Laurie Lee (1914-1997) is famous for the life he wrote about so engagingly in three volumes of autobiography, but his first love was always poetry, a passion that left its mark on his precise and lyrical prose. Born in Stroud, Gloucestershire, the eleventh of twelve children, Lee moved to the village of Slad, nestled deep in a Cotswold valley, at the age of three. Lee's was the last generation to experience that centuries-old rural isolation which ended with the coming of the motor car. It was an insular world, one of poverty, with overcrowded cottages, no electricity and high rates of infant mortality, but also one of family and community warmth. It's a world Lee captures in the sensual descriptions of Cider with Rosie
(1959), his best-loved book, but his childhood, particularly the lush beauty of the Gloucestershire countryside, was also the inspiration for many of his poems. Lee went to the village school and then Stroud Central School, leaving at fifteen to work as an errand boy. At nineteen he left his native village to seek his fortune, walking to London where he worked for a year as a building labourer. From there he travelled to Europe, spending four years exploring Spain and the Mediterranean, largely on foot, and scratching a living from playing his violin. He recorded these wanderings in his second volume of autobiography, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning
(1969). After a short period back in London, Lee returned to Spain in 1937 to volunteer for the International Brigade in the fight against Franco's Fascists. His service in the Spanish Civil War was cut short by physical weakness (he suffered from epilepsy) but his time as a volunteer provided the material for his final volume of memoir, A Moment of War
(1991). After his Spanish adventure, Lee settled in London and earned a living as a journalist and scriptwriter. In the Second World War he made documentary films for the General Post Office, Crown Film Unit and Ministry of Information where he also worked as an editor on the Ministry's publications. At this point in time, Lee's creative energies were being poured into poems, his first collection, The Sun My Monument
, appearing in 1944. This was followed by two further collections, The Bloom of Candles
(1947) and My Many Coated Man
(1955), before he turned his attention to prose. His poems show the influence of sophisticated contemporaries like W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender, and also of the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, but the vision of fragile rural beauty is Lee's own and, whilst limited in its range, it retains its power to charm and move. Lee married Catherine Polge in 1950 and they had one daughter. Lee was still doing official work - he was chief caption writer for the Festival of Britain, a role which was rewarded by an MBE - but the immediate success of Cider with Rosie
gave him the financial security to write full time. It also enabled him to buy his childhood home in Slad, a return in real life to that lost paradise he visited so memorably in his writing. He died in Slad in 1997 and is buried in the local churchyard. Up to his death Lee continued to write in a variety of forms - travel books, essays, a radio play, and short stories, as well as further volumes of autobiography - but poetry remained elusive. That this loss of inspiration was a cause of regret can be felt in his rueful comment that his poems "were written by someone I once was and who is so distant to me now that I scarcely recognise him anymore."
It was Lee's poetry that helped set the tone and context of his later prose work, as can be seen in this recording made in Bath. Both 'Apples' and 'April Rise' show that gift for sensuous detail, rendered so intensely as to become rhapsodic, which has made Cider with Rosie
, in particular, enduringly popular. Initially 'Town Owl' seems to form a contrast, taking its inspiration from the bombed out houses Lee witnessed during his stay in war-time London. In fact, as he says in his introduction, this poem too is "a message from my valley", the owl colonizing the urban landscape with memories of home. Lee's own music recalls a more melodic bird: as his obituary in The Guardian put it Lee "had a nightingale inside him" which can still be heard singing clearly in these lines.