Laurie Lee: Cider with Rosie author's life remembered
- 26 June 2014
- From the section England
He was a much loved poet, novelist and screenwriter, born 100 years ago and still as popular as ever. But who was Laurie Lee - the local boy from Gloucestershire whose name is now counted among the greats?
Lee's writing was rooted in the rolling green hills and deep valleys of his childhood haunts.
It was a world he would leave behind aged 19 to "discover the world", embarking on adventures that he would recount in memoirs written in later life.
But while other writers left behind their roots, Lee returned to live in the place that inspired him most - the village of Slad.
Born in June 1914 in Stroud, his father moved to London when Lee was just three years old and never returned home. Lee later remarked that "I, for one, scarcely missed him".
His mother Annie moved her seven children from Stroud to Bank Cottages in Slad. The views from his childhood home - which later became known as Rosebank Cottage - and the woodland that surrounded it would become the centre of Lee's most well-known work, Cider With Rosie.
The book - the first of his autobiographical trilogy - dealt with childhood experiences, family, the awkwardness of growing up and rural life at a time when the countryside was experiencing great change.
"It was the most rural backwater," said Lee's biographer Valerie Grove. "A small village where everyone knew everybody else.
"He had therefore a very rustic childhood, with no contact with the outside world, at all, except that he was an exceptionally intelligent and bright boy. The world was his oyster."
Reflecting on his childhood, Lee admitted it "wasn't all sunshine on cornfields and poppies".
There was a lot of lashing rain and terrible poverty which resulted in many people dying of perfectly ordinary diseases.
"He may seem to have idealised it [his childhood], but actually he did also write about poverty… people destined for the workhouse," Ms Grove said.
"But what he really captured with his vivid portrait of village life was a very particular time before the motorcar ruined everything and came rushing through the centre of the village."
Lee was 45 when Cider With Rosie was published and it would bring him much acclaim.
The text was favoured by schools up and down the country and it continues to attract thousands of readers around the world.
The second part of Lee's autobiographical trilogy would take him back to when he was 19-years-old.
He left behind the village he spoke so fondly of in Cider With Rosie and set off on a journey on foot that would take him to London, the English coast and then by boat to Vigo in Galicia, north-western Spain.
In the book - As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning - he wrote: "It was 1934. I was nineteen years old, still soft on the edges, but with a confident belief in good fortune.
"I carried a small rolled-up tent, a violin in a blanket, a change of clothes, a tin of treacle biscuits, and some cheese. I was excited, vain-glorious, knowing I had far to go; but not, as yet, how far."
He made money by playing his violin in busking sessions and he would go on to describe in vivid detail his journey through a Spain which was on the verge of civil war.
Living by his wits, he left Spain when the war broke out. But, he would return for the events that were retold in the final book of the trilogy, A Moment of War.
It is a text with no heroics. The unlikely recruit recounts his time volunteering to fight against Franco's fascists and his ultimate repatriation to England.
"It reads like a long winter of horrible circumstance and he describes brilliantly how poor the rations were, how wretchedly hungry they were, how poor their weapons were, and it was so cold, it was a bitter, bitter winter - but he was only there for nine weeks," Ms Grove said.
Lee was regarded as "a good comrade", but he did not fight. He was epileptic and had several fits when he first arrived. He went on to be shipped home as soon as possible.
On his return to England Lee began to train and develop as an artist and a writer.
Later, he would meet his wife Katherine Polge and marry in 1950 before she gave birth to their daughter, Jessy, in 1963.
Throughout his life Laurie demonstrated he was a master of the English language and a talented artist and musician, but he did not turn his pen to his memoirs until years later.
Financial success came following the publication of Cider With Rosie after which he returned to Slad and bought Rose Cottage - not far from his childhood home, and as he put it, "stumbling paces" from his favourite pub - The Woolpack.
He would not tackle the subject of his time in Spain until 1969 and the final volume in the trilogy was not written until the mid-1980s, being published in 1991.
"His three volumes end at the age of 23, but he didn't write the first one until he was 45, so there is quite a lot of life left untold, and the life untold is actually even more interesting than the life he wrote," Ms Grove said.
"It was a richly lived life. He was a man who had the knack of making people happy wherever he went.
"He was an enjoyable companion, a storyteller, note keeper, a good entertainer. He loved stories and word games, practical jokes and he would sing and Kathy would dance."
Poet Adam Horovitz was born in London and moved with his parents to Stroud, Gloucestershire, soon after.
His parents were friends of Lee and the old author became an inspiration, pushing him to find his own path in poetry.
"He was a constant but irregular presence, somebody who would appear and be jovial, funny, kind encouraging, he pushed me to write," Horovitz said.
"He even gave me a fiver once and said 'go get drunk, write some poetry', he was just a gentle, anarchic, presence."
Horovitz remembers his childhood in the countryside with a similar fondness to Lee - as an idyllic time - playing outside and taking in the landscape in which Lee is now "embedded".
"The valley is a continuing thing, the landscape keeps growing and changing slowly, but that spirit of Cider With Rosie continues," he said.
Lee split his time between London and Gloucestershire, but spent much of his last few years in the countryside he held so close to his heart.
"He was always outside The Woolpack [the local pub]," Ms Grove said.
He would talk fondly with school children about his books and continued to play his fiddle and the violin.
Having written three plays, about 50 poems and three volumes of memoir, among others, Lee died on the 13 May 1997 at home in his beloved Slad.
He was survived by his wife and daughter and is buried in the local churchyard.
Reflecting on the subject of her biographies, Ms Grove concluded: "It was a lovely life."