Gerard Previn Meyer (review date 6 September 1947)

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SOURCE: "Washed in Happy Air," in The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. XXX, No. 36, September 6, 1947, pp. 23, 30.

[In the following review, Meyer notes Lee's focus on pastoral life and love in The Sun My Monument, as well as the volume's focus on metaphysical concerns.]

The war years saw in Britain (as they did in some of the Dominions, notably Australia) the rise of a number of "little magazines," among which Cyril Connolly's Horizon and John Lehmann's Penguin New Writing are best known on this side of the Atlantic. Laurie Lee has published poems in both these periodicals, as well as in the BBC magazine, The Listener, and in at least two anthologies of the newer verse; but The Sun My Monument is his first book publication. Mr. Lee is to be congratulated on the ready acceptance of his first book on these shores; and the American public for poetry now has another measure by which to appraise the new post-Auden generation of English poets.

Is there a greater freshness in the English air than here? At least, Mr. Lee dares to produce poetry that, by one of the standards now revered in local poetic circles, should be clearly "old hat." For example, he boldly packs his work with country, rather than urban, images. Is it that "England's green and pleasant land" provides greater justification for pastoral poetry than the less embraceable American countryside? Though, indeed, he has left his native Cotswolds:

        O the wild trees of my home,
        forests of blue dividing the pink moon,
        the iron blue of those ancient branches
        with their berries of vermilion stars,

With their fields ("that place of steep meadows"), he never really leaves them:

        But here I have lost
        the dialect of your hills,
        my tongue has gone blind
        far from their limestone roots.

When he writes of war, too, does he write more easily because his British audience, knowing the impact of war first hand, does not require the conscious strain of the poet's imagination to make the described experience its own?

        Fruit is falling in the city
        blowing a woman's eyes and fingers
        across the street among the bones
        of boys who could not speak their love.

Both the pastoral note and the ruined city assume an immediacy in the poems of this British writer that they can hardly possess for the self-conscious American poet.

He is an unashamed romantic, too. What poet of genuine talent in this country today would dare to write a line like "A boy is shot with England in his brain"? The sentiment of this is dangerously close to sentimentality. But, again, sentiment no less than romanticism is an old and honored part of the English literary scene. So we may accept this as a true report of an English war mood, even though we remember that between Rupert Brooke and Laurie Lee there was a Wilfred Owen.

In England, too—and this is a more universal note—death and war are still challenged by their eternal unconquerable enemy, love: love not only for the Wolds, not only for England, but love for a woman:

       Let me with vaporizing breath
       speak to my woman, while the frost
       makes up a grim metallic bed
       for me and summer's broken head.

There is hardly a poem in The Sun My Monument from which love is wholly absent.

Withal, the style is of our time—for Laurie Lee has not "snorted in the seven sleepers' den" while modern poetry has been aborning. His association with advance-guard publications is one warrant of that. Another is...

(This entire section contains 942 words.)

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his constant use of the metaphysical image. Now the metaphysical image, so popular today, is not simply a fashionable trick—though it can be, and has been, employed as such. The metaphysical image, which by violent shocking linking together of disparate objects makes us see resemblances and harmonies "that never were on sea or land," isdirect statement by metaphor: that is, the metaphor is organic, structural—it more than advances the thought, it embodies the thought. By metaphor things are said which could not be said otherwise; and the emotion supplies the fusing force that brings far-fetched things together to make the new harmony.

The fact that Laurie Lee, who in another age might have been simply a pleasant pastoral poet, is writing metaphysical poetry, need not be charged to fashion. The background for metaphysical poetry is conflict, and we are certainly living in an age of many conflicts. The supreme metaphysical poet is supremely aware of the world about him—and within. Let it be said that Mr. Lee seems to be fully conscious of the world's disharmony, and the necessity to resolve the disorder. His weakness, as a poet, crops up in the impulse to find a resolution for these conflicts outside of poetry; a laudable impulse, but alien to the muse. Human love, and even love of humanity (as in "The Long War," where he writes:

       But as our twisted arms embrace
       the desert where our cities stood
       death's family likeness in each face
       must show, at last, our brotherhood)

may stimulate, animate poetry, but provide no resolution within the poem. Paradoxically—and this is a conclusion which the poet may protest—there is greater promise of poetic health in the unpleasant but metaphorically more intense and satisfying "see how the sun rubs ulcers in the sky" in the Baudelairean second stanza of "Black Edge," his gloomiest poem, than in the more affirmative and lyrical, but weaker conclusion to the same poem:

        Wash me in happy air,
        restore me with the odor of rivers;
           then feed o feed my sight
           with your normal love.

Fleming MacLiesh (review date 21 December 1947)

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SOURCE: "Palsied Apples Fall," in The New York Times Book Review, December 21, 1947, p. 8.

[In the mixed review of The Sun My Monument below, MacLiesh faults the uneven lyrical quality of the collection.]

Poe refused to publish somebody's poem on the ground that the disparity between the good lines and the bad was so incredible that the good must have been stolen. By that criterion a fair amount of his own poetry would have been suspect. If Mr. Lee is certainly not open to the charge, nevertheless the mixture of the excellent and of the perfectly terrible in his verse is equally baffling; so thoroughly are they mingled that there is scarcely a poem in [The Sun My Monument] which can be dismissed altogether and scarcely one which succeeds as a whole or represents any kind of sustained achievement.

Both virtues and faults have their source in his employment of images. In this connection, readers should at least applaud his willingness to gamble for an idiom which is original, rich and strange, even at the risk of falling over into the absurd and his refusal to play it safe by harboring up in a safe pedestrianism to which even the most preciously acidulous critics cannot take particular exception. It is unfortunate, however, that he seems as yet unable to perform a simple labor of excision on lines and whole stanzas and so raise to a fairly impressive standard the poems they now ruin.

His images, in the first place, are sensuous to such an extent that in the lyrical celebration of passion they sometimes give the effect of an obsession with the physical. There is little intellectual tension and not much attempt to achieve an unwavering clarity through the use of the exact word or phrase. He proceeds, rather, through a violent juxtaposition of unlike elements and associations to achieve effects which, when successful, are striking, unexpected and memorable. In the over-all sense, his lines may be compared to those isotopes which emerge from the Oak Ridge Pile, where common elements whose atomic nuclei have been subjected to neutron bombardment become radioactive and unstable. Different isotopes, in addition to emitting different kinds of radiation, have, as must be common knowledge now, different rates of radioactive decay, or "half-life." Where Mr. Lee's verse is at its best, his elements are not only radioactive, they are endowed with a considerable half-life. Far too often, however, the image is so forced that it will not hold together at all; it simply explodes, or, like the isotope of Boron, has a half-life of 1/200 of a second.

Examples of this almost instantaneous disintegration may be picked at random: "Your lips are turreted with guns, / and bullets crack across your kiss…." "Wet sunlight on the powder of my eye …" "… slow from the wild crab's bearded breast / the palsied apples fall." "I want your lips of wet roses / laid over my eyes." Perhaps for this last the figure will have to be altered, since, while there are isotopes which are particularly deadly, it would be difficult to say of any that it is just repulsive.

In those lines where Mr. Lee is at his best there is an effect of lyrical effortlessness and inevitability which leaves considerably in the background a lot of contemporary verse that has been, and will be, better acclaimed. If he knew where to cut or when to stop, he might be one of the more important poets writing today. As this is early work, his first book, he may be yet; he has an open field.

Kingsley Amis (review date 17 June 1955)

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SOURCE: "Is the Travel-Book Dead?" in The Spectator, Vol. 194, No. 6625, June 17, 1955, pp. 774-75.

[Amis was an English educator, short story writer, critic, and essayist. In the following negative review, he characterizes A Rose for Winter as "vulgar and sensational."]

The vogue for the highbrow travel-book shows no immediate signs of abating…. The usual characteristics of such books are, first, a leaning towards the more elaborate and unfashionable graces of prose—rightly unfashionable they seem to me, if I may show my hand thus early—and, secondly, a desire to get away from the exhausted sterilities of Western civilisation so feelingly alluded to from time to time by Mr. Priestley. In themselves, these two things may be all very well, though I judge it unlikely; in practice, however, the stylistic graces degenerate briskly into an empty and indecent poeticism, apparently based on a desire to get into the next edition of The Oxford Book of English Prose, while the escape-motive is only with difficulty to be distinguished from the feeling that the other fellow's grass is greener, that the really good time, or good life, is going on somewhere else. The two tendencies, in these degraded forms, find remarkably unalloyed expression in Mr. Laurie Lee's volume [A Rose for Winter].

The experienced reader will know what to do with a book whose blurb announces, as if in recommendation, its author's claim to 'the enchanted eye … of a true poet,' but the reviewer must act differently. His part is to soldier grimly on, trying not to mind too much the absence of a verb in the opening sentence, the incessant din of adjective and poeticality ('the scarred and crumpled valleys,' 'the oil-blue waters'), the full close of the first paragraph, mannered as any Ciceronian esse videatur:

And from a steep hillside rose a column of smoke, cool as marble, pungent as pine, which hung like a signal over the landscape, obscure, imperative and motionless.

(The effect is a little marred through having been anticipated, three sentences earlier, by a cadential 'raw, sleeping and savage.') Another item on the list of things to try not to mind too much is the prevalence of lists—cf. Mr. Auden's Spain, which Mr. Lee has perhaps been cf.-ing too—like 'the bright facades … the beggars … the vivid shapely girls … the tiny, delicate-stepping donkeys,' and so on; and yet another one is the 'striking' image—'fragrant as water'—which at first sight seems to mean almost nothing, and upon reflection and reconsideration is seen to mean almost nothing. One way of summing up this book would be to call it a string of failed poems—failed not-very-good poems too, for whoever said that bad poetry is much more like poetry than good poetry is, was in the right of it there.

This kind of objection, however, though compulsory for the reader of almost any highbrow travel-book, is here purely trifling. The really telling strictures emerge from a mulling-over of what Mr. Lee actually reveals to us about Andalusia. The figure of the narrator himself, having terrific fun with a drum in a wedding procession, carrying two guitars 'everywhere,' carefully recording every pass made at his wife, drinking like mad at a party in a telephone exchange while the switchboard lights 'twinkled unheeded' (not too good for people who wanted to ring the doctor)—can safely be left on one side. One might even haul to the other side the bullfighting question, although the author's taste for 'the sharp mystery of blood' will remain unshared in some quarters, where, in addition, the use of the phrase 'the moment of truth' will appear a little worse than naif, and to upbraid a bull for having no grace or honour or 'vocation for martyrdom' will appear a lot worse; if we enjoined these duties upon a bull, he would not understand us. But the least attractive part of Mr. Lee's portrayal of Spain is his portrayal of Spaniards, so far as this can be debarnacled from rhetoric, generalisation and rhapsody. The effect is not what he evidently intends; where he seeks to show us gaiety, mere instability or hooliganism emerges, unselfconsciousness is detectable as coxcombry or self-pity, while the gift attributed to Andalusians of greeting others' misfortune with a shrug or a grin is neither mature nor admirable. I am sure these people are not as bad as all that, just as I am sure that they are not in touch with the 'pure sources of feeling' and the 'real flavours' of life, whatever these entities may be; Coleridge put Wordsworth right on peasants a long time ago. Perhaps too many people in England do watch television, or do they watch it too much of the time? Anyway, nostalgie de la boue is not the answer; it is silly to sleep on straw in the inn yard if you can get hold of a bed; and while it is no doubt better to be gay and have sores than to be ungay and not have sores, it is better still to be fairly gay and not have sores.

Geoffrey Brereton (review date 18 June 1955)

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SOURCE: "South for Sensation," in The New Statesman & Nation, Vol. XLIX, No. 1267, June 18, 1955, pp. 852-53.

[An English educator, editor, journalist, and translator, Brereton frequently writes about French literature. In the following, he provides a laudatory assessment of A Rose for Winter.]

As the toad under the stone, beneath the adjectives of the blurb, lurks the potential reader, though the shrewdest publisher's estimate is occasionally wrong. So, ignoring for the moment the mysterious and exotic, the colourful and romantic, the vivid and intimate, one is fatally lured by the bait of Mr. Laurie Lee's publisher, promising "the multitudinous flavour of Spain—acid, sugary, intoxicating, sickening, but above all, real." And the copywriter is right! After ten pages [of A Rose for Winter] one concedes him all his adjectives and as many more as he likes to borrow from his author, whose command of them is masterly.

Out of a winter in southern Spain, Mr. Lee has spun a magnificent book, outstanding even in a field where the competition is oppressively brilliant. His itinerary included Algeciras, Seville, Ecija and Granada, but the route hardly matters, except for the responses which it touched off in the author. Given the mood, he could, one feels, have found equally rich material in the Bolton-Leeds-Grimsby triangle. The Andalusians fed from his hand, as he often fed liberally from theirs, all payment refused. Modestly, he ascribes this ease of contact to the attractiveness of his wife and to his own habit of going about with two guitars slung over his shoulders. Seeing these, no Spaniard would believe that they were either English, or proper tourists, and confident, rich relationships were established at once. This, of course, is a mere sop to the armchair traveller. We all have beautiful wives and could take guitar lessons, but we should need as well excellent Spanish, untiring human sympathy and constant freshness of observation.

Like all triumphant travellers, Mr. Lee commanded luck. The set occasions—the carol-singing in Seville, the Christmas carnival in Granada—can be planned in advance. But over and above that, it is the chance encounters which make a journey and a book. They are the bonus given to the good traveller, like a second moon to the good drunkard. So it happened that at a feast given in his honour in a provincial telephone exchange, he met a young Spaniard, otherwise normally voiced, who spoke English in a high-pitched, tinny whine. "This mystified me at first, until I discovered that he had learnt his English from an antique pre-1920 gramophone and could only be said to be suffering from too good an ear." The same outrageous fortune threw up shifty British yachtsman-smugglers, poetic waiters and philosophic child-beggars, an ex-Republican officer doomed to a lifetime on the run, and a woman sleeping out on a hillside on a brass bedstead, while underground her legless husband tunnelled out the cave which was to be their new home. Above all, it brought him an illness in Granada, the evening after a visit to the cemetery. Perhaps it was only severe 'flu, but Mr. Laurie's account of his delirium reads like a page from De Quincey, while in the background is the grimly humorous motif of the twenty medical students who ate at the same inn and were now waiting with pathetic eagerness for his wife to become a widow.

One believes Mr. Lee. The quality of his writing compels it. Just as for the expert marksman there is no hiatus between trigger-finger and target, here there is an absolute compatibility between experience and the expression of it:

The park was formal yet flouncy, like the dress of an Edwardian beauty. The air was soft and springlike. Children in large hats and long white pinafores bowled their grave hoops among the rose-trees. Black-stockinged girls bent over pools, poking at goldfish with the stems of lilies. And opulent mammas, ripe in black satin, drowsed at their ease on the blue-tiled benches. It was a landscape by Renoir or Steer, an end-of-the-century dream; and as we clopped our way along, smelling the oranges and roses and passing the lacy girls posed like old postcards among the flower-beds, I felt an unnatural sense of distinction, almost as though I had invented the horse.

The Times Literary Supplement (review date 1 July 1955)

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SOURCE: "A Winter in Andalusia," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 2783, July 1, 1955, p. 366.

[In the following commendable review, the critic characterizes A Rose for Winter as "poetic" and unlike other travel books.]

Although its sub-title is "Travels in Andalusia," [A Rose for Winter] is no ordinary travel book. It is an account of a return visit to southernmost Spain, in mid-winter, after a break of fifteen years or more. The story begins and ends at Algeciras—"a handsome and lordly city," as Miss Rose Macaulay has described it. From here the author and his wife make visits to Seville, to Granada, where they spend Christmas, to Ecija, at other seasons accounted the hottest place in Spain, and to an unnamed fishing village east of Malaga where Mr. Lee was living at the outbreak of the Civil War. Thence back to Algeciras—"after three months among the great white cities of Andalusia we had returned to our starting point … to us the darling of them all."

Another traveller has recently said of the port of Algeciras, "noisy, smells vilely of fish and harbour mud, and has little to offer," and retreat is recommended to a luxurious hotel outside the town. Not so Mr. Lee:

The evening harbour smelt sweetly of remembered shell-fish, sherry and smuggled tobacco. Porters, touts, boot-blacks and contrabandistas, addressing us by name, bore our bags and guitars into the "Queen of the Sea." A dozen girls from the attics descended upon Kati with cries and embraces. Ramón and Manolo advanced to wring my hand, eyes damped politely, compliments flew, and we were given our old room overlooking the bay.

This is one of the closing scenes in a series vividly described in this attractive book.

There is little of ordinary travel talk in it—one or two long drives by autobus through sierras and winter storms, a walk to Tarifa, the most southerly town in Europe, "almost mystically oriental," where "the women wore veils of silence and the men walked cloaked in shadow and the sun," a few comings and goings to and from rather unusual hotels and cafés, an out-of-season bull-fight for amateurs and novices, the dancing of the Seises in Seville Cathedral, the Alhambra in winter "like a rose preserved in snow": and there is nearly always a surprise in store. "The Hotel Comercio," for instance, "was about as commercial as the cave of Ali Baba. Around the vast shadowy patio shepherds in fleece-lined coats sat eating and drinking, boot-blacks on their knees seized and polished the boots of anyone who stood for a moment near them, two farmers were tasting each other's crop of olives … and a magnificent gypsy wandered among the throng selling silver Virgins and cures for love." At the bull-fight, an eleven-year-old boy leaps over the barrier brandishing a red shirt, evades the attendants, engages the bull, gets trampled under foot, and ends up, not in hospital, but in gaol.

The author's burning curiosity leads him, and indeed transports his readers, to many other diverting scenes—to a wedding party at night with a band of serenaders, to a barbecuan feast in a telephone exchange "with dancing, dressing-up, and singing down the telephones," to an evening paseo up the Sacro Monte above Granada in company with a dancing, laughing crowd of girl lace-makers. There is indeed a great store of gaiety and friendliness in this book, though it is not without its sombre side. At Ecija, a Spanish heliopolis, the bull-ring (which, by the way, was "new and magnificent" in Richard Ford's day) is now almost abandoned. It is built on the site of a Roman amphitheatre. "Big, empty, harsh and haunted, for two thousand years this saucer of stone and sand, dedicated to one purpose … still exuded a sharp mystery of blood…. We walked across the silent arena now overgrown with grass. All was decay and desertion." If many of Mr. Lee's scenes are strange, still more are some of the characters which figure in them, for whom he and his wife appeared to possess some magnetic attraction. There is a poetry-writing waiter who served him with a new poem every morning, an epicure taverner who insisted on their "approving" a glass of wine from every barrel in his stock, a youthful dentist who courted his fiancée in the dentist's chair, and a melancholy guitar professor who, after a lesson, would play to him "lost in a dream of melody and invention. And faced with the beauty of his technique, the complex harmonies, the ease and grace, the supreme mastery of tone and feeling, I would feel like one of the lesser apes who suddenly catches sight of homo sapiens." There are many more such figures in this poetic book, and if here and there a little strain is put upon our credulity, we cannot complain.

