GLORIA FUERTES learned to read and write at the age of three, and as a teenager developed a taste for speaking in rhyming couplets. But it wasn't until her forties that she won recognition as a poet, and not until her sixties that she became the star of a daily television programme in which she told stories to children.
Behind that beaming grandmotherly face and gravelly lorry- driver's voice lay a complex Bohemian character formed in her early childhood. "I was a good girl and slender, tall and somewhat sickly. At nine I was hit by a cart and at 14 I was hit by the war."
Young Gloria used to cycle around Madrid in culottes, a divided skirt designed by her sister, wearing a tie. She bought books on the sly at the Cuesta de Moyano, a picturesque lane that slopes down beside the leafy Retiro park, lined with second-hand bookstalls. She would hide in the cubby-hole where her father worked as a doorman or portero to read and write without her mother's knowledge. "My father loved to read, he read the classics and mystical works, the lives of the saints," she recalled in her old age.
At 15 this sensitive soul lost her mother, who had tried in vain to steer her daughter towards a career in dressmaking. She worked as a typist and office secretary and in 1939 at the end of the Spanish Civil War began an association with a children's magazine, Maravillas, in which Fuertes created her first character, Coleta, a country girl who moves to the city to work as a nanny.
She explained in her last interview:
As a child I learned to write as soon as I could so that I could write down everything that occurred to me. I'm doing something else and a sentence comes to me. I write it down and then I look at it. A seed has sprouted. I write every day, not as a discipline, something comes to me and that's it.
Towards the end of the 1940s, Fuertes joined a literary tertulia or discussion group called Postismo, a post-war movement tinged with Surrealism among whose heroes was Max Ernst. In 1950 her first book of poems, La Isla Ignorada ("The Unknown Island"), was published, although she had written the title work 11 years earlier. In 1952 Cancines para Ninos ("Songs for Children") appeared, and in 1954 Antologa y poemas del suburbio ("Anthology and Poems from the Suburb").
Only half her work was directed to children. In the rest, according to Spain's Nobel prizewinner Camilo Jose Cela, "Gloria Fuertes howled like a wolf mortally wounded. Her verses are full of grief and pain, healing and humane, bitterly sober and maliciously playful."
By 1960 she was running a public library, and won a Fulbright scholarship that took her to the United States where she taught Spanish Literature at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania until 1963. In 1962 another anthology, Que ests en mi Tierra ("You Are In My Land") appeared.
Back in Spain she started working in children's television, including the programme that made her name in the 1970s, Un Globo, Dos Globos, Tres Globos, ("One Balloon, Two Balloons, Three Balloons") in which every weekday afternoon for four years she told tales and recited poems to rapt young audiences.
Among her works for adults are Poeta de guardia ("Poet on Watch"), Sola en la sala ("Alone in the Room"), Historia de Gloria ("Story of Glory" - or Gloria), the anthology Obras Incompletas ("Incomplete Works") and her most recent work, Mujer de verso en pecho ("Woman with Verse in her Heart").
Fuertes felt things improved for her as she got older. "For me all time past was worse and the good thing about the past is that it has passed." She was, none the less, of a happy disposition, and was surprised by the depression that engulfed her when - a dedicated chainsmoker - she was diagnosed two months ago as suffering from lung cancer.
Some of her couplets hint at inner torment: "If God values a tear more than a prayer, I'll have a throne in heaven". But her dark thoughts were lifted by irony: "I triumphed with my poetry but I wasn't present at my triumph. If I've something better to do, I won't attend my funeral either."
Gloria Fuertes, poet and storyteller: born Madrid 28 July 1918; died Madrid 27 November 1998.
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