Obituary: Laurie Lee

Ronald Blythe
Saturday 22 October 2011 22:29

The spirit of vagabondage and the romance of the open road were at their height in 1914, the year when Laurie Lee was born.

In vain were the attempts by squire, parson and politician to stem what was called "the flight from the land", a rural exodus primarily created by the great agricultural depression which set in at the turn of the century and which would dominate village life until the Second World War. The young walked off the farms to the cities and out of their ancient traditions, leaving behind a kind of beautiful inertia, a penniless scene of "tile-spilling farms", as Lee put it.

Both he and his father fled their home countryside, though differently, leaving their wives behind them, Lee senior because he was driven by the excitements and possibilities of the new freedom, his son in order to gain a perspective on who he was and where he had come from: "Young men don't leave a lush creamy village life solely for economic reasons." Few caught up in the rural stagnation which existed between the wars would have recognised it as lush and creamy, and to give Lee his due he never forgot the hardships and limitations which he coated so famously with opulence.

His work is retrospective, that of the countryman in exile and in it he is always youthful. He believed that "the only truth is what you remember", although he sometimes worried about what he called "the censorship of self" and "some failure between honesty and nerve". Access to a lyrical language gave him just the right balance he needed to record what had happened to him.

One of his attractions as a writer is that he admits to making journeys without a cause. His interest in the Republican cause in Spain was minimal and yet his wonderful account of the defeat of the Republican Army in 1937 makes A Moment of War (1991) an unforgettable addition to the remarkable literature which came out of this conflict. He walked into the war as he had walked out his native villlage of Slad in Gloucestershire, with his fiddle and his open, watching face, never asking himself why. A road led there.

After an office job in Stroud when he left school at fourteen Lee walked to London to live "in the flats, rooms and garrets of this city, the drawers in the human filing-cabinets that stand in blank rows down the streets of Kensington and Notting Hill". The analogy fitted him well because from then on he existed happily in a papery mess with frequent outings to the pub.

After Cider With Rosie (1959) Lee held court in bars and was very much the author on show, both in London and Slad, and gave little notion of what it meant for him to write and re-write his books, the crafting in soft pencil, and especially the difficulty of hauling back into his consciousness events that had occurred sometimes decades ago.

In order to do this he had to become the young wanderer again. There are few middle-aged or elderly views on a Laurie Lee page. "One bright June morning, when I was nineteen, I packed all I had on my back" - and the reader is away.

Lee's first poems appeared in the magazine Horizon. Lee had been working with the GPO and Crown Film Units in the early Forties, and then as Publications Editor for the Ministry of Information. Although sometimes in contact with the literary world, it was not until a friend showed some of Lee's work to Cyril Connolly, then editor of Horizon, that he decided to be a writer. Collections of his poetry, The Sun My Monument (1944), The Bloom of Candles (1947) and My Many-Coated Man (1955) were praised for the originality of their technique but criticised for their lack of depth.

And then came Cider With Rosie, an evocation of Lee's village childhood which, on the face of it, might well suggest the sensuous idyll, as no one who had seen the realities of the period would have dared to present them, but which by always viewing them through a country boy's happiness somehow managed to explain how everyone in the valley got through.

Lee's parents, although festooned with a rich loving-head-shaking array of words, are archetypal products of the 1870 Education Act, "service" and the collapse of land-work. Unlike Lee himself, both were mad on books. Each was a dedicated escapee from the humdrum, father spinning away to suburbs new (cranking his car in one killed him) and mother into total romance which involved loading her shelves with every pretty thing, worship of the gentry and wildly dedicated reading. Lee pictures her as an artist and a "buffoon", and his father as deplorable. His portraits of both are relentless yet amused, just as is his description of rural education. All the characters in Cider with Rosie, and especially young Lee, are involved in a perpetual rite of passage and are absorbed in touch and scents and glimpses - rather than sights.

Leonard Woolf, apparently, was less than enthusiastic when the manuscript arrived at the Hogarth Press, but it sold six million copies and under its flowery bower of words countless readers have discovered a tough enough social history to reveal for them how things were for their own country relations not so very long ago.

The success of Cider With Rosie was to commit Lee to autobiography and he made it the first volume of a trilogy. As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning followed in 1969 and A Moment of War in 1991. Try as he might, he could never quite convince people why there were such huge gaps between each book, none of which was lengthy, and the last positively honed to the bone, so to speak. Whilst As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning trails many of the by now celebrated enchantments of Cider With Rosie and allows Lee, as the vagabond boy with the violin, to enter a Spain as yet untouched by tourism and to do what can never be done again, wander around in near-medieval scenes and encounter generous girls whose innocence was on a par with his own, and with no connection with still-unborn hippiness, A Moment of War abandons all those elements in his previous work which made it beguiling. It is a small masterpiece of recalled helplessness and terror, the result of "a number of idiocies I committed at the time".

These were to walk across the Pyrenees in the December snow during the bloody winter of 1937 and knock on the door of a Republican farmer and say, "I've come to join you". After a few old Spanish courtesies he was immediately locked up as a spy. Between then and his rescue by Bill Rust, editor of the Daily Worker, Lee would, had he felt at all strongly its ideals, have been part of the martyrdom of the International Brigade, but he did not. He seems to have walked into a civil war simply as somewhere to go as a walker, though partly because he thought that the Spain of As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning would protect him. Instead he and another lad were thrown into a John the Baptist-type hole and, a few days later, the companion in horror was pulled out and dispatched like a rabbit.

A Moment of War is written with brilliant economy and belongs to the remarkable literature which the Spanish Civil War inspired. It is cinematic in its remorseless detail and atmosphere and it may have been some kind of throw-back to the Lee of the film units. It succeeds in doing that rare thing, documenting the helplessness and fright of the individual under ruthless soldiering conditions.

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning led him to the verge of this explosiveness. He sensed the cruelty and murderousness of Spain as he got himself away. When he returned for what to the Republicans was no convincing purpose, it was like stepping on a landmine where there was no need to cross and very nearly losing his life. The narrative is simple and tense, with some of the qualities of a novella. And as so often in accounts of young men close to death, a faint eroticism floats about it.

Laurie Lee was no literary recluse. After hours in his workroom, a papery equivalent of his mother's chaos, he liked to be seen in one of his beloved London pubs and, later, when at last bad sight brought him back to Slad, to be a landmark in the bar there. As a writer he was the disengaged onlooker who understood how his presence altered a place or a situation. He needed to be faraway in time or in miles from what and who were closest to him, his wife, his roots, his travels.

Laurie Lee, poet and writer: born Slad, Gloucestershire 26 June 1914; member, GPO Film Unit 1939-40; member, Crown Film Unit 1941-43; Publications Editor, Ministry of Information 1944-46; member, Green Park Film Unit 1946-47; Caption Writer-in-Chief, Festival of Britain 1950-51; MBE 1952; author of The Sun My Monument 1944, Land at War 1945, A Film in Cyprus 1947, The Bloom of Candles 1947, The Voyage of Magellan 1948, My Many-Coated Man 1955, A Rose for Winter 1955, Cider With Rosie 1959, Pocket Poets 1960, The Firstborn 1964, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning 1969, I Can't Stay Long 1975, Selected Poems 1983, Two Women 1983, A Moment of War 1991; married 1950 Catherine Polge (one daughter); died Slad, Gloucestershire 13 May 1997.

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