V. S. Pritchett (review date 8 April 1956)

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SOURCE: "In Spain It's Like That," in The New York Times Book Review, April 8, 1956, p. 6.

[The former president of PEN International, Pritchett is an English journalist, educator, critic, nonfiction writer, short story writer, novelist, and scriptwriter. Also known for his work as a memoirist, biographer, autobiographer, journalist, and editor, he additionally wrote a book review column for New Statesman. In the favorable review of A Rose for Winter below, Pritchett considers Lee's book to be idiosyncratic, "delicate and strong."]

Laurie Lee is a lyrical poet and he has written [A Rose for Winter,] a poet's book about Andalusia. He is also a droll and a wit. His impression is a fantastic one but it bites more deeply than impression usually does and catches exactly the Andalusian flavor, something "acid, sugary, intoxicating, sickening" and pungent. He uses none of the romantic clichés which are dished out regularly by the tourist booklets or the conventional travelers. He sets down all that our senses remember of Spain and his light pages have more of the South than many a more solemn and explanatory volume.

He writes under private enchantment. It is bizarre but that, for Andalusia, is right. One watches him cunningly cadging acquaintance with his guitar. His beautiful wife immediately collected a court of candid and dedicated suitors who traipsed along or sat around, glum or vocal with admiration or desire and hopelessly longing for her early widowhood. From the taverns and smugglers' holes of Algeciras, the couple went off to Granada or Seville, seeing bullfights, serenaded, drinking wine in great quantities, surrounded by friends. The best company in Spain is low company or that of people whose profession is to sit in the sun while there is any: bootblacks, waiters, gypsies, crones, poets by métier or provocation. Smugglers, cooks, barmen, melancholics and chambermaids buzzed about like summer flies, wept, laughed, told beautiful lies or worked out piercing epigrams.

If Mr. Lee is fantastic, that is a proper response to a civilization which pours out fantasy all day in word or action:

"Suddenly we heard screams of laughter in the passage and plump Rosario came staggering in. She threw herself on the bed, tore off a boot and began to fan herself with it. For a while she was unable to speak."

Her Uncle Pedro, the fisherman, had gone out three miles to sea in the night and had anchored there; but, being drunk, he had thought he was alongside the quay and had stepped out into the water and was drowned. The town and Rosario could not stop laughing. That is, beyond question, the classical Andalusian story. It contains delight in personal catastrophe. Mr. Lee himself nearly died of some sort of fever in Granada, a city he likes a good deal more than I do. He had half the neighborhood in a warm state of emotion and expectation at his bedside, offering him sinister remedies. Students turned up, anxious to give slapwork injections and telling him dispassionately he need not worry about his wife if he died. There were plenty of eligible men in the town. This was indeed a queue.

Mr. Lee lived in Spain years ago and knows the people exceedingly well. "We used to swim by night in the bay, and fill sandwiches with sea-urchins and stuff them into the pockets of sleeping policemen. Each night we would pool our money, buy fish and wine, and then go off and serenade the nuns. After that we all slept side by side among the mules." Under the freakish lies a fine, direct knowledge.

Especially in the South, people live out their lives and their passing emotions in public, leave nothing corroding in their hearts. They devote themselves seriously to their sensibility as to a major task. They have the courage of their gestures. They maltreat the modern world as if a machine were no more than an old mule. Not surprising to find a party of pork, butter cakes and cognac spread out among the telephone instruments at the exchange and to hear the aunt of the superintendent singing down the telephones to entranced subscribers. Or of a dentist captivating his girl and soothing her temper by giving her a cast of her teeth. Not surprising to find a young man who had caused offense to a lady, purging his shame on the spot by demanding that he should be publicly forgiven before all his friends; and that everyone there shouts Viva! as honor is restored. The Spanish therapy goes straight to the ego. There is no need of psychiatry in Spain.

Mr. Lee, who has the poet's half naive and half sophisticated quickness of acquaintance, has an excellent eye for these storytelling people. He has an original descriptive power, a feeling for what is also hard and stone-faced in the people, for the nakedness, rawness and sourness of Spanish things, as well as for what is ornate, sweet, ribald and grave.

He says: Spain but Spain, and belongs nowhere but where it is. It is neither Catholic nor European but a structure of its own, forged from an African-Iberian past which exists in its own austere reality and rejects all short-cuts to a smoother life. Let the dollars come, the atom-bomb air bases blast their way through the white-walled towns, the people, I feel, will remain unawed, their lips unstained by chemical juices, their girls unslacked, and their music unswung. For they possess a natural resistance to civilization's more superficial seductions, based partly on the power of their own poetry, and partly on their incorruptible sense of humor and dignity.

A large number of books on Spain are machine made and say nothing; Mr. Lee's book, spun out of his own idiosyncrasy and long knowledge, is delicate and strong.

At the end, he takes leave of Spain in these words: "We drew away from the harbor and from the town to the waiting ship, to the smell of brewed tea, to the shuffle of bridge-cards and the snows of London. And Spain slid back from our eyes into the mist, leaving us lost and footless on a naked sea."

Samuel French Morse (review date December 1956)

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SOURCE: "Five Young English Poets," in Poetry, Vol. LXXXIX, No. 3, December, 1956, pp. 193-200.

[Morse is an American educator, poet, critic, and author of children's books. In the excerpt below, he offers praise for My Many-Coated Man.]

[Laurie Lee's] My Many-coated Man, published in 1955, was a choice of the Poetry Book Society and won the William Foyle Poetry Prize. An extremely slim book indeed, it contains fifteen poems Selected from those "written since the war." The austerity of Lee's selection works ultimately to the great advantage of the poems, each of which has a page to itself, without the competition of print on the verso of the preceding leaf.

Read through at a single sitting, which is temptingly easy, My Many-coated Man reveals a deceptively narrow range. Metaphors and images recur with unusual frequency; the poems give an immediate impression of being versions of the same poem. A second reading reveals a subtle variety of inflection that amounts to style. The words take on the colors of their context very naturally, and enrich the separate occasions at which they occur. Any poet has to achieve his style within limits: his vocabulary, after all, is simply part of his equipment as poet, like his rhythms and his subject-matter; and it is on his exploitation of the chosen materia poetica that his character as a poet largely depends. Lee has achieved his style. What is more, the limits he has imposed upon his work seem to have given him a kind of certitude that not only sustains but also enriches the recent poems. My Many-coated Man is therefore a book of greater impact than The Sun My Monument or The Bloom of Candles, in which Lee's fine-grained elegance shows up less well.

A book so coherently planned as My Many-coated Man provides an occasion for the observation of a good many details. One notes, for example, the play of light in these poems. In "Sunken Evening" it is submarine:

      The green light floods the city square—
        A sea of fowl and feathered fish,
        Where squalls of rainbirds dive and splash
      And gusty sparrows chop the air.

      Submerged, the prawn-blue pigeons feed
        In sandy grottoes round the Mall,
        And crusted lobster-buses crawl
      Among the fountains' silver weed.

      There, like a wreck, with mast and bell,
        The torn church settles by the bow,
        While phosphorescent starlings stow
      Their mussel shells along the hull….

It is submarine, too, in "Song by the Sea," but with that difference of inflection noted earlier:

      Girl of green waters, liquid as lies,
      Cool as the calloused snow,
      From my attic brain and prisoned eyes
      Draw me and drown me now.

      O suck me down to your weeds and fates,
      Green horizontal girl,
      And in your salt-bright body breed
      My death's dream centred pearl.

But in "Bombay Arrival" the light beats blind and naked upon the eyes, in all its deceptiveness and power:

      Slow-hooved across the carrion sea,
      Smeared by the betel-spitting sun,
      Like cows the Bombay islands come
      Dragging the mainland into view.

      The loose flank loops the rocky bone,
      The light beats thin on horn and hill;
      Still breeds the flesh for hawks and still
      The Hindu heart drips on a stone.

Each of these excerpts furnishes a text for study; each reveals an aspect of subject and style; each makes its special configuration in the larger pattern of Lee's work.

Michael Ramsbotham (review date 7 November 1959)

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SOURCE: "A Gloucestershire Lad," in New Statesman, Vol. LVIII, No. 1495, November 7, 1959, pp. 634-35.

[In the following review, Ramsbotham offers a highly laudatory account of Cider with Rosie.]

A few years before the first World War a grocer's assistant in Stroud inserted the following advertisement in a local paper: 'Widower (4 children) Seeks Housekeeper'. It was seen by Annie Light, a romantic countrywoman of thirty, who had spent her youth either toiling for her father and five brothers or slaving below-stairs in the manors of the gentry. She took the post, fell in love with her employer, married him, and gave him four more children—one girl (who died) and three boys. Laurie Lee was the youngest child but one.

The father of these two families, a handsome and prudent go-getter ('a natural fixer,' says his son), had always dreamed of a tidy life in the Civil Service, and when the war started he saw his chance and set off for Greenwich ('in a bullet-proof vest') to join the Army Pay Corps. Eventually demobilised with a pension ('for nervous rash, I believe'), he realised his youthful ambition, settled permanently in London, and remitted home a thin supply of money. His wife, meanwhile, had moved with his seven children to a damp old house in a secluded village some miles from Stroud, where she devoted herself, in her muddled and heroic way, to bringing them up; she never stopped loving her husband and never believed, until he died some thirty years later ('cranking a car in a Morden suburb') that he would not one day come back to her. Cider with Rosie is Mr Lee's celebration of his childhood in this Cotswold village. The book is written in prose—a luscious, evocative, poetic prose, with overtones from Wales. There is comedy as well as pathos. Some quiet drawings by John Ward illustrate the story.

In the Twenties an ancient rural culture was disintegrating: cars, buses, and charabancs were beginning to join the villages to the towns. But Mr Lee was born just early enough to have known the arduous, unsophisticated, self-sufficient, and sometimes dotty life of a community still dominated by the squire, the parson, and the horse. He conjures up this past, his own and the village's, in a number of beautifully composed pieces, some of which have already appeared in magazines. 'Grannies in the Wainscot," for instance, a chapter about two witchlike nonagenarian neighbours, is a perfect short story.

Mr Lee can look back on many pastoral pleasures. Some were innocent, some illicit; some were both, like the fiasco of the collective rape of Lizzie Berkeley, a simple girl who liked to chalk texts and 'Jesus Loves Me Now' on the beech trees in Brith Wood. When he recalls his worst exploits, Mr Lee gives thanks that he did not have to contend with the law and morality of today; otherwise, he believes, he and his friends might have been 'shoved into reform school'. This is an amiable delusion, and one shared by many other ex-juveniles whose crimes were not found out—or if found out, never by the wrong people. It is supposed that in these present antiseptic times scarcely any delinquent act by the young can escape punishment. Such a belief underestimates the resourcefulness of children as absurdly as it flatters the eyesight of Authority. Town boys and country boys still manage to lose their innocence without seeing the inside of Juvenile Courts; and young girls, as forward as the cider-drinking Rosie of the title, are still at liberty to be their educators and victims—even in Morden.

T. S. Matthews (review date 27 March 1960)

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SOURCE: "An Acceptance of Life That Is Also an Embrace," in The New York Times Book Review, March 27, 1960, p. 4.

[Matthews is an American-born editor, essayist, poet, autobiographer, and biographer. In the following review, he praises Cider with Rosie, also published as The Edge of Day, as "funny, unsentimental and beautiful."]

Suicide, said Camus, is the one really serious philosophical problem. The only simple answer to the questionable human condition is the act that ends all problems. Any other answer ignores the question or shelves the problem. And yet there is another sort of response, oblique as morning sunlight, irrational as joy, absurd as a human being—an acceptance of life that is also a welcoming and an embrace. Perhaps this response is less rare than we suppose, but only a poet can put it into words.

Laurie Lee has done it. Blessed be his name. These recollections of his country boyhood in the West of England are a testament to the wonder, joy, and painful absurdity of being alive, a letter of thanks whose address is plain to be seen: to life, with love. The Edge of Day is funny, unsentimental and beautiful. Huck Finn would have given it his complete approval.

The book begins with Lee's earliest memories: of the day when his large fatherless family (his father was an absentee) moved into a cottage in a Gloucestershire valley. Three-year-old Laurie, set down in a field where the June grass was taller than he was, felt abandoned and lost. "High overhead ran frenzied larks, screaming, as though the sky were tearing apart…. I put back my head and howled, and the sun hit me smartly on the face, like a bully."

Soon he was wriggling and darting around his new world like a tadpole in a pond. In the old cottage's scullery he

discovered water—a very different element from the green crawling scum that stank in the garden tub. You could pump it in pure blue gulps out of the ground; you could swing on the pump handle and it came out sparkling like liquid sky. And it broke and ran and shone on the tiled floor, or quivered in a jug, or weighted your clothes with cold. You could drink it, draw with it, froth it with soap, swim beetles across it, or fly it in bubbles in the air. You could put your head in it, and open your eyes, and see the sides of the bucket buckle, and hear your caught breath roar, and work your mouth like a fish, and smell the lime from the ground.

Here is the morning of his first day of school:

My sisters surrounded me, wrapped me in scarves, tied up my boot laces, thrust a cap on my head, and stuffed a baked potato in my pocket.

"What's this?" I said.

"You're starting school today."

"I ain't. I'm stopping 'ome."

"Now, come on, Loll. You're a big boy now."

"I ain't."

"You are."


They picked me up bodily, kicking and bawling, and carried me up the road.

"Boys who don't go to school get put into boxes and turn into rabbits, and get chopped up on Sundays."

I felt this was overdoing it rather, but said no more after that.

I arrived at school just three feet tall and fatly wrapped in my scarves. The playground roared like a rodeo…. The rabble closed in; I was encircled; grit flew in my face like shrapnel. Tall girls with frizzled hair, and huge boys with sharp elbows, began to prod me with hideous interest. They plucked at my scarves, spun me around like a top, screwed my nose, and stole my potato.

With a family of eight, life in the small cottage was crowded but also "as separate as notes in a scale." The kitchen was their common-room, the presiding genius their mother,

a country girl: disordered, hysterical, loving. She was muddled and mischievous as a chimney jackdaw, she made her nest of rags and jewels, was happy in the sunlight, squawked loudly at danger, pried and was insatiably curious, forget when to eat or ate all day, and sang when sunsets were red.

She lived by the easy law of the hedgerow, loved the world and made no plans, had a quick holy eye for natural wonders and couldn't have kept a neat house for her life…. I can still seem to hear her blundering about the kitchen: shrieks and howls of alarm, an occasional oath, a gasp of wonder, a sharp command to things to stay still. A falling coal would set her hair on end, a loud knock make her leap and yell; her world was a maze of small traps and snares acknowledged always by cries of dismay.

At the same time "she fed our oafish wits with steady, imperceptible shocks of beauty … by the unconscious revelation of her loves, an interpretation of man and the natural world so unpretentious and easy that we never recognized it then, yet so true that we never forgot it."

The village life was crowded too: it contained murder, suicide, incest, rape, "an acceptance of violence as a kind of ritual which no one accused or pardoned," and more innocent oddities of festivals, outings, gossip, first love, the freezing hardships and sweaty delights of winter and summer.

Here is the compact record of a visit to relations:

We sit down and eat, and the cousins kick us under the table, from excitement rather than spite. Then we play with their ferrets, spit down their well, have a fight, and break down a wall. Later we are called for and given a beating, then we climb up the tree by the earth closet. Edie climbs highest, till we bite her legs, then she hangs upside down and screams. It has been a full, far-flung, and satisfactory day; dusk falls, and we say good-bye.

Laurie Lee is a poet, not yet so well known in America as he is in England: a poet of the old tradition, at home with all sorts. Though he looks younger than his forty-five years, he has not had an easy life. At 20 he left home to make his own way in London, and has earned his living, sometimes slim pickings, as an independent writer. His travels about Europe (he has never been to America) have taken him often to Spain, where he has lived off the land by playing the violin in streets and cafes.

He has published several books of poems, a verse play and a travel book on Spain, A Rose for Winter. He and his lovely wife, Cathy, live in London's Chelsea, a favorite district of artists and writers.

The Edge of Day has already won an extraordinary wide public: it was a best seller in England (under its original title of Cider With Rosie). Parts of it appeared in magazines; excerpts were serialized for two weeks in a popular daily newspaper in London; passages were broadcast over the B.B.C. It is now an April dual Book-of-the-Month choice in America.

Good books don't always sell; the best-seller lists are usually swamped by the second- and third-rate. But now and then, once in a blue moon, a book appears that deserves its success. This time the moon is blue, and The Edge of Day is the book.

Max Cosman (review date 1 April 1960)

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SOURCE: "The Gift of Unabashed Recall," in The Commonweal, Vol. LXXII, No. 1, April 1, 1960, pp. 22-3.

[In the following review, Cosman praises the subject matter and stylistic aspects of The Edge of Day.]

Discussing a book by a lady of whom it might be said she walked with genius throughout her life, the editor of The Golden Horizon tells us that though he retains a very clear impression of the complicated characters who were her familiars, to wit, Mahler, Werfel and Kokoschka, he still remains baffled by the author herself. One thing, however, he does claim to understand: her ability to get over everything.

If, by this, Cyril Connolly means a containment of experience as much a forgetting as a remembering, then the animadversion does not apply to Laurie Lee, for the present book proves that he is one who has gotten over nothing in his past.

The Edge of Day, originally called Cider with Rosie, is an evocative and vibrant reproduction of that period in his life which extended from the age of three, when he was put down before his home in a Cotswold valley, to the point when his identity as a human being discovered he began "to make up poems from intense abstraction, hour after unmarked hour, imagination scarcely faltering once, rhythm hardly skipping a beat…." Of a period, then, to take it out of the realm of ecstasy and place it in history, that started in the final year of the First World War and continued for a decade or so thereafter.

