including fire-eating. Very few, even among his intimate friends, were aware of his constant struggle against illness and depression: 'I'm a melancholic man who likes to be thought merry' (Grove, p.401).

Lee's output was prolific during these years: for the Ministry of Information he produced scripts for "Land at War" (1945), "Cyprus is an Island" (1945), and a propaganda film promoting the idea of national parks (1946); articles on his Slad childhood and his experiences in Spain for "Orion" and the BBC (1946–7); his first, highly acclaimed blank-verse play, "The Voyage of Magellan", broadcast in 1946, and a second, "Peasants' Priest" (1947), performed at the Canterbury festival. He published a second volume of poetry, "The Bloom of Candles" (1947), but remarked that now 'Poems come out from time to time like rare and sickly orchids' (Grove, p.224). He was to publish only one further volume of new poetry, "My Many-Coated Man" (1955), turning instead to journalism and, over the next three decades, writing evocative accounts of his travels in Europe, South America, India, and the East.

On 17 May 1950, aged thirty-five, Lee married eighteen-year-old Katherine Polge (b. 1931), niece of Lorna Wishart and, by marriage, of the poet Roy Campbell and the sculptor Jacob Epstein. He had met Kathy for the first time in Martigues, Provence when she was five and again in England at the end of the war. When they married Lee had just acquired his last salaried post, as chief caption-writer and creator of the eccentrics corner of the Lion and Unicorn pavilion for the Festival of Britain, for which he was appointed MBE in 1952. He and Kathy spent winter 1951–2 in Spain, a visit which resulted in "A Rose for Winter" (1955), but Lee could not shake off the ill health which dogged him. On his return to England he had a lung removed and thereafter referred to himself as 'Wun Lung Lee, the famous Chinese poet' (Grove, p.267); while convalescing he wrote his first account of crossing the Pyrenees in 1937 for a BBC schools programme.

"Cider With Rosie"
In 1957 the Hogarth Press offered Lee £500 'to give up all other work and get on with' "Cider with Rosie", which had been commissioned ten years earlier (Grove, p. 289). The book was published to laudatory reviews in 1959, won the W. H. Smith award, and sold six million copies. Its success enabled Lee to buy Rose Cottage, Slad, 'in the heart of the village, six stumbling paces from the pub' though he never gave up his garret in Chelsea, which was the hub of his social life.

On 30 September 1963 Lee's second daughter Jesse Frances (Jessy) was born; on the same day Laurie also became a grandfather when Yasmin, his daughter by Wishart, gave birth to Esther. He celebrated the birth of Jessy, 'the particular late wonder of my life' ("I Can't Stay Long", p.77), in a lyrical book, "The Firstborn" (1964), illustrated with his own photographs of mother and child.

"As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning (1969)"
The second in Lee's autobiographical trilogy, was published ten years after "Cider with Rosie". Disastrously for him, since his diaries were the basis of his work, his irreplaceable volumes for 1935–7 were stolen while he was in Spain with the BBC in 1969. Their loss made the writing of his last book, "A Moment of War", more difficult. 'I was in despair', he wrote twenty years later. 'And the anxiety hasn't lessened. I feel myself imprisoned in the need to complete the trilogy' (Grove, p.390). Ironically, the book was ultimately sharper and more moving because it was less reliant on detail.

Later years

Music remained a solace throughout Lee's life; he was not only a skilled performer on violin and classical guitar, but also an extremely knowledgeable musicologist, with a particular love of classical music and jazz. He published anthologies of his journalism ("I Can't Stay Long", 1975) and poetry ("Selected Poems", 1983), and a tribute in prose to his wife and daughter, "Two Women" (1983), with his own remarkable photographs, but continued to work slowly and secretly on "A Moment of War". 'In the last year I was only able to write a page a week, I couldn't dictate it; it was much too private and too painful … and in any case that is not my way of writing' (Grove, p.479). By the time it was completed he was almost blind. "A Moment of War" was published to excellent reviews in 1991. A year later it was republished with "Cider with Rosie" and "As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning" as "Red Sky at Sunrise" and became a best-seller.

Lee himself had reached what he called the stage of 'immaculate degeneration' (Grove, p.502) and was usually to be found in 'his' corner of the Chelsea Arts Club or The Woolpack at Slad. He died of bowel cancer at his home, Littlecourt, in Slad on 13 May 1997 and was buried on 20 May, as he requested, in the lower graveyard at Holy Trinity Church, Slad, 'between the pub and the church' (ibid., p.510). His chosen epitaph was engraved on his tombstone: 'He lies in the valley he loved.' Lee was survived by his wife.


Though he preferred to think of himself as a poet, Lee's greatest contribution to English literature was his autobiographical trilogy. 'I belonged to that generation which saw, by chance, the end of a thousand years' life', he wrote of his Cotswold childhood ("Cider with Rosie", p. 200). It was chance, too, that took him to Spain on the eve, and in the midst, of civil war. Writing in retrospect and with a poet's eye for lyrical description, he nevertheless avoided sentimentality, painting vivid and unforgettable pictures of a world which has since disappeared.

Laurie Lee's books have been translated into half a dozen languages, adapted for radio and television, and been the subject of many documentaries. Despite the great public affection for him and his work, official recognition was limited. However, he was made a freeman of the City of London in 1982, and the people of Almunecar erected a monument in 1988 to the 'gran escritor' who had immortalized their town.

In the introduction to the Penguin Book edition of "Cider with Rosie", it states: 'Laurie Lee finds he works best in his Chelsea garret, the muddy meadows of Slad, or certain mountain villages in Spain.' A suitable epitaph for this great English writer. His life and work were profiled by fellow travel writer Benedict Allen in the documentary series "Travellers' Century" (2008) on BBC Four. The programme featured his widow Kathy, his younger daughter Jessy and his friend, the poet P J Kavanagh.

Audio:Hear Laurie Lee speaking at BBC Four audio interviews []


* "The Sun My Monument" (1944)
* "The Bloom of Candles" (1947)
* "My Many-Coated Man" (1955)
* "Pocket Poems" (1960)

* "The Voyage of Magellan" (1948) — a verse play

* "A Rose for Winter" (1955) — a record of his travels in Andalusia in the early 1950s
* "Cider with Rosie" (1959)
* "As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning" (1969)
* "I Can't Stay Long" (1975)
* "Two Women" (1983) — a celebration in words and photographs of his wife and daughter
* "A Moment of War" (1991)
* "Red Sky At Sunrise" (1992) — an omnibus volume containing the trilogy "Cider With Rosie", "As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning" and "A Moment of War"

* "Edge Of Day: A Seasonal Anthology In Words And Music" — Laurie Lee and Johnny Coppin (Red Sky Records - RSK108, 1988)


* Juliet Barker, "Oxford Dictionary of National Biography" (Oxford DNB), Oxford University Press
* Laurie Lee, "Cider with Rosie" (1959)
* Laurie Lee, "As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning" (1969)
* Laurie Lee, "A Moment of War" (1991)
* Laurie Lee, "I Can't Stay Long" (1975)
* V. Grove, "Laurie Lee: the well-loved stranger" (1999)

External links

* [ BBC audio interviews with Laurie Lee]
* [ 'A window near Petrovice: the non-fiction of Laurie Lee']

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