The setting for Mr. Lee's coming of teenage was the little village of the time: twenty or thirty houses on a southeast slope, a population scaling down from squire to deaf-mute beggar, rank personalities like Cabbage-Stump Charlie, Uncle Sid, or Grannies Trill and Wallon feuding to the very grave, a tiny schoolhouse packed to the brim by "universal education and unusual fertility," and, of course, an assortment of sports, observances, superstitions, acts of violence—the whole kit and caboodle of "the end of a thousand years' life," that is, of the end of a society centering about manor, church, and unfragmented home.

But because Mr. Lee, like his archetype Rousseau, has the gift of unabashed recall, The Edge of Day is much more than a sociologist's exhibit. In every sense it is a projection of a primary human being, with nothing that concerns him considered too secret to point a moral or adorn a tale.

It refers to his father, who deserted the family, as "a knowing, brisk, evasive man." It builds up a portrait of a Griselda-like mother which, though a loving memorial, nevertheless goes in for expressions like "buffoon" and "scatter-brained." No less anti-heroic about the autobiographer himself, it gives such details as his tykish running of the nose, his childish weaning from the maternal bed, and, in extenso, his boyish induction into sex.

Yet actually frank as all this is, it is never wayward or wanton. Mr. Lee, in contradistinction to something Rebecca West has observed about Kafka, is no sadist disguising himself as a hurt child and getting even now. He may be glorifying crass casualty, but he is also a poet, a consistent one, setting down his wonder at existence with the same precision that he set it down in a book of verse like My Many-coated Man or in that former prose achievement of his, A Rose for Winter.

This precision implies a superb use of imagery. It is tempting to say that Mr. Lee cannot write a page without waylaying the reader with language richly fashioned and apposite. Does he want to figure a child's frightened reaction to something above him? "High overhead ran frenzied larks, screaming, as though the sky were tearing apart." Is the enmity of two old women, incapable of living together or away from each other, to be conveyed? "Like cold twin stars, linked but divided," he writes, "they survived by a mutual balance."

Informed with such notation, idyllic in thought and action, The Edge of Day adds up to an old-fashioned pastoral but one not untouched, as is to be expected, by contemporary understanding and irony.

William Maxwell (review date 16 April 1960)

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SOURCE: "Bright as a Windblown Lark," in The New Yorker, Vol. XXXVI, No. 9, April 16, 1960, pp. 172, 174, 177-78.

[In the review below, Maxwell lauds Lee's portrait of family, neighbors, and village life in The Edge of Day.]

The common reader will put up with absolutely anything, but how like getting a stock split or finding a four-leaf clover it is to read a book by a writer who has managed to separate the material that is his from everybody else's, whose style is an approximation of his own manner of speaking, and who with some courage lays his cards on the table. The Edge of Day, by Laurie Lee, meets all three of these requirements, and is beautiful besides, as one would expect the autobiography of a poet to be—beautiful, rich, full of stories, full of the humor that fountains from unsuppressed human beings, full of intelligence and point, full of damn near everything.

I have a fondness for first sentences, and the first sentences of this book are "I was set down from the carrier's cart at the age of three; and there with a sense of bewilderment and terror my life in the village began. The June grass, amongst which I stood, was taller than I was, and I wept. I had never been so close to grass before."

He was rescued by his three big sisters, who came scrambling and calling up the steep, rough bank and, parting the long grass, found him. "There, there, it's all right, don't you wail anymore," they said. "Come down 'ome and we'll stuff you with currants." It was the summer of the last year of the First World War, and 'ome turned out to be "a cottage that stood in a half-acre of garden on a steep bank above a lake; a cottage with three floors and a cellar and a treasure in the walls, with a pump and apple trees, syringa and strawberries, rooks in the chimneys, frogs in the cellar, mushrooms on the ceiling, and all for three and sixpence a week."

Shortly before this, his father, "a knowing, brisk, evasive man, the son and the grandson of sailors," had decamped, leaving his mother to bring up their four young children and four more by his first marriage—on what it would be an exaggeration to call a shoestring. But at least he didn't abandon them entirely; he sent them a few pounds a year, and though they were always hungry, they never quite starved, for the simple reason that they had neighbors. "See if Granny Trill's got a screw of tea—only ask her nicely, mind," his mother would say. Or "Run up to Miss Turk and try and borrow half-crown; I didn't know I'd got so low." And the child spoken to would say, "Ask our Jack, our Mother! I borrowed the bacon. It's blummin'-well his turn now."

"Our Mother" is larger than life-size. She was descended from a long line of Cotswold farmers, and the village schoolmaster, finding that she had a good mind, lent her books and took considerable pains with her, until her mother fell sick and she was needed at home and her father put a stop to her education. At seventeen, wearing her best straw hat and carrying a rope-tied box, she went into domestic service and worked as a scullery maid, household maid, nursemaid, and parlormaid in the houses of the gentry—an experience that haunted her, because she saw luxuries and refinements she could never forget and to which, her son says, she in some ways naturally belonged. "Real gentry wouldn't hear of it," she would tell the children. "The gentry always do it like this"—with the result that they, too, were haunted by what she passed down to them. She had been more than pretty, and she was still a strong, healthy, vivid, impulsive woman. She was also extravagant and a dreadful manager.

The rent … was only three shillings sixpence a week but we were often six months behind. There would be no meat at all from Monday to Saturday, then on Sunday a fabulous goose; no coal or new clothes for the whole of the winter, then she'd take us all to the theatre; Jack, with no boots, would be expensively photographed; a new bedroom suite would arrive; then we'd all be insured for thousands of pounds and the policies would lapse in a month. Suddenly the iron-frost of destitution would clamp down on the house, to be thawed only by another orgy of borrowing, while harsh things were said by our more sensible neighbours and people ran when they saw us coming.

Add to a love of finery unmade beds; add to her anger, which did not last, her gaiety, which was indestructible. To the old newspapers that were knee-deep all over the house add—in bottles, teapots, dishes, and jugs—all manner of leaves and flowers: roses, beach boughs, parsley, garlic, cornstalks. Add to her detailed knowledge of the family trees of all the Royal Houses of Europe her genuinely kind, genuinely compassionate heart. The bus driver is honking his horn and all the passengers are leaning out of the windows and shaking their umbrellas crossly, and a voice, sweet and gay, calls from down the bank, "I'm coming—yo-hoo! Just mislaid my gloves. Wait a second! I'm coming, my dears." She drove her children half crazy; she infected them with the wonder of life.

Here she is getting supper:

Indoors, our Mother was cooking pancakes, her face aglow from the fire. There was a smell of sharp lemon and salty batter, and a burning hiss of oil. The kitchen was dark and convulsive with shadows, no lights had yet been lit. Flames leapt, subsided, corners woke and died, fires burned in a thousand brasses. "Poke round for the matches, dear boy," said Mother. "Damn me if I know where they got to."

Here she is with a sick child:

Then Mother would come carolling upstairs with my breakfast, bright as a wind-blown lark. "I've boiled you an egg, and made you a nice cup of cocoa. And cut you some lovely thin bread and butter."

And here she is in bed:

My Mother, freed from her noisy day, would sleep like a happy child, humped in her night-dress, breathing innocently, and making soft drinking sounds in the pillow. In her flights of dream she held me close, like a parachute, to her back; or rolled and enclosed me with her great tired body so that I was snug as a mouse in a hayrick.

Though she bestrides the book, her largeness is not of the kind that results in somebody else's having to be small. The author says that there was no male authority in the house and that he and his brothers were dominated entirely by their mother and sisters, and yet he and the three other boys and every other man he writes about are thoroughly masculine. Somewhere, somehow, it all came out right.

They were not isolated. The stone house they lived in had once been a small manor house and was now divided into three cottages, in two of which lived two immensely old women who referred to each other spitefully as "Er-Down-Under" and "Er-Up-Atop" and lived only to out-live each other. One spent all her time making wine out of almost everything you can name, including parsnips. The other sat taking snuff and "biding still," and, if pressed, would take down the almanac and read about disasters to come, or tell the children about her father, who was a woodcutter and so strong he could lift a horse and wagon.

Gradually, little by little, the reader gets to know the people in other houses round about. The beautiful English landscape had a sufficient number of figures in it, and under the author's hand, one after another, they come to life. But not statically, not as set pieces or portraits, but as people who are being swept along in the current that flows only one way. Old people give up and die, children are picked up bodily, kicking and bawling, and carried off to school. The boys that were roaming the fields are lured under the hayrick and marry, all in good time, as trees come into leaf or shed their foliage, as plants come into flower. But not all of them, of course. For example, in the author's family there was another sister, who slipped away without warning when she was four years old, and every day of his mother's life she continued to grieve for and talk about that dead daughter, whose name is included, most touchingly, in the dedication of the book, among the living sisters and brothers.

The word I have been avoiding using all this time is "love." It is conveyed on virtually every page of this book. All kinds of love. And also, as might be expected of any place where love is amply present, murder and mayhem, fornication, incest, perversion, rape, suicide, grief, and madness. All of which the village managed in its own private way. Outsiders were not called in to punish or adjudicate, and when they came of their own accord, their questions were met by stares, and the information they sought after was given to every man, woman, and child of the village, in detail, so that they would know what it was they were to hide.

On the brighter side, here is the Parochial Church Tea and Annual Entertainment:

The stage curtains parted to reveal the Squire, wearing a cloak and a deer-stalking hat. He cast his dim, wet eyes round the crowded room, then sighed and turned to go. Somebody whispered from behind the curtain. "Bless me!" said the Squire and came back.

"The Parochial Church Tea!" he began, then paused. "Is with us again … I suggest. And Entertainment. Another year! Another year comes round!… When I see you all gathered together here—once more—when I see—when I think … And here you all are! When I see you here—as I'm sure you all are—once again … It comes to me, friends!—how time—how you—how all of us here—as it were …" His mustache was quivering, tears ran down his face, he groped for the curtains and left.

His place was taken by the snow-haired vicar, who beamed weakly upon us all.

"What is the smallest room in the world?" he asked.

"A mushroom!" we bawled, without hesitation.

"And the largest, may I ask?"


"You know it," he muttered crossly. Recovering himself, he folded his hands: "And now O bountiful Father …"

The motorcar brought all this to an end. The last days of the author's childhood were also the last days of the village, the end of a thousand years' life, in that remote valley:

Myself, my family, my generation [Mr. Lee says] were born in a world of silence; a world of hard work and necessary patience, of backs bent to the ground, hands massaging crops, of waiting on weather and growth; of villages like ships in the empty landscapes and the long walking distances between them; of white narrow roads, rutted by hooves and cart wheels, innocent of oil or petrol, down which people passed rarely, and almost never for pleasure, and the horse was the fastest thing moving. Man and the horse were all the power we had—abetted by levers and pulleys. But the horse was king, and almost everything grew round him: fodder, smithies, stables, paddocks, distances and the rhythm of our days….

Granted that one has to live in one's own Age or give up all contact with life; nevertheless, one puts this book aside not with nostalgia but with a kind of horror at what has happened. There was perhaps no stopping it, one thinks, and at the same time as one thinks that, one thinks that it should never have been allowed to happen, that our grandparents would not have put up with it—with the terrible, heartbreaking impoverishment that is not confined to a single village in a remote valley of the Cotswolds, or to any one country. It is all but general, and very few of us know, at first hand, anything else. Like a fatal disease, it has now got into the blood stream.

Peter Green (review date 23 April 1960)

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SOURCE: A review of The Edge of Day, in The Saturday Review, New York, Vol. XLIII, No. 17, April 23, 1960, pp. 45-6.

[In the following review, Green characterizes The Edge of Day as a "memorable and heartwarming autobiography," briefly noting the volume's focus on village life and similarities to the work of Dylan Thomas.]

Laurie Lee's The Edge of Day is a creamy Double Gloucester of an autobiography, "tasting of Flora and the country green," flavored with wit and poetry and Cotswold nostalgia. The author, who has played guitars in Andalusia in his time, here turns Pied Piper and leads us an enchanting dance up something that strongly resembles Dylan Thomas's Fern Hill. There's a lot of Thomas's verbal magic here, too, the same pristine delight in springtime passions and colorful rural eccentricity. Other parallels that at once spring to mind are Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals (Mrs. Lee and her brood are even more idiosyncratic, if you can imagine such a thing) and John Moore's immortal trilogy about the same area, of which Portrait of Elmbury most resembles Mr. Lee's autobiography.

The Edge of Day is set in a village near Stroud, during and after the First World War. Somehow the steamroller of industrial development had spared the place long enough for young Laurie to catch an authentic whiff of the fast-dying past: "It was something we just had time to inherit, to inherit and dimly know—the blood and beliefs of generations who had been in this valley since the Stone Age." But by the end of the book, as the author's childish ego is unfolding in the trembling excitements of adolescence, the Stone Age has already given way to the Jazz Age. Feudalism is dying with the old squire, charabancs and motorbikes roar through the secluded valley. The Edge of Day shows us, with heartbreaking clarity, the price of progress.

There are the eccentrics with the wonderful Milk-Woodish names: Cabbage-Stump Charlie, Albert the Devil, Tusker Tom, and Emmanuel Twinning, who "made his own suits out of hospital blankets, and lived nearby with a horse." There are the grannies in the Wainscot: 'Er-Up-Atop and 'Er Down-under, who feuded all their lives and died within a fortnight of each other. There is the pre-Raphaelite Miss Fluck, who was a shade cracked and landed up in the village pond. Above all, there are the Lees themselves, six of them plus Mum (but Dad had levanted) all packed into a cottage "with three floors and a cellar and a treasure in the walls, with a pump and apple trees, syringa and strawberries, rooks in the chimneys, fogs in the cellar, mushrooms on the ceiling, and all for three and sixpence a week."

Still, all is by no means Mummerset bliss, with church outings offset by cider-and-sex under hay-wains. The village is tough and independent, meting out private justice, not above a little incest and murder, but at least (as Mr. Lee points out) sparing its teen-agers the cold horrors of police-court justice. All the same, there was a price to pay for Merrie England: in cold weather old people simply "curled up like salted snails" and died. Yet so magical is Mr. Lee's prose, so bursting with the raw stuff of life, that he almost convinces the reader it was worth it.

The Edge of Day itself would alone justify half a dozen certified cases of rural rape, murder, or what-have-you; it is the most memorable and heartwarming autobiography I have read in years.

Edward Weeks (review date September 1969)

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SOURCE: A review of As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, in The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 224, No. 3, September, 1969, pp. 117-18.

[Weeks is an American editor, memoirist, and nonfiction writer long associated with The Atlantic Monthly. In the following mixed review, he relates the events recorded in As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning.]

Laurie Lee was nineteen when on a June morning in 1935 after a hearty breakfast and a pat on the back from his mother, he walked away from his country home in the Cotswolds. He was propelled by the traditional forces that have sent so many younger sons out into the world, and the Depression had doubtless strengthened his resistance to the local girls, whispering "Marry and settle down." For his journey he carried a small rolled-up tent, a violin wrapped in a blanket, a change of clothes, a tin of treacle biscuits, and a hazel stick in hand. He planned to walk to London by way of Southampton so as to have his first look at the sea, and for sustenance he would fiddle his way through any hospitable town, his hat at his feet, with a couple of coppers in it pour encourager les autres. After London he would take ship for Spain, drawn there by boyhood fancies of Seville. He had already published some of his early pastoral poems and hoped to compose and sell others along the way. But the violin was to be his mainstay, and a bystander warned him not to play too long at any spot lest he lose his audience and the collection.

Mr. Lee's adventures compose a lighthearted, resourceful travel book, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, and the hardihood with which he endured the heat, and when in the mountains, the cold, is a part of the picture. When in town he frequented the disreputable inns—or brothels—where he rarely paid more than a sixpence for a night's lodgings, and when in the open he slept in the fields, bathed in the nearest stream, and as the sun dried him, made a breakfast of goat cheese and berries. Walking, fiddling, or talking in the taverns, all of his senses were employed, including his sense of smell, and his figures of speech are sharp and delightful, as when he speaks of "tea so strong you could trot a mouse on it." The girls were generous to him; so was a professional beggar like Alf, who was "a tramp to his bones"; and a tavern keeper hearing his gay tunes kept Laurie playing for as long as he chose to stay. In London he supported himself by working for a contractor, pushing "barrows of wet cement till my muscles stretched and burned." After he had got toughened up to the job and could use his evenings for something other than sleep, he found friends in the pubs, won a poetry contest, and in the early summer bought a one-way ticket to Vigo, with a handful of shillings to see him safely in Spain.

Laurie was to walk from one end of Spain to the other—"I'd accepted this country without question, as though visiting a half-mad family"—and his impressions are as fresh now as when they first hit him. Here is his first: "I landed in a town submerged by wet green sunlight and smelling of the waste of the sea. People lay sleeping in doorways, or sprawled on the ground, like bodies washed up by the tide." The medievalism, the garish colors, the sudden hospitality of the peasants and the equally sudden cruelty—he reacts to each in his disarming way. Valladolid, with its beggars, conscripts, and priests, he found a heartless place, and he has few good words for Segovia, with its Roman aqueduct and its blood-stained Cliff of Crows. But his spirits rose as he crossed the Sierra Guadarrama at a point almost two miles high ("Gulping the fine dry air and sniffing the pitch-pine mountain, I was perhaps never so alive and so alone again"). Madrid he enjoyed for its cool and succulent taverns; in Toledo he was befriended by Roy Campbell, the South African poet, and they spent hours together in El Greco's house; Cadiz he calls "a diseased hulk on the edge of a tropic sea"; and in Valdepeñas, where the wine was genial, he was happily at ease.

Lee holed up for the winter in an Andalusian village, where he became half of a two-piece orchestra in a seaside hotel. Here as an outsider he shared in the innocent hope and the fumbling beginning of the Spanish war. But it is never quite clear why he was so insistent on rejoining the Republican forces once he had been picked up and escorted to safety by a British destroyer. His year in Spain had fired his imagination, but his attachment to the people was less than skin-deep, nor had he a mistress to call him back. Why then did he return and what happened after his reentry?

Charles Causley (review date 26 September 1969)

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SOURCE: "On the Fiddle," in New Statesman, Vol. 78, No. 2011, September 26, 1969, pp. 428-29.

[An English educator, poet, translator, editor, dramatist, short story writer, and author of children's books, Causley has served as the vice-president of the Poetry Society of Great Britain. In the review below, he offers a mixed assessment of As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning.]

One evening at his house in the high sierras of Kensington, Roy Campbell told me of an encounter he and his wife once had with a street-musician in Toledo. The fiddler turned out to be not a German, as they'd supposed, but a young man from Gloucestershire walking across Spain with a knapsack and a violin wrapped in a blanket. The Campbells asked him how he was getting on. Fine, he replied with surprising alacrity. Except for the wild dogs that occasionally woke him, sniffing and howling round at night. 'He thought they were dogs!' roared Campbell, delightedly. Then, pianissimo: 'They were wolves, man.'

Whether they were or not is irrelevant. In any case, Laurie Lee in his As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning doesn't mention the wolves in connection with Campbell, but merely says 'they may have been'. To Campbell, always extravagantly and imaginatively generous, they had to be: for the same reason that he proudly introduced young Lee to his Toledan friends as: 'A champion, this boy. Walked all the way from Vigo. He walks a thousand miles a week. It's true, by God … The funny thing is—he's English.'

Laurie Lee's portrait of the good, gentle, fundamentally shy and uncertain Campbell—a poet shamefully neglected at the moment—is one of the best things in this new volume of autobiography. The encounter between the two poets—one established, the other to be—was unplanned, casual: like Lee's journey from Slad to London and the Mediterranean.

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning is a recreation, after a gap of 30 years, of the sensations of late adolescence and early manhood. It's admittedly romantic, and the style is as juicily ripe as an autumn pear. There's a formidable, instant charm in the writing that genuinely makes it difficult to put the book down. (Conversely, some might find it difficult to pick up for a second reading in case the magic had flown.) Now and then one's conscious of a slightly overblown, Renoir-ish bloom on the text, an air of the extended set-piece, that comes dangerously close to choking the senses. But if there is a lot of sweetness, it's pure cane; not a trace of saccharin.

The book has the intensity, as well as the title, of a ballad. There's an undertone of menace as the story moves to the bloody climax of a community and a country exploding into Civil War. Mr Lee begins his journey as a political innocent; he ends it involved inextricably with a beautiful and sinister land, 'so backward and so long ignored … [where] … the nations of Europe were quietly gathering'.

As a self-portrait, it's a little muzzy: though perhaps this was the intention. Like many a clever peasant before him, Mr Lee doesn't give much of himself away; he remains peering from behind screens of glittering prose. Was he really the innocent he appears? One feels cheated, certainly, when our hero—crossing mountain and plain, hammered by hangovers and sunstroke, but never (apparently) diarrhoea or constipation—suddenly disappears into a post-office to see if there's any mail. Or, just as one gets used to him in an hotel attic, working as fiddler and odd-job man, he appears in the next chapter living in a room in the house of an unnamed expatriate English novelist. Sometimes, too, the observation seems slightly off-target. The characteristic smell of Gibraltar isn't, I'd say, that of provincial groceries. Cigar smoke, surely. And as an exNaafi busker myself, I've never heard of a song called 'Wales! Wales!' The title is 'The Land of My Fathers': a tune that Mr Lee rightly remarks will always call up its supporters from a crowd. So, I hope, will this lollipop of an autobiography.

The Times Literary Supplement (review date 9 October 1969)

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SOURCE: "Fiddler's Eye View," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 3528, October, 9, 1969, p. 1155.

[In the following review, the critic favorably assesses As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning.]

Laurie Lee writes with such apparent ease that [As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, this] autobiographical sequel to Cider with Rosie may be discounted, by readers who think only those books good which are tough going, as merely a charming picaresque trifle. But it is a work of art the finer for appearing artless.

The nineteen-year-old Laurie Lee leaves his home in Stroud, Gloucestershire, to walk to London: a folk-hero like Dick Whittington, except that instead of a cat he has his fiddle, and he does not want to make his fortune, merely his mark as a poet. And on his journey a straight line is not the shortest distance between his point of departure and his goal. The journey is more important than the landfall. He takes weeks to wander to London, going first to Southampton to see the sea and try out his theory that a young man with a fiddle can play his way wheresoever he will.

That fact established, he knows that, provided he remains fancy free, he can see the world even in the mid-1930s when millions are unemployed and most of the footloose characters on the road with him are men who are desperately seeking work or resigned to never finding it. Gifted with youth, oodles of charm and an ability to live and sleep rough, he is invulnerable. At the time when J. B. Priestley was making his English Journey, that challenging report on the nation, Laurie Lee's journey to London was merely a poet's first term in the university of life. He landed in the metropolis with almost nu'ppence, but with an American sixteen-year-old girl-friend called Cleo, living with her parents, radical bums, in half a Victorian mansion on a building site on Putney Heath. Love found a way. Invited to stay with them, Laurie climbed up a ladder into Cleo's bedroom.

As I slipped into her bed she rolled drowsily into my arms, then woke, and her body froze. "If Daddy knew about this, he'd murder you", she said. It was no idle figure of speech.

Scrambling down the ladder in the dawn's early light, I realized that blood could be thicker than theory. Later, that day, Cleo's father got me a job with the builders, and gave me the address of some Putney lodgings. I don't know what she had told him, but he'd acted swiftly. It seemed a reasonable compromise between New Thought and the horsewhip.

Lee worked for a year as a builder's labourer building three blocks of hideous flats on Putney Heath, living part of the time in a brothel-café, part with an odd Irish landlady, always wide-eyed, wide-open to experience and getting good value for his adaptable charm. And then, the flats finished, he sailed for Vigo, with rucksack, blanket and fiddle to explore like George Borrow the strangeness of Spain, but without the burden of Bibles.

Spain is the main subject of this volume, a fiddler's eye view of the peninsula in that twilit period before the election of the Popular Front government, the Spain of glaring contrasts between the starying masses and the rich few, the desperation of beggary and the pride of wealth. Lee was not the first young English writer of the 1930s to walk through Spain; the author of Marching Spain, V. S. Pritchett, had preceded him. But Lee's picaresque counterpart was the Wandervögel, footloose young Germans wandering abroad now [that] Hitler was making youth march in step.

Topographically, young Lee moves zig-zaggedly south: Zamora, Toro, Valladolid, Segovia, Madrid, Toledo, Cadiz, Gibraltar, Malaga to Castillo. Spiritually it is a journey towards maturity and, as he finds at last, commitment. The victim by day of thirst and sunstroke, by night of pulgas and chinches, often as poor as the poorest, but not shackled to land and family, he is blown like tumble-weed by the winds of circumstance across the arid peninsula to the edge of the Middle Sea. And wherever he goes, his poet's eye catches what is vivid in man or nature. Stoically he endures his many downs, hedonistically he enjoys his ups. For a week he is a guest of Roy and Mary Campbell at Toledo, as delighted by the mytho-manic braggadocio of the boozy, blustering, gentle poet as by the Catholic evangelism of his beautiful wife.

The Campbells were all for Cristo el Rey and Abajo el Socialismo! But Laurie Lee, holed up for the winter as part-time help and hand in a struggling Swiss hotel in Castillo, found himself drawn irresistibly to the people whose only hope was that the Frente Popular government meant justice and freedom at last. He took a message up to Vallegas, a farmer in the mountains, that "potatoes" (handgrenades) would soon be coming.

… although he'd made everything, he owned nothing here—40 years working the land for others. Tomorrow might be different, he said, squinting out of the window. Tomorrow, when the "potatoes" came.

The Civil War came and with it the senseless killing. Castillo, loyal to the Republic, was shelled by a Loyalist warship mistaking it for Altofaro, the Rebel-held village ten miles away. The first attack on Altofaro by the men of Castillo failed, because they forgot to take any ammunition, the second because they were not trained to fight.

When a British destroyer appeared to rescue British residents, Laurie Lee went aboard her and soon found himself back in Stroud, where a rich young lady was only too ready to abandon her husband and two children to marry him. But Laurie Lee was too embroiled with Spain to entangle himself with a woman and he was soon back, trying to volunteer for the International Brigade. Failing that, he walked over the Pyrenees, to a little farmhouse and knocked on the door.

It was opened by a young man with a rifle who held up a lantern to my face. I noticed he was wearing the Republican armband.

"I've come to join you", I said.

"Pase usted", he answered.

I was back in Spain, with a winter of war before me.

And there Mr. Lee leaves us, clamouring for more.

Julian Mitchell (review date 12 October 1969)

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SOURCE: "To Spain with a Violin and a Tin of Treacle Biscuits," in The New York Times Book Review, October 12, 1969, pp. 4-5.

[Mitchell is an English novelist. In the following review, he expresses ambivalence for As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning.]

Readers of The Edge of Day, Laurie Lee's enchanting memoir of an English west-country childhood, may remember that it ends with the adolescent Laurie sitting on his bed, making up poems. Just about a generation later, an adolescent myself, I thought he was one of the great poets of our time. Lines like:

       Blown bubble-film of blue, the sky wraps round
       Weeds of warm light whose every root and rod
       Splutters with soapy green, and all the world
       Sweats with the bead of summer in its bud

made me dizzy with delight. The physical world seemed dew-bright on the page. Growing up only a village or two away from Lee, along the valley I liked to think inspired the poem, I could identify "Weeds of warm light" with real weeds in the real river Frome.

Brightness, alas, falls from the page, and though I still feel dizzy when I read "April Rise," age has made me suspicious of dizziness, and I've even had doubts about my admiration for The Edge of Day—surely I'm biased by the pleasure of recognizing a childhood whose grasses and sky were the same as my own? Youth to that childhood, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning takes Laurie Lee to people and places quite unknown to me, but I still find it hard to come to a distanced, literary judgment about him. In fact, the book only confirms both my admiration and my doubts.

It's the story, at first, of a young man setting out from his Cotswold village in the mid-1930's, with nothing more than a violin and a tin of treacle biscuits. He wanders round England for a couple of chapters, then heads, on a whim, for Spain. There he scrapes his living, gets sunstruck and drunk, and meets other beggars and eccentrics—including the fiercely anglophobe South African poet Roy Campbell, who was kindness itself.

Much of this is very charming, though unrevealing, the violinist hiding himself behind dazzling cadenzas of similes and metaphors—"an impression of curried moonlight," a face the "color of crumpled pewter," "the patio wore an air of low-lit ennui." You can't open the book without finding at least one genuinely fine phrase, and there are whole paragraphs of brilliance. He's superb on places—this is Madrid:

It had a lion's breath, too; something fetid and spicy, mixed with straw and the decayed juices of meat. The Gran Via itself had a lion's roar, though inflated, like a circus animal's—wide, self-conscious and somewhat seedy, and lined with buildings like broken teeth.

No one, I think, will call that "the whimsical rot of the Thirties," to use another of his own fine phrases.

The doubts begin with his descriptions of people. He tells as little about others as he does about himself, and the characters are too often "characters." The dazzling prose sometimes positively obstructs insight, the arresting phrase stops one baffled in one's tracks. Roy Campbell, for instance, "had a long scorched face and the eyes of a burnt-out eagle." Since this was Toledo in summer, few male faces can have been unscorched for miles around; and what can "eyes like a burnt-out eagle" mean? He's usually so good at birds, too—there's nothing so vividly human as this is avian: "Kites and vultures turning slowly overhead, square-winged, like electric fans."

Of course one would happily settle for a young poet's finely written travel book, especially as the young poet is Laurie Lee, but it suddenly becomes something much more impressive. Lee has been carrying his marvelous descriptive gift about just like this violin—playing it merrily, watching the bright coins fall into his literary cap, but not getting down to any serious music. Then, with no warning, the Spanish Civil War is upon him, and the last 50 pages of the book contain a vivid and felt description of the hopes, fears, chaos and disasters of one small Spanish town as the war approaches, then dreadfully breaks. It all makes the notebook felicities of the poet, carefully honing his style, seem rather trivial.

He had holed up for the winter at Castillo, near Malaga, on what is now a thriving tourist coast, but which could then barely attract enough sardines to prevent the population's starving. There was, however, a Swiss hotel, where Lee formed an adaptable violin and accordion combo with the resident tout-gigolo, a Jewish boy from Cologne. The bar-man, less frivolously, was a revolutionary leader. The rain poured down, guests were few, and the Millennium was established over crude brandy.

Then the church and casino were burned. The empty villas of the rich were scrawled with hopeful signs: "Here Will Be the Nursery School," "Workers, Respect This House for Agricultural Science." But the town was divided against itself, a friendly destroyer shelled it by mistake, and an expedition to attack the neighboring town returned ignominiously—the troops had forgotten their ammunition. With the surreal clarity of a dream, Laurie Lee woke up one day to find himself being rescued by a British destroyer. "Shame to break up your holiday like this," said an officer.

All this is extremely well done, even if the intrusion of social and political reality into the aimless wanderings of a beggar-poet does upset the balance of the book—as well as save it from being merely brilliant. The similes and metaphors no longer dazzle, they illuminate; they can't be taken out of context and savored for their own sake like the earlier ones. The book ends with Lee's description of climbing the Pyrenees in midwinter on his way back into Spain to join the Civil War. The midsummer morning seems immeasurably far away. The boy has become a man. The phrase-maker has found something to write about.

Ronald Blythe (review date 20 November 1975)

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SOURCE: "All the Best Countrymen," in The Listener, Vol. 94, November 20, 1975, p. 680.

[Blythe is an English novelist, short story writer, and editor. In the following excerpt, he discusses I Can't Stay Long.]

When Laurie Lee was 17, he strolled out of his Cotswold village and tramped to Spain. The village for him was first base, a privately marked spot he could return to without feelings of betrayal. I Can't Stay Long is a group of essays, some about the marked spot but most about his restless forays from it.

On the whole, he takes wide-eyed journeys to touristy places, yet manages to avoid the results of their easy accessibility. 'Tourism is just creating a third world, one that is neither at home nor abroad.' For a natural wanderer like Mr Lee, this middle road is purgatory, and much of his best writing in this unusual collection is inspired by his determination to bring back the old sense of foreigness and distance to such goals as Beirut, Cannes, Dublin, the Caribbean, Warsaw and the remote Spain of his teens.

Laurie Lee reveals an acceptance of the underlying, built-in solitude which accompanies him on these trips. He is friendly, but not involved, and is just looking around. Having the feeling that it hasn't happened if it hasn't been recorded, he notes all he can, writing the average traveloguer under the table in the process. He has a sharp country ear for catching the revelatory chance remark and, like all the best countrymen when far from home, he retains a passion for seeing the sights, whether they be in Gloucestershire or Tzintzuntzan.

Where he goes becomes part of him: 'In common with other writers I have written little that was not for the most part autobiographical. The fear for me is the fear of evaporation—erosion, amnesia, if you like—the fear that a whole decade may drift gently away and leave nothing but a salt-caked mud-flat.' Hence, then, this warm rich texture dyed in the old romance of roving. Even in his chapter on Paradise, which he hopes will incorporate a perfect urban-rural landscape in which city and village look into each other, Mr Lee asks for 'one exclusive indulgence—the power to take off as one does in dreams….'

His urges to taste exile must now relate to the middle-aged compulsion to resavour youth. What prompted these take-offs in the first place?

Young men don't leave a lush, creamy village life like mine solely for economic reasons. They do it to confound their elders, to show off, to prove their free will, and to win honours of the outside world—and they do it with the image always in their minds of returning one day, in the cool of the evening, to lay their trophies at the villagers' feet, and watch the old boys gasp.

Laurie Lee (essay date 1975)

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SOURCE: "Writing Autobiography," in I Can't Stay Long, Atheneum, 1976, pp. 49-53.

[In the essay below, originally written in 1975, Lee discusses the writing process particularly as it applies to autobiography.]

Autobiography can be the laying to rest of ghosts as well as an ordering of the mind. But for me it is also a celebration of living and an attempt to hoard its sensations.

In common with other writers I have written little that was not for the most part autobiographical. The spur for me is the fear of evaporation—erosion, amnesia, if you like—the fear that a whole decade may drift gently away and leave nothing but a salt-caked mud-flat.

A wasting memory is not only a destroyer; it can deny one's very existence. A day unremembered is like a soul unborn, worse than if it had never been. What indeed was that summer if it is not recalled? That journey? That act of love? To whom did it happen if it has left you with nothing? Certainly not to you. So any bits of warm life preserved by the pen are trophies snatched from the dark, are branches of leaves fished out of the flood, are tiny arrests of mortality.

The urge to write may also be the fear of death—particularly with autobiography—the need to leave messages for those who come after, saying, 'I was here; I saw it too'. Then there are the other uses of autobiography, some less poignant than these assurances—exposure, confession, apologia, revenge, or even staking one's claim to a godhead. In writing my first volume of autobiography, Cider with Rosie (1959), I was moved by several of these needs, but the chief one was celebration: to praise the life I'd had and so preserve it, and to live again both the good and the bad.

My book was a recollection of early years set against the village background of my Cotswold upbringing. The end of my childhood also coincided by chance with the end of a rural tradition—a semi-feudal way of life which had endured for nine centuries, until war and the motor-car put an end to it. Technically the book was not so simple. It took two years, and was written three times. In remembering my life, even those first few years of it, I found the territory a maze of paths.

I was less interested, anyway, in giving a portrait of myself, than in recording the details of that small local world—a world whose last days I had seen fresh as a child and which no child may ever see again. It seemed to me that my own story would keep, whereas the story of the village would not, for its words, even as I listened, were being sung for the last time and were passing into perpetual silence.

The village was small, set in a half mile of valley, but the details of its life seemed enormous. The problem of compression was like dressing one tree with leaves chosen from all over the forest. As I sat down to write, in a small room in London, opening my mind to that time-distant place, I saw at first a great landscape darkly fogged by the years and thickly matted by rumour and legend. It was only gradually that memory began to stir, setting off flash-points like summer lightning, which illuminated for a moment some field or landmark, some ancient totem or neighbour's face.

Seizing these flares and flashes became a way of writing, episodic and momentarily revealing, to be used as small beacons to mark the peaks of the story and to accentuate the darkness of what was left out. So I began my tale where this light sparked brightest, close-up, at the age of three, when I was no taller than grass, and was an intimate of insects and knew the details of stones and chair-legs.

This part of the book was of course easiest. I had lived so near to it, with the world no larger than my legs could carry me and no more complex than my understanding. I ruled as king these early chapters. Then the book moved away from me—taking in first my family, then our house and the village, and finally the whole of the valley. I became at this stage less a character than a presence, a listening shadow, a moving finger, recording the flavours of the days, the ghosts of neighbours, the bits of winter, gossip, death.

If a book is to stand, one must first choose its shape—the house that the tale will inhabit. One lays out the rooms for the necessary chapters, then starts wondering about the furniture. The moment before writing is perhaps the most harrowing of all, pacing the empty rooms, knowing that what goes in there can belong nowhere else, yet not at all sure where to find it. There are roofless books in all of us, books without walls and books full of lumber. I realized quite soon, when writing my own, that I had enough furniture to fill a town.

The pains of selection became a daily concern, and progress was marked by what was left out. The flowing chatter of my sisters, for twelve years unstaunched, had to be distilled to a few dozen phrases—phrases, perhaps, which they had never quite uttered, but bearing the accents of all that they had. A chapter about life in my village school also required this type of compression. Here five thousand hours had to be reduced to fifteen minutes—in terms of reading time—and those fifteen minutes, without wearying the reader, must seem like five thousand hours. In another chapter, about our life at home, I describe a day that never happened. Perhaps a thousand days of that life each yielded a moment for the book—a posture, a movement, a tone—all singly true and belonging to each other, though never having been joined before.

Which brings me to the question of truth, of fact, often raised about autobiography. If dates are wrong, can the book still be true? If facts err, can feelings be false? One would prefer to have truth both in fact and feeling (if either could ever be proved). And yet…. I remember recording some opinions held by my mother which she had announced during a family wedding. 'You got your mother all wrong,' complained an aunt. 'That wasn't at Edie's wedding, it was Ethel's.'

Ours is a period of writing particularly devoted to facts, to a fondness for data rather than divination, as though to possess the exact measurements of the Taj Mahal is somehow to possess its spirit. I read in a magazine recently a profile of Chicago whose every line was a froth of statistics. It gave me a vivid picture, not so much of the city, but of the author cramped in the archives.

In writing autobiography, especially one that looks back at childhood, the only truth is what you remember. No one else who was there can agree with you because he has his own version of what he saw. He also holds to a personal truth of himself, based on an indefatigable self-regard. One neighbour's reaction, after reading my book, sums up this double vision: 'You hit off old Tom to the life,' he said. 'But why d'you tell all those lies about me?'

Seven brothers and sisters shared my early years, and we lived on top of each other. If they all had written of those days, each account would have been different, and each one true. We saw the same events at different heights, at different levels of mood and hunger—one suppressing an incident as too much to bear, another building it large around him, each reflecting one world according to the temper of his day, his age, the chance heat of his blood. Recalling it differently, as we were bound to do, what was it, in fact, we saw? Which one among us has the truth of it now? And which one shall be the judge? The truth is, of course, that there is no pure truth, only the moody accounts of witnesses.

But perhaps the widest pitfall in autobiography is the writer's censorship of self. Unconscious or deliberate, it often releases an image of one who could never have lived. Flat, shadowy, prim and bloodless, it is a leaf pressed dry on the page, the surrogate chosen for public office so that the author might survive in secret.

With a few exceptions, the first person singular is one of the recurrent shams of literature—the faceless 'I', opaque and neuter, fruit of some failure between honesty and nerve. To be fair, one should not confine this failing to literature. One finds it in painting, too, whose centuries of self-portraits, deprecating and tense, are often as alike as brothers. This cipher no doubt is the 'I' of all of us, the only self that our skills can see.

For the writer, after all, it may be a necessary one, the one that works best on the page. An ego that takes up too much of a book can often wither the rest of it. Charles Dickens's narrators were often dry as wafers, but they compèred Gargantuan worlds. The autobiographer's self can be a transmitter of life that is larger than his own—though it is best that he should be shown taking part in that life and involved in its dirt and splendours. The dead stick 'I', like the staff of the maypole, can be the centre of the turning world, or it can be the electric needle that picks up and relays the thronging choirs of life around it.

A. T. Tolley (essay date 1975)

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SOURCE: "Newer Signatures," in his The Poetry of the Thirties, St. Martin's Press, 1975, pp. 356-73.

[Tolley is an English educator, editor, and critic. In the following essay, he briefly assesses Lee's poetry.]

Not every poet of the thirties had a book published during that decade or even appeared extensively in periodicals. Laurie Lee seems to have been writing poems for ten years before the publication of his first book, The Sun My Monument, in 1944. He was one of the poets—among them Dylan Thomas, David Gascoyne and Ruthven Todd—who appeared in the Sunday Referee poetry column around 1934. He spent some time in Spain before the Civil War, wandering from place to place and supporting himself by playing his violin.

While in Spain, he got to know the poetry of Lorca, whose influence seems to have been a congenial and enduring one in Lee's poetry. It shows in the use of traditional images that are simple and clear, almost to the point of quaintness:

       Now I am still and spent
       and lie in a whited sepulchre
       breathing dead

      but there will be
       no lifting of the damp swathes
       no return of blood
       no rolling away the stone

       till the cocks carve sharp
       gold scars in the morning
       and carry the stirring sun
       and the early dust to my ears.
                  ("Words Asleep", Andalucia, 1936)

The telling use of clear, sharp but slightly over-realised metaphor is the most noticeable characteristic of Lee's better poetry. Lee was, indeed, most effective as a poet of sensation. When he explored feelings that are intense or complex, his poetry tended to be conventionally rhetorical and emotionally somewhat strained.

Though Lee has published only a small amount of poetry in his whole career as a writer, he has remained throughout that career a poet of decided and engaging individuality. In addition, he is one of the few poets of the thirties of working-class background. He grew up in a cottage in the Cotswolds; and, after leaving home in the middle of the decade, supported himself by playing the violin in the streets and as a builder's labourer. Apart from having a poem published in the Sunday Referee, his sole contact with the literary world during this period was meeting Philip O'Connor. Reading Lee's poetry, one would hardly suspect his origins, and he certainly does not fit the role of the worker poet. Yet he is the only poet of any talent in the thirties to have had nothing but elementary education or to have come from a working-class home.

Laurie Lee with Nicole and Françoise Cavalerie (interview date January 1976)

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SOURCE: An interview in Caliban XIII, n.s., Vol. XII, No. 1, January, 1976, pp. 149-60.

[In the excerpted interview below, Lee discusses various topics, including life in the Cotswolds, his childhood, modern life, and the concept of literary style.]

[Nicole and Françoise Cavalerie]: The Cotswolds.

[Lee]: My Mother's family have lived in the Cotswolds for six or seven hundred years. They were farmers and lived by the river Severn. Then they moved up into the hills. Some of my uncles were foresters, others horse-dealers, some coachmen. My Grandfather is my only authentic, physical link with the past (all the other stories I have heard derive from rumour or custom). He was a coachman at Berkeley Castle but at the end of his life was running a public house in Sheepscombe called "The Plough" which still stands there. He was a great man of the old tradition, with huge moustaches; all his sons were masters in their relationship to the countryside—and particularly to horses.

My forebears on my father's side came from a very small area of Dorset—the Thomas Hardy country. They were seamen and farmers, so my family had a double tradition of farming, but both sides came from counties in the West. If I could have chosen an environment to be born in or to spring from it would have been one of these two counties. But I am a mixture of these two incomparable areas: Gloucestershire and Dorsetshire, so I am very happy about it.


I was born in Stroud and came to the village of Slad when I was three, staying here until I was nineteen. I had a feeling that this landscape was as the whole world was, because it was all I knew. I had not switched on electric light 'till I was sixteen; I had not spoken on the telephone till I was eighteen—both terrifying experiences. In my work I want to show how primitive life was: I spent so much of it collecting wood for the fire, trimming the wicks of lamps, making candles. So much of my life, instead of watching television, was spent in these elemental jobs every day just keeping life alive; but it was satisfying. To make light is satisfying, but just to switch on light is not.

When I was nineteen I left home to see the world but I came back all the time. I love travelling, but I always have to come back. There are only two places that I write about and they are similar: Spain and here.

Who is living in the village now?

People living in many parts of the Cotswolds are retired people, or people having a job somewhere else, in town. But where we live it is still a farming community. The country is still alive because it is centred round three or four farms.

They are big farms, aren't they?

Yes, they are quite big—they are all the same as in my childhood. Very much the same situation exists, the difference being that the people who used to work for the Squire now work in shops in Stroud.

The Squire used to have six gardeners—now he has to work for himself. When I was a child the bell used to ring every midday, which meant that the village stopped for its midday meal—the Squire, the men in the field stopped working. So we were a working community depending on the "Big House" and the farms. Now the village is broken up into little bourgeois units having quite good jobs in towns. But the farmers are still a reality, the land is still alive.

The whole of this valley is directed towards the village. You can watch the year's life, the primeval life of the farmers, being acted out from Winter to Summer.

Many of the beautiful villages which, in my youth, were occupied by carpenters, cobblers, grave-diggers, farm-labourers, are now occupied by retired people from town: but the land itself is alive. It is not industrialised, not over-mechanised. Every night in the pub up here, there are chaps who are still working on the land: they have the flush, brown faces which belong to the land. They use some tractors but there is no large-scale farming as in some other parts of England, where all the hedges are destroyed and huge acreages are run like a factory. Here, the valley makes it too difficult, so we are lucky.

The Cotswolds themselves contain a variety of sceneries. This ridge is like a cliff of another county and the Severn is like a sea. It's strange to us, when we come down to Cheltenham; we feel we are going to another element, because up here we are in the hills. Not only is the landscape different, but the climate is different. I can imagine Cheltenham people once shivering with fear: "Who are they who live up on the hills; who are these dark, secret people?"

What about London?

I like being there, but it does not stimulate my imagination.

Can you write when you are there?

I can write there about somewhere else. London is the place where I can work because there is nothing to look at but car parks and supermarkets and traffic meters, so I stay in my room quite happily. London hasn't any mystery for me. Some people write about cities, great cities; they mean more to them: they are their background and what they consider to be civilisation. I can only write when I am thinking about the vast spaces of Spain, the villages, the peasants and this very pastoral life here. I am a pastoral; shall I say throw-back? I am old-fashioned; I do not accept cities. I find them monstrous but necessary. I am not even appalled by them to the extent of attacking them. They just don't move me; I use them like an apartment, a hotel-room. However, I do realise that 90% of literature today is written about the City.

Like Camus, who wrote the book called The Plague that's placed ir Oran. [Cider with Rosie] couldn't exist without the background of the city. It couldn't exist in a rural surrounding or a pastoral surrounding.

Maybe this is why I am so out of step.

You said you were dissatisfied with the film. [The critics add in a footnote: "The shots of Cider with Rosie were taken in the village in the autumn of 1970, as the film was to be shown on the television towards Christmas of the same year.] Do they not try to reproduce life as it was?

I don't think they understand what the reality was. They are all city folk: very good at interpreting modern life, industrial areas. But when faced with the country they go into a kind of fantasy world; they have an idealised or theatrical idea of country life.

When they came to make the film there were five hundred people in the village, dressed up in what they thought were the clothes of the twenties—in fact, they were the clothes of the eighties or nineties. They were supposed to be village people, yet their clothes were spotless. We were peasants; some families were very poor and others were far more respectable, but we were a ragged lot. During the filming the girls wore pinafores: white, spotless; and the boys, new suits. To me this was a big mistake. I would prefer a little more reality. The film was meant to be the portrait of a village but it showed a lack of understanding of what our village was like.

Do you think they try to hide the truth?

I don't think they do; they are merely looking for something charming and sentimental. They think that country life was beautiful, wild, savage. Indeed, I experienced moments of euphoria and romantic happiness because I was young; but life was also quite cruel, with disease, poverty and hunger—just as it is recalled in Cider with Rosie, people dying, people committing suicide …

It was like any country society, life was not all pretty, but we had a sense of community.

I remember when my book came out; it was written from quite recent memories of mine and of my contemporaries, my brothers and sisters and my neighbours. All these people were shocked and cried: "Oh! you said we were ragged; that we were poor and we had dirty knees and we had fleas. Oh! we were respectable, we were not like that at all." But we were, because the school was closed three times because of the fleas. But they have forgotten, or they thought it was shameful to remember or to have it written down. My brother doesn't want to say we were poor because he has a car now. Well, we were poor since there were eight of us and we only had a pound a week to keep us. There was a cake once a week, and half a sausage (my brother had a half and I had another) on Sundays. Now children have cornflakes, grapefruit, egg, bacon, instant coffee and all that. But people don't want to remember the poor times.

The film makers got the idea that the country is charming, that I am a beautiful figure, and write about beautiful flowers and lovely landscapes. I am not a protester. I don't say how horrible everything is, and that it should be different. But this is how life is: sometimes it is marvellous and sometimes it is black and evil; I just accept it, since I know life is short. My sense of reality imposes on me the necessity of believing that this is all that I should ever have of this world which I love….

Is it your philosophy of life: to enjoy every moment?

"Enjoy" if possible, but at least to appreciate intensively because life is passing all the time and it can never be recovered. If you have any desire to be immortal, the only possible way you can achieve it (if you are lucky) is to leave something behind you; not only children—they have their own lives, their own identity—but also contact with your mates so that they will remember you. For so long as they remember you, you are alive. If you have written something or painted something, people will remember you have lived.

Are you pleased with your success because it gives you an opportunity to be remembered? Is this the main reason?

Well, I don't believe anything is success. It is possible that I have communicated with some people, in Cider with Rosie for example, but, honestly, this is not why I did it. When I wrote it, it was in order to preserve a moment in time. I think my instinct, or my main motive, for writing was an attempt to catch something which I knew would pass for ever unless I caught it.

What is the part played by your friends?

I need them. I've always travelled alone and I realise that people are of supreme importance because I live through them. If you make friends you create something. If you lose friends you destroy something, I think to destroy a relationship is a crime. I do not believe in divorce because I think it is destructive. It destroys children, it destroys people's best memories. Every marriage has had good memories; divorce breaks them and everything that has happened before becomes polluted. So you have to preserve the best of life.

Are you faithful to your moral background?

I am faithful because I cannot imagine living anywhere else. This is the place—this valley. It is my birth-place and my death-place. This is where I belong.

Do you think people were happier when you were young?

Happiness is a kind of high peak of living which occurs but rarely.

When I was a boy there was no wireless, no television; the people used to come to their garden gates and talk to each other. And now on a bright, golden, summer evening the village is empty. There is nobody in the gardens, in the street, in the pub; they are all inside watching television—the television serial which, quite often, can be about country life.

People used to have more personal satisfactions. I think their sense of harmony with each other and with their environment, their community harmony, was deeper. Happiness is mere luck. You think you are happy, but it is not a constant state—it is just something you pass through, temporarily. When you say: "I am happy", you should say "I was happy".

People enjoyed satisfaction because they were living a kind of balanced life. They suffered, they were ill, children died very easily of no very important disease. But what we did have in those days was a community life. We did things together. What we don't have today is that feeling of shared experience, because like everyone else we seal ourselves off by entertainments, inside the house watching television; or if we go out we seal ourselves in isolation in motorcars. We drive in isolation to the sea, we look at the sea, and we drive back.

People have no contact, either with each other or with the land; I think this is one of the great losses we suffer.

Do you think it is possible to have this state of communion in our modern world?

Do you feel an outcast, or can you manage to be both?

I think the way technology is developing is isolating the members of the family one from the other. In the old days the family was a very closed community—its members were interdependent. It had to be or it was wrecked. Also the family was dependent on its neighbours very often—in time of trouble, and also of punishment, social punishment which had nothing to do with the police. If anyone committed a crime the community considered it a private matter. They punished him by ridicule, by physical punishment or by rejection. But the police would never, never be brought in, because they were not part of the community. They were authority—a kind of neutral authority which had no business to inquire into people's lives. There was a murder here when I was a child. The man who was murdered had broken a taboo; he deserved what he got. Many of the villagers did not really approve of the extreme punishment he received—he was not meant to be killed, but he died because of his injuries. Everybody knew who was responsible for his death, and yet, despite the fact that the police came and came again for ten years, nobody ever betrayed the true facts to them.

But today, if this happened, people would immediately telephone the police … We don't belong to each other any more. Technology and, I suppose, education are means to get away from each other, to seal ourselves off from each other. This is partly a result of the population explosion—there are more people but less communication.

Do you think it is a sign of decay?

I think anything which tends to fragment what was once unity is bound to be a sign of decay. The only things we can look to with optimism are forces which tend to unite us and to make a community feeling stronger. And that includes not only this valley and its neighbours but also the country and its neighbours, one continent and another continent.

I am depressed because of the return of petty nationalisms, which is a sign of fragmentation. This has grown up since the war. Once, we lived in small communities which did not understand each other's dialects because physically we were separated. Now, subconsciously, we are separating ourselves. The Welsh say: "We must have more difference; we must have our Welsh language; we don't accept being British". The Scots say the same. But you can preserve the uniqueness and also share a common good. I think that this separation is symptomatic of the social decay of a world which has all the possibilities of becoming unified.

As a country develops, this sense of community disappears.

Do you have a sense of family?

Yes, we have. I like that because it doesn't happen any more here. Even in the country the young are leaving their family. The disintegration of families is due to, shall we say, material progress. When I was fourteen I earned five shillings a week. Well, I could not have a motorbike with that money and go to the big Pop Festival—I had to stay here. When I was nineteen I received fifteen shillings a week. It was still not enough—so, the only way to escape (not because of a quarrel but because of a natural urge to see the world) was to live on the road like a vagabond and play the violin to earn some more money. I was able to get away but many children could not or would not do as I did.

There was another link: religion. I think it helps, but in this country we have very little religious unity in the family now.

This separation has been accentuated by the gadget of television and the gadget of the discotheque from which no imaginative satisfaction is derived because no one is involved; they are purely passive. When the old father is watching television and the children are at the discotheque, they are yielding to the technological gadgets of isolation. They are not creative, they haven't learnt anything, they have merely bought a gadget and paid for it. Parents and children have formed no community. Watching television is not like going to the theatre; it is second-rate, passive: it is an isolation.

But in many other ways I can't help feeling that life is better now because the wives have been relieved of long centuries of drudgery, they have a better chance to be women.

Yes, but having more time people must be able to use that time and nothing is prepared to help them.

This is the major problem, the major dilemma of modern society. As leisure is increasing boredom is increasing, and boredom is destructive. Life is destroyed, time is wasted in trivial occupations which are imposed by commercial interests.

An art teacher at the Ladies' College and at the Secondary Modern School at the same time is facing this problem. From the girls of the Ladies' College he can't get really anything because he says they have lost their creative power, because they have been taught what to do and what to say and they don't know how to use their imagination. Whereas the girls from the Secondary Modern School are more primitive in some ways and more inclined to use their imagination.

Yes, imagination is the thing I would like to see preserved. In a way education destroys it. I don't think we should stay illiterate, but I know there is a certain sterile stage between complete illiteracy and a really cultivated mind. This middle region is a desert, because innocence has disappeared and you are just being given a non-education to destroy yourself. And indeed, if you are not educated at all you don't have access to all the trivial information; you are primitive but you still have a sense of wonder. Your own natural vocabulary may be limited but it has not been destroyed by journalistic influences, trivial mass media influences. Working men have been given a key to find in the Daily Mirror the golden places of the world blocked by the capitalist news operators. This may be tragic but I don't despair; I accept the modern world.


Virginia Woolf was a pure stylist. I wish I could read French because I would like to read Proust. There are good translations but it is not the same. Virginia Woolf had this attention to the complex line, the subtlety of inner life.

James Joyce was the Supreme innovator, the one who got caught in a swamp of his own creating, so there is no way forward, there is no way to develop, he is a phenomenon, an isolated phenomenon from which no one really can grow.

Why is that so?

Because he finished himself in Finnegans Wake. He wrote great short stories and Ulysses is a great book, but in Finnegans Wake he took his power of innovation to such extremes that he almost broke himself with verbal eccentricities.

Do you think it's style for style's sake?

No, I think style must say something and style is the machine; if you're going to fly in the upper air you have to design something that will take you there securely and with the power to stay aloft, to survive these rarefied visions. If the style is bad, you collapse and not only do you collapse but you have no means of communication. Style allows you to move into a world of your own but also allows you to communicate with the reader. If you ignore style, if you want to be idiomatic or colloquial, you suddenly find that in ten years you are old-fashioned.

Doesn't it reflect Modern Times?

Yes, I quite agree, but you see I am self-educated. My aim in writing was to celebrate myself and the fact of being alive. I haven't written novels, romances, but I have written about the life that I lived and I loved; so I feel the intensity, the extraordinary chance of being alive since I have no sense of immortality: I have no religious consolations. So all I can do is to celebrate (not in a religious way, in my own way) being alive. In order to celebrate it, I have to tell other people about it. This is how it was to me. My intention is to say "look, listen, it was like this". If I have any style, it's because I am trying to find always the right words—the words that cut into the other person's consciousness. That's why I write and re-write all the time. It is not easy. But it is the only thing I like to do.

Do you think of the person who is going to read your book?

Yes—I always have some people in my mind when I write, I think that "she", or "he" or "they" would be interested, or they would like this, or they would laugh. But I couldn't write about an abstraction, it's always about some living person or place.

Were you disappointed when your family reacted as they did?

Well, I was surprised. Cider with Rosie was written with my family in mind, and the neighbours. I chose to write about this little valley because I thought the neighbours, for example, would like that particular joke or incident, or be reminded of that particular day. It was not nostalgia, an escape; it was a re-creation of an intensity of life. I was trying to maintain a level of intensity. My sisters have forgiven me now, but they were shocked at first: "You shouldn't tell these things, it was a family secret that we were poor, that we hadn't anything to wear." It was not a family secret; living in a village, you know everybody's secret and they know yours.

What was your reaction after the success of Cider with Rosie?

When I was writing it, I had some people in mind. What astonished me was that this little story of a small village society seemed to have significance for many people. In fact what I did not know was that I was writing about not only a way of life but about many other people's lives—a time which should remind many people of their youth, of their past and roots, and also of certain inherited traditions which I knew and they knew and which was passing away.

Sylvia Secker (review date 30 January 1976)

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SOURCE: "Writer on the Move," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 3855, January 30, 1976, p. 102.

[In the following review, Secker offers a mixed appraisal of I Can't Stay Long.]

Laurie Lee describes I Can't Stay Long as "on the whole a scrapbook of first loves and obsessions". He also records that some of the essays were written as long ago as twenty or thirty years. This no doubt accounts for the unevenness of the whole. In the [piece] called "Love", for instance one has a curious sense of déja vu. This is written in what seems in places a modernized version of the style of Rom Landau, who used the same high-flown language, and who was much admired in the 1930s by one's maiden aunts. Here is Mr Lee: "Love approves, allows and liberates, and is not a course of moral correction, nor a penitential brainwash or a psychiatrist's couch, but a warm-blooded acceptance of what one is." There is, too, a slickness which sets the teeth on edge. In the same essay he writes of the "drugfix of pop music (with its electronically erected virility)". Turning to the publisher's note at this point I read that some of these pieces have not appeared before except in the United States, which goes a long way to explaining the above but does not excuse it.

Yet when Lee drops his purple mantle he can write with a vivid, spare imagery that makes one realize how closely allied are the eyes of the poet and the painter: "the bright-backed cows standing along the dykes like old china arranged on shelves"; "motionless canals, full of silver light, lap the houses like baths of mercury". One is no longer reading but looking at the work of an old Dutch master, for it is of Holland that Mr Lee is writing. "The Village That Lost Its Children", an account of the Aberfan disaster, is journalism at its best, factual and again vivid, the emotion directly conveyed through the words of the people of Aberfan. "Hills of Tuscany" is permeated with the heat and scents of the Italian countryside, and the evocation is such that the reader feels himself to be walking those fifty miles from Florence to Siena, drinking the black wine of Strada-in-Chianti, eating bread and fruit beside a valley stream and gratefully feeling its chill waters on his aching feet.

The genesis of Cider with Rosie is to be found in "Writing Autobiography", beside Mr Lee's thoughts in general on this hazardous occupation. While allowing that there are many reasons for embarking on such a project, and were in his own case, he sees it mainly as an act of celebration and preservation. As to what is truth where autobiography is concerned, it is—for him—what you remember, with the rider that there is no pure truth, "only the moody account of witnesses". Which serves as a very precise description of I Can't Stay Long, which has however the added interest of showing the progress of the writer as writer over a span of some thirty years.

Robert Nye (review date 6 April 1976)

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SOURCE: "Laurie Lee's Poetry: English, Clean and—Well—Nice," in The Christian Science Monitor, April 6, 1976, p. 27.

[Nye is a poet, critic, and essayist who lives in Scotland. In the review of I Can't Stay Long below, he notes that the most effective pieces in the collection revisit Lee's childhood and travels.]

Laurie Lee is an underestimated English poet. He is underestimated because he has never gone out of his way to advertise himself or his work. Norman Cameron—another neglected poet—used to say of Mr. Lee that even when he wasn't very good, he was always clean. Mr. Lee's work, in verse and prose, speaks of a certain purity preserved or achieved at some cost in both eye and heart. He is also a generous and a good-humored writer.

Put all these qualities together, of course, and you have Cider With Rosie (1959), his masterpiece, that evocation of an English childhood now gone for ever, where a rare skill finds images to match a spirit of innocence and its evanescence.

I Can't Stay Long consists of all the occasional writings that he cares to preserve. He has put it together, he tells us, "partly as a means of clearing the barnacled chaos of my room but also as a way of revisting dimly remembered experiences and exercises." The volume contains pieces written over a period of 30 years. The author informs us that what they have in common is a "confident enthusiasm and unabashed celebration of the obvious."

With these credentials, you might expect I Can't Stay Long to be a slight book. It is partly so. Little in it is deeply thought or felt through—with the possible exception of an essay on the disaster of Aberfan, where many schoolchildren were killed in Wales when a slag heap slipped down the hill onto a little mining town. This piece sits uneasily amongst the others. I have mixed feelings about it. I cannot doubt the sincerity of Mr. Lee's response to the tragedy, but what I respect most is his feeling that nothing that he can say about it will do any good.

In the circumstances, it might have been better to say nothing, and to have left it out of what is otherwise a very nice book, a very charming book, a scrapbook of things noticed and mostly loved by a poet. Nice is perhaps an appalling word, but it suits Mr. Lee. There is a niceness in him both in the old sense of being minutely and delicately precise, and in the modern colloquial sense of being agreeable. It shines through these pieces.

The first section revisits the days of Cider With Rosie, Mr. Lee's childhood in West Country England, in a village where there were no regular newspapers and of course no radio or television. "Such was my background," he declares, "and in some ways it still rules me." He celebrates the inheritance of an oral tradition of language, where the only literary influence came from the King James translation of the Bible. "I am made uneasy by any form of writing which cannot readily be spoken aloud."

The second section—dealing with abstractions, Love, Appetite, Charm, and so forth—is less immediately appealing. I had the feeling that Mr. Lee was straining to find something to say. I do not believe that this strain comes from Mr. Lee feeling ashamed of being obvious, but I could believe that it came from his feeling ashamed of having to write on subjects where it would be dishonest not to be obvious. His heart is in these essays, but it moves about uneasily amid the abstractions.

Part Three, I am glad to say, is quite a different kettle of fish. Indeed, it is several kettles of fish, all rather exotic, for here Mr. Lee has collected descriptions of places he has visited. In the Thirties, at a time when he was completely unknown save for a handful of poems published in periodicals, he wandered off to Spain with a violin for company, and picked up a living drifting from here to there and playing for his supper. In the present essays, he takes us with him in a similar spirit to Tuscany, to Mexico, and to Warsaw, Ibezia, and Ireland. Nowadays, instead of fidding for his supper, he writes essays that orchestrate his reminiscences and impressions. The effect is just as joyful as the fiddle music must have been.

Derek Stanford (review date August 1983)

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SOURCE: A review of Selected Poems, in Books and Bookmen, No. 335, August, 1983, p. 28.

[A fellow of England's Royal Society of Literature, Stanford is an English educator, poet, and critic who has frequently written about Muriel Spark, Christopher Fry, and Emily and Anne Brontë. In the review below, he offers praise for Lee's Selected Poems, noting the volume's nostalgic tone and subject matter.]

Some of the purest poetry of sensuous perception that has been written this century comes from the pen of Laurie Lee whose Selected Poems are a pot-pourri of intense, yet almost antiquated, sweetness.

It is more detailed, less fantasticated, than the world of childhood which Dylan Thomas created in 'Fern Hill'. Thomas' was a retrospective vision (with all the nostalgia [of] time's passing occasions). Mr Lee, at his happiest, creates a sort of perennial immediacy—though it is one of myth fed by the present rather than realism, raw, refined or simple. Thus, he writes of the 'Village of Winter Carols':

       Village of winter carols
       and gaudy spinning tops,
       of green-handed walnuts
       and games in the moon.

Nostalgia is stated in a Foreword in which the poet tells us that these verses were "written by someone I once was and who is so distant to me now that I scarcely recognize him any more."

There is little here I can fault, though I do not like the italicised archaism in the second line—

       Fish and small birds
       do strike with diamond mouths

—which I would re-write "strike with their diamond mouths."

Most of the Imagist Movement poems dealt with urban or literary themes. I like to think of the spirits of Aldington, Flint and H.D. contemplating their rural inheritor.

Angela Huth (review date 8 December 1983)

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SOURCE: "Snake-bites of Farewell," in The Listener, Vol. 110, No. 2836, December 8, 1983, pp. 30-1.

[Huth is an English novelist, playwright, journalist, critic, short story writer, and author of children's books. In the review below, she commends Lee for his ability to movingly combine photographs and text in Two Women, an homage to his wife and daughter.]

Two Women is a tribute by Laurie Lee to the most important forces in his life: his wife and daughter. It is primarily a picture book, revealing the author to be as magical a photographer as he is spinner of elegiac words. Mr Lee dismissively refers to his pictures as 'faded snapshots' he found shut away in a drawer. Assembled together (in beautiful layouts by Willie Landels) they evoke all the wonder of anyone's photograph album—how very quickly the past becomes amazing, funny, moving. But the quality of the photographs is far from that of the average album snapshot. With the instrument of his camera, as with his pen, Laurie Lee has the talent of capturing the essence of moments, so that years later it is that essence, rather than the reality, that still shines forth, pinned unfadingly there for ever like a pressed butterfly.

But the enchanted pictures of wife and daughter in Gloucestershire, for all their spirit, are not, you realise, the work of a professional. There is no cool calculation behind them. You cannot conceive that Laurie Lee has been fussing about with a light meter, suggesting that Cathy and Jessy move a bit this way or that. The composition is unstudied, often working brilliantly by chance. There's a preponderance of backlighting, so that hair dissolves to halos: out-of-focus flowers and grasses crowd many a foreground. Such softening devices, as the young Beaton discovered, lend charm to almost any subject. But in Laurie Lee's case it is hard to imagine that any such thoughts occurred to him as he pointed his camera: he probably would not call himself a photographer at all. The point is, he was there, recording private moments of mother and daughter through the years, along with fragments of rain, sun, icicles at windows, all trembling with those incandescent colours that are the ingredients of nostalgia to all who love the English countryside.

The text that accompanies the photographs is brief. It is the story of how Laurie Lee met his wife, daughter of a French fisherman, when she was a 'stumpy, wriggly, golden-curled little girl of five'. Picking him out of a crowd of friends, she sat on his knee, flattering him with her attentions. 'I don't know who she thought I was,' he writes, 'this crumpled 22-year-old stranger—but it was then, she swears, she decided to marry me.'

Twelve years later they began their life together, penniless, pigs' liver on toast, in an Earl's Court flat. Cathy, 'acquiescent and radiant', had by now become the sort of beauty who would have captivated Augustus John: fine eyes, sharp nose, bewitching mouth set in heart-shaped bones and undulating golden hair—all, later, inherited by her daughter. Laurie Lee remembers the 'locked-up London feeling we shared at the time … the seasons creaking themselves irrelevantly over the rooftops…. The need to go back to the west grew steadily stronger.' The move was made possible by the success of Cider with Rosie. Suddenly they were rich. To Gloucestershire they sped, the village of Laurie Lee's childhood. There, after 12 years of marriage, occurred 'just an ordinary miracle'—the birth of their daughter Jessy.

Laurie Lee, full of wonder, watched mother and daughter 'continuously, in their changing phases', starting with 'the child in the evening carried round like a candle illuminating her mother's face', to the moment of 'sad enchantment of seeing something about to take wing'. In recording what he saw and felt the author has dared to tread dangerous ground. The traps of sentimentality, and the smugness of nostalgia, await all those who venture to recall private, loving worlds. Mr Lee has avoided such pitfalls by ruthless compression. There is so much he has left unsaid: and yet, by just touching upon joys, fears, hopes, regrets, we can visualise the whole essence, again, of those abundant years. And although his book is a homage to peace and happiness, it is not a comfortable book. There lurks an edge of unease. He recognised he was 'merely the temporary keeper' of his daughter's helplessness: he is aware of ever-threatening endings. 'All love lives by slowly moving towards its end,' he says, 'and is sharpened by the snake-bites of farewell within it.'

Brian Finney (essay date 1985)

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SOURCE: "Childhood," in his The Inner I: British Literary Autobiography of the Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press, 1985, pp. 117-37.

[In the following excerpt, Finney discusses Cider with Rosie from a Jungian perspective, suggesting that Lee is "attempting to describe the evolution of his individual psyche by relating it to … archetypal images."]

[Like Herbert Read, author of the autobiographical The Innocent Eye, Laurie] Lee sees his childhood as an idyll of the past to which he returns in memory for refreshment and renewal. Although longer, Cider With Rosie (1959) has the same air of simplicity verging on naivety which mirrors the child's vision of life. Yet [in his essay 'Writing Autobiography' from I Can't Stay Long] he has subsequently written of its technical complexity. The book occupied him for two years and was written three times. For a start there was the whole problem of compression which brought him face to face with the question of autobiographical veracity. He found that in writing a childhood autobiography 'the only truth is what you remember'. Armed with the conviction that 'there is no pure truth', he found the confidence to distil his sisters' conversations over a period of twelve years to a few dozen phrases, five thousand hours at the village school into fifteen minutes' reading time, and a thousand days into 'a day that never happened' in 'The Kitchen', although every incident in it happened on one of those thousand days.

The shape of the book was dictated largely by his purpose in writing it, 'to praise the life I'd had and so preserve it, and to live again both the good and the bad'. Lee was convinced that the end of his childhood 'also coincided by chance with the end of a rural tradition—a semi-feudal way of life which had endured for nine centuries, until war and the motor car put an end to it'. So he planned the book to start with the dawn of his childhood consciousness and gradually to widen its interest to include first his family, then Slad, the village in the Cotswolds where he spent his childhood, and finally the whole Gloucestershire valley in which Slad is situated. This may sound like the progressive abandonment of subjective for some kind of topographical autobiography. But Lee is well aware of the danger of allowing the autobiographical protagonist to become too much of a ghostly presence: 'The autobiographer's self can be a transmitter of life that is larger than his own—though it is best that he should be shown taking part in that life and involved in its dirt and splendours'. So the book ends on a personal note with an account of his first sexual experience with a girl, the Rosie of the title, and with his new adolescent sense of isolation as his horizons broaden beyond the confines of the valley. By ending on this note he anticipates his departure from home at the age of 19, a departure which he vividly describes in his second volume of autobiography, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning (1969).

Both these factors, compression and form, add a representative, more-than-personal element to Lee's portrait of his childhood which has helped to make the book a bestseller. Cider with Rosie is a celebration of the life of nature into which Lee was plunged as a child of three. It relates his early history to the history of the human race. His childhood begins with the experience of primeval man and ends with that of modern man living in a technological society. Deposited at the opening of the book into June grass taller than his three-year-old self, he is terrified by the experience of being lost amidst the seemingly primeval vegetation, 'thick as a forest' in which 'a tropic heat oozed up from the ground, rank with sharp odours'. For the first time in his life he finds himself cut off from the sight of other humans. The howl of terror that he lets out is like the cry of a newborn baby. This second birth that he experiences at the beginning of the book is into consciousness especially of the natural world of the countryside in which he is to spend his childhood. He and his family 'were washed up in a new land' which he sets out to explore, 'moving through unfathomable oceans like a South Sea savage island-hopping across the Pacific'. The images Lee uses are insistent in the parallels they draw between early man's experience of life on earth and his own childish exploration of his home and the surrounding countryside which he scarcely left up to the age of nineteen.

It is as if Lee were attempting to describe the evolution of his individual psyche by relating it to those archetypal images which according to Jung we inherit at birth. Jung argues that they constitute a form of racial memory which at the deepest level of the unconscious merges our unique experience with that of collective mankind. 'Childhood is important', Jung wrote late in life, 'because this is the time when, terrifying or encouraging, those far-seeing dreams and images appear before the soul of the child, shaping his whole destiny, as well as those retrospective intuitions which reach far back beyond the range of childhood experience into the life of our ancestors.' For the youthful Lee, the writer-to-be, those images connecting him to the beginnings of civilization are also destined to become the substance of his art and the basis for his essentially pastoral vision of life. Beginning with the landscape of his kitchen, he traces the way in which his childhood horizons gradually widen through exploration and experience. The outside world first manifests itself 'though magic and fear' to this small boy who shares his 'wordless nights' with his mother in one bed. His heartbeats sound to him like the marching of demons and monsters. Old men live in the walls and floors of the house. The family is terrorized by Jones's goat, 'a beast of ancient dream', 'old as a god'. The village 'cast up beasts and spirits as casually as human beings'. During his first years in Slad Lee experiences the terrors of primitive man. When they experience a drought 'old folk said the sun had slipped in its course and that we should all of us very soon die', a superstitious fear given widespread religious sanction in ancient civilizations from Egypt to Peru. With the end of the drought 'terror, the old terror, had come again', in the form of torrential rain threatening to invade the family home. Terror is personified in the hysterical reactions of his mother whom he subsequently came to realize was exaggerating the situation out of all proportion to its danger. But by the time he had acquired this insight he had also inherited her primitive fear of heavy rain, a good instance of the power that experience during childhood holds over the thinking and reflecting adult.

Lee's images of primeval life occur most frequently in the earlier part of the book. The valley, he writes, had 'been gouged from the Escarpment by the melting ice-caps some time before we got there'. Life in Slad is still in touch with the source of its existence, just as his childhood self is still connected to the origins of his species. When he is sent to the village school at the age of 4 he is confronted by hordes of savages, 'wild boys and girls from miles around' who 'swept down each day' like Vandals to rob him of his lunchtime potato. In no time he is pinching someone else's apple, thereby simultaneously becoming a member of society beyond his family and a part of the history of his race. As the book proceeds so the images evoke later more civilized phases of human history. His eldest sister who appears as 'a blond Aphrodite' serves as a representative of Greek civilization, while his youngest brother takes him into Christian times, being 'the one true visionary amongst us, the tiny hermit no one quite understood….' Towards the end of the book the time scale advances to post-feudal Britain, still enjoying a basically agricultural mode of existence. His uncles, 'the true heroes of my early life … were bards and oracles … the horsemen and brawlers of another age', yet their 'lives spoke … of campaigns on desert marshes, of Kruger's cannon and Flanders mud….' The child's natural hero worship is used to bring his development up to modern times and to place him within that context as the representative of the postwar generation.

Lee celebrates his childhood, despite its fears and terrors, as something shared with earlier civilization. The continuing link is nature which he animates and reveres. Repeatedly he employs language to show how he and his fellow villagers merge into the natural rhythm of life. At home all the children 'trod on each other like birds in hole'; they return to the house at night 'like homing crows'. His mother 'possessed an indestructible gaiety which welled up like a thermal spring'. She is a source as well as a product of nature, the personification of Mother Nature: 'I absorbed from birth, as I now know, the whole earth through her jaunty spirit'. Lee's childhood days were dominated by the change of the seasons. Yet because each season is distilled from a succession of years it acquires in the book a sense of timelessness. Remembering days spent with the Robinson children, he recalls their 'hide-out unspoiled by authority, where drowned pigeons flew and cripples ran free; where it was summer, in some ways, always'. Like Read, he makes overt his idealization as if to acknowledge and condone the adult's knowing falsification of the years of his childhood. For as an adult these moments have become timeless and therefore true to the adult's if not to the child's perception of that time.

Written after Lee had settled in London, the autobiography sets his personal loss within the wider context of the loss that Western civilization had sustained in the course of becoming urbanized and industrialized. In 'An Obstinate Exile', an essay written long after he had settled in London, Lee recognizes that there is no going back to the Slad of his childhood, that he is 'cut off from the country now in everything except heart'. He spends the latter half of the book mourning the disappearance of a way of life that nevertheless he chose voluntarily to abandon. Lee here illustrates what Edward Edinger has written of [in his 1973 Ego and Archetype] as the need for the adult to distinguish between a longing for the child's life of the unconscious, a state of nature, and childhood 'inflation' as he calls it, where the ego arrogates to itself the qualities of the larger total self. Edinger amplifies this distinction by citing the age-old controversy between man's yearning for the life of what Rousseau termed the 'noble savage' and his revulsion from primitivism, a revulsion such as Montaigne showed in his essay 'Of the Cannibals'. In Lee's autobiography the child's horizons no longer satisfy the growing young man. After the death of the village squire with its symbolic overtones, 'fragmentation, free thought, and new excitements' came 'to intrigue and perplex him'. This recognition of his voluntary participation in what he later came to see as a regrettable if irreversible process is what distinguishes Lee's from, for example, H. E. Bates's childhood autobiography, The Vanished World (1969). Bates shares Lee's sense of loss of the pastoral world of his early years but fails to acknowledge his own implication in the movement away from that world. For Bates the games they played, the fruit they picked, the days of harvesting were all better than today's. For him the present means drugs, violence, vandalism. His romanticized version of the past is never countered by any recognition that he is not simply a victim of modern 'progress' but an active part of it.

Lee's account of his gradual detachment from the idyll of his country childhood, an idyll which continues to be a source of inspiration as well as of reproach to the mature writer, closely echoes Jung's account of life's natural cycle:

The child begins its psychological life within very narrow limits, inside the magic circle of the mother and the family. With progressive maturation it widens its horizon and its own sphere of influence; its hopes and intentions are directed to extending the scope of personal power and possessions; desire reaches out to the world in ever-widening range; the will of the individual becomes more and more identical with the natural goals pursued by unconscious motivations. Thus man breathes his own life into things, until finally they begin to live themselves and to multiply; and imperceptibly he is overgrown by them.

This happens equally to individual man and to civilization at large, for, as Jung asserts, 'in our most private and most subjective lives we are not only private witnesses of our age, and its sufferers, but also its makers'. This is what Lee recognizes as he prepares to leave Slad, alone, drawn irresistably to London and then Spain. If one turns to As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning one finds that he came to see his departure from Slad as a further birth into the wider world symbolized by his first awakening in the Spanish countryside: 'I felt it was for this I had come; to wake at dawn on a hillside and look out on a world for which I had no words, to start at the beginning, speechless and without plan, in a place that still had no memories for me.' In one sense Spain offers him everything missing from his cosy valley in the Cotswolds—vast vistas, alien customs, and a feeling of freedom with its 'anarchic indifference' to his presence there. Yet in another sense his experience of Spain is conditioned by his childhood immersion in the countryside and reproduces many of the dramas of his youth but in an adult form. Finally it is Spain that carries him out of the primeval past that Slad represented for him into the midst of the present, the horrors of a twentieth-century civil war. His active involvement in that war is a concrete realization of Jung's assertion that 'the life of the individual … alone makes history'.

Michael Glover (review date September-October 1991)

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SOURCE: A review of A Moment of War, in Books, London, Vol. 5, No. 5, September-October, 1991, p. 26.

[Glover is an English nonfiction writer who frequently focuses on historical events and themes. In the review of A Moment of War below, he finds Lee's autobiographical account of the Spanish Civil War "an affecting, engaging document."]

Laurie Lee is one of the most popular and least prolific of our contemporary novelists: the sequence of autobiographical novels that began with the publication of Cider with Rosie in 1959—which has sold almost two million copies in paperback alone—will be continued this autumn with the appearance of A Moment of War, a fictional memoir of Lee's experiences as a volunteer in the Spanish Civil War in 1937.

The enduringly popular Cider with Rosie was rich—almost too rich, some might argue—with the sensuous, timeless details of a Gloucestershire childhood; by comparison, A Moment of War is a spare, often stark evocation of 'the stupefying numbness of war'—and a timely reminder of the fact that the heroism of war is seldom shared by its bewildered combatants.

Lee crossed over the Pyrenees from France into Spain with only a few books, a diary and a violin. He came as a volunteer, burning with idealism (like so many other recruits to the International Brigade), hopelessly optimistic, desperate to join the Republican forces in their ill-starred fight against the fascist battalions of Franco and his allies.

What he discovered was not a welcome but suspicion, hostility—and imprisonment. Instead of the ardour, the headiness, of battle, he experienced months of frustration, inertia and impotence in the teeth of a muddle-headed bureaucracy. And when eventually he got his chance to kill a man in self-defence, his thoughts were not of euphoria, but of guilt, confusion and self-doubt: 'Was this then what I'd come for—to smudge out the life of an unknown young man in a blur of panic which in no way could affect victory or defeat?'

A Moment of War does not rank amongst the masterpieces of war literature—it pales by comparison with George Orwell's partial, first-person account of that same war, Homage to Catalonia, for example—but it is an affecting, engaging document for all that, full of finely observed cameos of human suffering.

Valentine Cunningham (review date 18 October 1991)

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SOURCE: "On the Road to Teruel," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4620, October 18, 1991, pp. 11-12.

[In the review of A Moment of War below, Cunningham describes Lee's autobiographical portrait as "momentous, extraordinary, [and] compelling."]

Laurie Lee's account of what he did in the Spanish Civil War—momentous, extraordinary, compelling—reads like a confession. But it is a very belated one. As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, the second volume in what we are now to regard as the Cider With Rosie trilogy, ends with our author slipping through a gap in some frontier rocks and entering a Republican farmhouse with the greeting "I've come to join you." "I was back in Spain", he wrote, "with a winter of war before me." That was in 1969, thirty years after the Spanish War had ended. A Moment of War opens with just that event, those very words. But now we are in 1991. What, you can't help wondering, has kept Laurie Lee so long? After only a few pages, it's not difficult to guess that the terrible nature of what he has to relate is responsible for the conspicuously late showing.

This traveller still has innocences to shed. For a second time, he enters Spain as the naif, the idiot, a kind of baby holy fool. He had, of course, literally lost his virginity long since. In As I walked Out, he, and we, met the motherly but sexy Concha in Madrid. There was also a tempestuous affair with a well-off woman up on the heights of Hampstead. She'd followed the building-site poet right to the French border. Now he carries a stash of her letters, detailing their doings in bed, hidden at the bottom of his pack. But still he is a kind of virgin. He claims not to have heard of prophylactics when the militia offers him some. A young zany of the road, laden with books, a camera and a startling violin, he remains a great puzzle to the International Brigade's hard men when he is called on to explain himself. To the pair of brutish Russian secret policemen and the clean-cut Bostonian killer, he is obviously a spy (that camera, for a start). But American Captain Sam is still wondering what Lee's "game" is right to the end of his stay in Spain. The Scottish proletarian Volunteer, Doug, thinks he's wet behind the ears—though he also thinks all Englishmen are softies. Marooned in the snows near Teruel, Lee and a pretty Portuguese boy are nearly shot by a fierce Welsh Brigadier with a huge and foully bandaged foot who takes them for a pair of "tarts". Part of the problem, clearly, is that although he is, by the normal standards of the International Brigade, a veteran of Spain, and is commonly taken by Spaniards to be French, Lee still wears a boyish sort of Englishness like some kind of spiritual suiting. His touchstones are boyhood and England. A bombed and burning house in Valencia, lit up from the inside, reminds him of a childhood turnip-lantern. A foul-tongued Catalan anarchist's pox-ravaged face looks stubbled like one of the English graveyards he knew in childhood. In a freezing hole in the Spanish earth, he thinks of the freezing cottage bedrooms of home, and feels not too badly off.

England haunts him like the five Chanel-scented English pound notes the Hampstead woman posted after him. (We hear a lot about these.) This particular Volunteer for Liberty was, as ever, led by the nose. And our Laurie Lee comes on still as the prose laureate of smells familiar to us from Cider With Rosie onwards.

At my back was the tang of Gauloises and slumberous sauces, scented flesh and opulent farmlands; before me, still ghostly, was all I remembered—the whiff of rags and wood-smoke, the salt of dried fish, sour wine and sickness, stone and thorn, old horses and rotting leather.

In Spain, there are still fabulously scented erotic inductions to be invoked in that magically wide-eyed, synaesthetic prose: "Burning cold she was, close as a second skin, her mouth running across my chest. In spite of the cold, I smelt her unforgettable smell, something I'd never known in anyone else—a mixture of fresh mushrooms and trampled thyme, wood-smoke and burning orange." This is Eulalia, who turns out to be a sexual secret agent, a sort of Mata Hari, a practised lurer of men to death at the hands of the shadowy Republican gunmen, sent to keep an eye on him. And the collapse of Spanish good-times, allure and romance that she represents is central to the story—Lee's very potent version of a familiar narrative outline—of the collapse of between-the-wars ideals and idealism, the end of the great personal and collective leftist international Utopian romance of the 1930s that was prompted and then finished off by the Spanish Civil War.

In Lee's stunning account, the old Cervantick, edible, sunny Spain he has known, a country whose miseries and privations had a tolerable, even lovable grandeur and majesty, a land that had metamorphosed so easily into the great good place where a "grand gesture" against fascism felt necessary and appropriate, has been tragically degraded into an intolerably miserable scene, a freezing, hellish landscape, where the defenders of liberty are barely getting by on bits of donkey meat and sips of acorn coffee tasting of rusty buttons, and where the military and political gestures they make prove nearly as empty as their stomachs.

Over the years since the Spanish Civil War, we have, of course, heard a great deal from other Volunteer memorialists about the daft heroism and heroic daftness of the campaign, the farcical jamboree of non-training, the utter silliness of the matériel—jamming guns, ancient rifles, wrong ammunition—with which they had to confront fine modern German and Italian weapons; as well as the political mess, the empty words, the hollow rhetoric, the bizarre and scandalous incompetence of the command, high and low. And there have been many moving texts devoted to the sufferings of the men and women who flocked to the Republican side; not least poems about the terrible cold in the high sierras that proved such a shock to the people who thought Spain was sunny Spain all the year round. But nobody has, I think, succeeded so well as Laurie Lee in dramatizing the wintry horrors—personal, political, military, geographical—when Spain's potential for sourness, sickness and rot took over completely.

"God froze us", says one survivor of the terrible struggle for the snow-bound mountain fortress of Teruel, where the frozen corpses were stacked up like faggots. Lee's description of the desolation on those "frozen terraces" turns into one of those classic scenes of warfare going wrong in the snow—Napoleon's retreat from Moscow, or von Paulus's regiments at Stalingrad. In such a rebarbative climate, it's no surprise to find everyone and everything, people, animals, streets, towns, buildings, unremittingly ill. Everybody is tubercular, consumptive, sniffing, coughing. One fearfully skinny chap, about to be gunned down by Stalinist thugs in a back room, coughs weakly, "like a little dog". His plight is the general one.

What makes A Moment of War so mesmerizing is that Lee turns out to know at first hand as much about the skulduggeries in back rooms and up back streets as he does about freezing to death out on the high plains. And he knows about them as both patient and agent. Suspected of spying—his passport showed that he had been in Morocco just when the Franco-ists were plotting their coup—he twice escaped execution only by a whisker. The first time, he was kept two weeks in a freezing hole in the ground. When Dino the deserting dinamitero was taken out to be shot, Lee inherited his forage cap—the hat-band still warm and sweaty. His turn was next. The second time, he was put on death row in Albacete, and was granted the dubious last sexual rites, a "huffing, puffing" girl and a "wriggling" boy, as well as the final medical injection. Only the last-minute intervention of a mysterious Frenchman, who ushered him over the French border, saved his skin. Nor was this all. On his way out of Spain, given false papers, possibly deliberately, he was shut up for weeks in a Barcelona prison, alone, with no food except for a small sandwich got daily from a nun. Only the accident of Bill Rust, editor of the Daily Worker, hearing of this Englishman in prison, got him out.

Worse, though, than all of this, this perpetual victim of the Republican anxiety to hurt and kill was—seemingly as some sort of reward for having his life spared, or even as a weird test of loyalty—roped in by the Bostonian, Sam, to serve in a gang of internationalist night-time thugs, a special squad whose job was clandestinely to sort out suspects, to "get" alleged renegades and put the gun to the back of the neck of those pronounced disaffected. For a time, Laurie Lee was the kind of terror-monger Orwell's Homage to Catalonia is so shocked by.

Repeatedly, Lee's narrative confesses to the sort of moral sleaziness that infected this war—not only the "dark little games", the "malevolent jokes" of the nocturnal hit-men, but also the transgressions and blasphemies of war that Spain gave a special inflection to. Lee confesses to having been excited by the sight of bombing. Shame packs his narrative of the moment when in a sacked chapel he turned "petty violator", threw his kit on a desecrated altar to claim it as his bivouack, lay down on it and lit up a cigarette. By this action, "I believe I stained the rest of my life". Perhaps that is why it has taken almost the rest of his life to write about it.

In a bungling, "awkward, pushing, jabbing, grunting, swearing" hand-to-hand fight at Teruel he bayoneted a fascist soldier to death. The moment was so awful that he passed out, sick, hallucinating, paralysed, speechless. "Was this", he asks in a paragraph of Wilfred Owen-like intensity, "what I'd come for, and all my journey had meant—to smudge out the life of an unknown young man in a blur of panic which in no way could affect victory or defeat?" After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Back home, in Hampstead, the sense of moral staining spreads over his love-making: love, there, was "without honour". These are the book's last words.

Fortunately for us, as this book and a whole writing career marvellously reveal, the battlefield speechlessness did not last, and what Spain did for Laurie Lee was to bring home the importance of, and to enable, truthful words, truthful art, in the face of the liars, rhetoricians and propagandists. He played a part in the dubious subservience of art to propaganda. One time, the mephistophelean Boston Sam dragged him off to a cellar in Madrid to assist an obese Austrian and a pretty Spaniard in reading out some bad English translations of Machado in a vain short-wave broadcast beamed at the USA. As bombs hit the building, though, a broken-down fiddle was suddenly shoved at him, and he played some dances he'd learned on his first Spanish visit. This was by no means the "recital" Sam instantly announced it as, but the women sheltering in the room smiled. "Musica!… musica!" they indulgently assured their children. The zany was, after all, right to think a violin apt for a war. Violinists had their particular uses and truths. Especially writing ones.

In yet one more memorably described moment of telling absurdity, besuited Harry Pollitt, a bald pocket-minotaur fresh out from London's Communist Party headquarters, rouses the raggle-taggle troops who will soon perish at Teruel with his renowned stump oratory, so much so that for a moment they "howl for victory". Moments later, he's saying he can do "nowt" about getting sick volunteers repatriated. Memories like that starkly condition Lee's determination to tell it potently, but above all truthfully, however painful and belated the necessary owning up to transgressions past, his own and other people's, might be.

Hilary Corke (review date 26 October 1991)

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SOURCE: "My Enemy's Enemy Is Not My Friend," in The Spectator, Vol. 267, No. 8520, October 26, 1991, pp. 38-9.

[Corke is an English educator, poet, editor, and translator. In the following review, Corke calls A Moment of War a "remarkable story."]

In December 1937 Spain was tearing itself apart and Laurie Lee could no longer bear to remain outside the country that had given his mind its second birth. He was 'betraying the people of Spain'. Failing to convince the regular recruiters, he made himself into a one-man International Brigade and hiked over the Pyrenees. The closing page of As I Walked Out has him walking with his violin between the two rocks that marked the frontier and knocking at the first door. 'Pase usted.'

That was published in 1969. Now, at last, 22 years later [in A Moment of War], we find out what happened next: which was that his apparently genial host couldn't believe that anyone could possibly be so romantic and impractical as to do what Lee said he had done. A violin! This Englishman was self-evidently a spy. So no sooner had he arrived there than the people of Spain popped him into, literally, an oubliette; where he remained for a fortnight in earshot of the firing-squads, until eventually suddenly released in apparently as inconsequential a manner as that in which he had been incarcerated.

For many of us that would have been enough. To escape by the skin of one's teeth summary death at the hands of the very people whom one has with the greatest difficulty and devotion come to help might well dampen the old ardour. Not Lee's. He was ever 'he who suffers and observes', and he shrugged it off as one of those things that happen in war, happen in Spain. It was not long before he had to shrug off the same again. Another paranoiac politico, another hell-hole jail, another firing-squad, again a miraculous intervention, no doubt by the literary guardian angel who was determined to preserve him to tell the tale. And then a third time; at which point it was decided that too much of the communist war-effort had already been devoted to not quite shooting Lee, and he was deported.

That is the mere frame of this remarkable story, but it is the canvas stretched on it that holds the attention. Lee's great gift has always been, paradoxically, a negative one: he marvellously lacks the veils of hindsight and subsequent reflection that for most people falsify, even though they may embellish, their visions of their own past. Between Lee at seventysomething and Lee at twentysomething there seems to be nothing but shiny air, not even a sheet of glass. He suggests little or nothing of what he feels about it now, that prismatically muddled violence, Looking-glass-land with vipers, that he happily epitomises as 'surrealist chess', though he leaves lying scattered clues from which we may well infer. At the time he simply accepted it as the pure essence of being alive, at that moment, in that place, for that person. He experiences, with brilliantly sympathetic clarity, but he doesn't, so far as the surface of his page is concerned, reflect.

That is therefore left for this moment, this place, and (at the present juncture) this person. And I note first that half the political affiliations in the world are based on the very questionable assumption that my enemy's enemy is my friend. He is not necessarily anything of the kind. Mutual enmity is not a binary and linear thing; it is just as possible for each of the three corners of a triangle to consume in hatred for the other two. Those splendidly idealistic young Englishmen who joined the International Brigade noted only that they had in their sights the grand enemy, Fascism, four years before the total conflict broke out. They hadn't worked out that at the same time they would be joining a vicious conspiracy of lefty riff-raff whose mental gamut ranged from the psychotically violent to the socially inadequate, and who spent more of their energy purging and slaughtering imagined heretics in their own ranks than they did Franco's Moors, who presented much less easy targets. In contradistinction it will be recalled that Evelyn Waugh's persona Guy Crouchback rejoiced at the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, for now 'the enemy stood plain'; and mourned when the thieves fell out and the stirred moral picture became muddied again.

In that same year Louis Aragon and Nancy Cunard (some coupling!) circulated to authors a wondrously angled questionnaire:

Are you for or against the legal government and the people of republican Spain? Are you for or against Franco and Fascism?

Waugh, in almost the sole dissenting voice, replied that

If I were a Spaniard I should be fighting for Franco. As an Englishman I am not in the predicament of choosing between two evils.

Those who failed to perceive the existence of the predicament, and that in trying to suppress a Fascist Germany they were simultaneously attempting to set up a Cuba of Europe, may still occasionally be seen propping up the sad mahogany of certain seedy bars. Sooner or later a toady will indicate to you such a one, whispering that 'He was in Spain.' If that is an epigraph to A Moment of War, it is so in a very different spirit. Lee was 'in Spain' but it was a real Spain, of soil, snow, blood, pals, girls, not that dystopia of diseased politicking in the shadow of, in his own phrase, 'the deadly cynicism of Russia'. His fellow Englishmen, to say nothing of the other nationalities, were ex-convicts, alcoholics, wizened miners, dockers, noisy politicos and dreamy undergraduates busy scribbling manifestos and notes to boyfriends, but he did whatever the powers allowed him to do to aid them, for

we shared something, unique to us at that time—the chance to make one grand, uncomplicated gesture of personal sacrifice and faith which might never occur again.

But everything between the lines of this excellent book denies the possibility that Lee gave any considered measure of intellectual assent. As to the toady in the watering-hole, perhaps the only comeback at this late date is a soft, 'Ah really? Benidorm?'

Albert Hoxie (review date 2 May 1993)

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SOURCE: "A Wide-Eyed Witness to War," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 2, 1993, pp. 3, 10.

[Hoxie is an educator who specializes in history. In the review of A Moment of War below, he considers Lee's book to be essential for "anyone who wants to understand what war is actually like, when it is not being dramatized, hyped, heroized or propagandized."]

Laurie Lee's memoirs are little known in the United States, though in English schools his first two volumes occupy about the same place that J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye has filled here. A Moment of War, the third volume of Lee's story, had a substantial run on the British bestseller list last year—five decades after the first volume appeared.

Lee's prose has much the same kind of spare elegance and direct, heart-wrenching clarity of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address; and both Lincoln and Lee are dealing with that most painful of all types conflict: civil war. This book is Lee's account of his efforts to join the International Brigade in Spain in December of 1937.

Lee was born in 1914 in a village in Somerset. He has recounted the story of his adolescence in Cider With Rosie, a memoir of gentle humor and great charm. At 19, he walked out of Somerset with little money and a fiddle to confront the world, going first to London, where he managed to earn enough money to get himself to Vigo, Spain. From there, he walked across Spain in the blazing July that saw the beginnings of the Spanish Civil War. His account of that was called As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, published in 1969; he recorded the life he found in the villages of Spain, for it was in those that he spent most of his time, detailing indelibly the life and tone of a country poised on the brink of disaster. Now, almost a quarter of a century later, comes this memoir of the look and taste and feel of that disaster.

I don't know of any book that captures as clear-eyed and desolating a view of the realities of war. Christopher Isherwood in his Berlin Stories referred to himself as a camera, but Lee is far more genuinely just that. Lee is a poet (he has published verse along with his newspaper writings and memoirs), and he writes with the care of a poet who must weigh each word to find the precise one that will be the most telling and the most true. The language is always simple, direct and unornamented. In the entire work, there is not one cliche, no easy, borrowed phrase. Each word rings as true as though newly minted for this one purpose, fresh and clear as a winter morning.

There are no judgments, no romanticizing, no attempts to explain what is inexplicable. He simply records with the bleak honesty of a recording angel what he saw. Beside this work, George Orwell's account of this Civil War is angry and judgmental. Hemingway's is romantic and soft, for all of the Hemingway macho bravado. This is the reality of a land numbed by bitter cold, starvation and so much death that death no longer holds any meaning.

Lee was then, and has remained, a Socialist, based on his absolute faith in the simple goodness of people; and it was that belief that led him to walk into Spain in December over the snow-covered Pyreness to the aid of the embattled Republicans, carrying a camera, which was taken from him immediately, and his violin, but no gun. He describes himself: "I was at that flush of youth which never doubts self-survival, that idiot belief in luck and a charmed life, without which illusion few wars would be possible." Knowing virtually nothing of the real situation in Spain, he arrives in a paranoid, brutalized, totally disorganized world with few means of simple survival, much less any hope of waging a war against an enemy that is fully equipped, organized and supported by massive aid from a Germany and an Italy eager to use the Civil War as a testing ground for the new weapons and tactics with which they will launch World War II.

Nothing is ever explained to him. At one point he is put in a prison cell to await execution as a spy, though for no reason ever given to him. There he spends three weeks, with one sandwich a day to keep him alive, only to be released as mysteriously as he had been arrested. He is shipped to Tarazona, close to the front at Teruel. There, now as a member of the Brigade, he is shown a photograph "of a slight, round-shouldered youth, with dark, fruity lips and the wide, dream-wet eyes of a student priest or a poet. His brow was smooth and babyish, his long chin delicately pointed." No one knew the name of the boy, so they called him Forteza, which was written on the back of the photograph.

Lee and another soldier are told only that the boy was a hero of the Barcelona uprising; a gunman, dynamiter and killer of three leading Trotskyists; had been kidnaped, tortured, condemned to death and had escaped and headed south. It is their job to find him and give him protection before any others find him, for he has lost his nerve. The boy is located, being cared for by a girl Lee has met before:

On her rumpled bed, shaking with fear or fever, was the youth we instantly recognized from the photograph, except that the once smooth face of the priestlike dreamer was now savagely and bitterly scarred. When he saw Rafael and me, he shrank back on the bed, doubled up, and drew his knees to his chin. He broke into a paroxysm of coughing, while Eulalia soothed him, and wrapped a ragged blanket around him…. Forteza grew quiet, then pulled himself into a sitting position. He asked if we had any cognac. Rafael was carrying a flask and gave him some, which he drank in little birdlike sips. Then he smiled and let us draw him to his feet. Rafael grew hearty and wrapped his arm around Forteza's shoulders. "We were worried about you, man," he said, guiding him toward the door. "For God, why d'you take such risks?"

I saw the panic slowly fade from Forteza's eyes as he struggled to find his balance. Eulalia lightly touched the back of his neck, then put her cold hand to my cheek. "He could be you, little brother," she said. We helped the lad down the stairs and supported him through the streets. Forteza's skeletal fame between us was as light as a bundle of sticks.

When we got him back to the house, Kassell was drinking coffee by the fire. Jean and Pip left their chess game, the Dutchman stopped writing, and all joined Rafael and me by the door. Then Kassell got up and strode forward, crinkling in his black leather mackintosh, threw his arms around Forteza and kissed him.

Forteza stood quiet, neither shivering nor coughing now. "Welcome, comrade," said Kassell, with his watery smile. "We thought something bad had happened to you." He ran his hands quickly over the boy's thin body, and led him into the inner room. Jean and Pip returned to their chess game, and the Dutchman to his writing. A little later we heard the sound of a shot.

There it is, a fair sample, no editorializing, no sentimentalizing, no excuses, a bleak report of a fragment of war. Lee was not yet a poet, or a writer, when he experienced these events, which were burned into his memory like a brand, still indelibly there to be written in this book more than 50 years later. It is a look at the kind of human tragedy that continues to exist today in places such as Bosnia; that seems to be eternal.

For anyone who wants to understand what war is actually like, when it is not being dramatized, hyped, heroized or propagandized, this is the book. For those who still cherish the beauty and the flexibility of the English language, this book and Lee's other two memoirs are a treasure.

Verlyn Klinkenborg (review date 25 July 1993)

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SOURCE: "One Poet's War," in The New York Times Book Review, July 25, 1993, p. 7.

[Klinkenborg is an American editor and nonfiction writer. In the review of A Moment of War below, he discusses the contemporary relevance of Lee's autobiographical account of the Spanish Civil War.]

For some artists and writers—I think of Goya or Michael Herr—war is a kind of fugue state, from which they return with a lingering vision in which you feel an expressive haste, a hysteria under flushed skin. These are the artists and writers for whom war retains a kind of esthetic sublimity, immoral to be sure and always undercut by the blatant ironies of combat, but with the mix of fear and beauty that Wordsworth could find in a mountain landscape unmolested by shellfire or that Byron could find in incest. The emotion with which such works are charged is a commentary on war and a gauge of authenticity. But there is another school of artists and writers for whom war obviates all commentary, for whom war, austerely depicted, is itself a commentary on human civilization. That is the school to which the English poet and memoirist Laurie Lee belongs.

Mr. Lee's new book, A Moment of War: A Memoir of the Spanish Civil War, is a bleak monument to a conflict that is remembered now mainly as an augury of World War II. But A Moment of War is also a reminder that irony, so debased in the ordinary way of speech, is something more than odd coincidence or amusing contradiction. Irony is the grim set of the mouth on a frozen corpse, a violent understatement.

Before crossing the Pyrenees into Spain in December 1937 at the age of 23, Laurie Lee had already walked to London from the Cotswold village in which he was raised. He had also walked across Spain on an earlier visit, supporting himself by playing violin in the streets. The life of Mr. Lee's native village and his foot travels are the subjects of his two earlier memoirs, Cider With Rosie (1959) and As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning (1969), to which A Moment of War is the sequel. These are extraordinary books. Mr. Lee's prose is utterly distinctive, not least of all because one tends to read it as if it were somehow retroactive, a product not of the present age but of the late 1930's. It has Orwell's plainness without his didacticism. It can be called poetic, because its effects depend so much on Mr. Lee's use of metaphor, without ever falling into the kind of indulgence, the adjectival bog, you find in the memoirs of Patrick Leigh Fermor, who also happened to be walking across Europe about the same time as Mr. Lee. In Mr. Lee's prose, you can hear the maturity of the man and the writer, but across his pages there walks a youth whose thoughts are largely silent to the reader, whose footsteps echo in a landscape that in the mind of that independent young man, no one had ever seen before.

It is hardly demeaning to say that when he left home at 19, Mr. Lee was an ignorant boy, a sophisticate only in the customs of rural living. But his ignorance made him adaptable, and it cushioned his sensitivity. When he returned to Spain in 1937 to join the Loyalists (his earlier trip had ended with his being plucked from the southern coast by a British destroyer at the outbreak of the civil war), Mr. Lee was arrested as a spy and imprisoned for two weeks in what was little more than a grave with an iron lid. Still, he writes, "my situation didn't disturb me too much … I was at that flush of youth which never doubts self-survival, that idiot belief in luck and a uniquely charmed life, without which illusion few wars would be possible."

Certainly, illusion was the substance on which the Spanish Civil War fed. After being released from the grave (he was twice again imprisoned before leaving Spain), Mr. Lee found himself among a ragged company of volunteers—Russians, Frenchmen, Czechs, Americans—who drilled with wooden sticks and assaulted simulated machine guns (men beating rhythmically on oil drums). For anti-tank practice they hurled bottles at a pram. All this while Hitler was arming Franco.

The effect of military discipline is to suppress individuality, but in the preposterously unmilitary International Brigade, the collection of volunteers who flooded into Spain to fight in the Republican cause, individuality was never suppressed. "They were (as I was) part of the skimmed-milk of the middle-30's. You could pick out the British by their nervous jerking heads, native air of suspicion, and constant stream of self-effacing jokes. These, again, could be divided up into the ex-convicts, the alcoholics, the wizened miners, dockers, noisy politicos and dreamy undergraduates busy scribbling manifestos and notes to their boyfriends."

And in accounts of other wars—World War I, especially—you sense that behind the front lines there is an order that frays completely only where the trenches end and the barbed wire begins. You can hear the reflection of that order in, for instance, the rhythms of Sir Osbert Sitwell's memory of Ypres, in his memoir Laughter in the Next Room: "the broken and deserted city, the very capital of no man's land, extended its smashed streets and avenues of trees, black, angular shapes, sharp and ruthless, such as the contemporary gangs of Futurists would have wished to create had they been able to kidnap the God of Nature."

But in A Moment of War, you sense that there was no order anywhere in Spain and that a different kind of narrative is required, a story told in "gritty, throwaway lines—quietly savage, but with no dramatics." In paragraph after paragraph, scene after scene of this book, the reader comes upon terse non sequiturs, because the only pattern in Mr. Lee's experience of the Spanish Civil War was its lack of pattern. Even the climactic moment, the one scene of battle, expires in derangement: "I headed for the old barn where I'd spent my first night. I lay in a state of sick paralysis. I had killed a man, and remembered his shocked, angry eyes … I began to have hallucinations and breaks in the brain … Was this then what I'd come for, and all my journey had meant—to smudge out the life of an unknown young man in a blur of panic which in no way could affect victory or defeat?"

Other men, oppressed by what they learn of themselves in war, have also asked this question. Perhaps the greatest surprise in reading A Moment of War, published so late in this brutal century, is that Laurie Lee can still make us feel that question's implicit shame, first felt by him nearly 60 years ago in a barn outside the ruined city of Teruel.

Bernard Knox (review date 22 December 1994)

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SOURCE: "Poets of the Spanish Tragedy," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XLI, No. 21, December 22, 1994, pp. 18, 20-2.

[In the excerpt below, Knox examines Lee's account of the Spanish Civil War as presented in A Moment of War.]

[Lee came to Spain] in the winter of 1937. He was twenty-three years old, and not yet widely known as a poet, though when in Spain he met Fred Copeman the commander of the British Battalion, who had been his strike leader when Lee worked as a builder's laborer in London, he was greeted with the words: "The poet from the buildings. Never thought you'd make it."

This was not his first visit to Spain. In the spring of 1936 he had sailed, with little more baggage than his fiddle, to Vigo on the northwest coast of Spain and made his way on foot, supporting himself by playing his fiddle to earn a few pesetas, across a country that Louis MacNeice, also a tourist in Spain that spring, though on a higher economic level, described [in his 1967 Collected Poems of Louis MacNeice] as "ripe as an egg for revolt and ruin." When the fighting broke out in July, Lee left for home, under the mistaken impression that the military coup had succeeded, but returned in the next year, to join the International Brigade. In 1969 he published a famous account of his summer journey, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning. And now, at the age of eighty, he has written an account of his second trip to Spain, A Moment of War.

It is not like any other account of the war written by a participant. For one thing, Lee was only in combat for a few moments of nightmare confusion outside Teruel, when, in a wild melee, he killed a man—he does not tell us exactly how.

There was the sudden bungled confrontation, the breathless hand-to-hand, the awkward pushing, jabbing, grunting, swearing, death a moment's weakness or a slip of the foot away. Then we broke and raced off, each man going alone, each the gasping centre of his own survival.

This is a poet's prose: tense, economical, and suddenly illuminated by the unexpected but perfect word. Time and again the words on the printed page re-create the sharp reality of his surroundings and sensations, as in his description of the moment he realized, as he crossed the Pyrenees on foot, that France was now behind him and before him "all the scarred differences and immensities of Spain. At my back was the tang of Gauloises and slumberous sauces, scented flesh and opulent farmlands; before me, still ghostly, was all I remembered—the whiff of rags and woodsmoke, the salt of dried fish, sour wine and sickness, stone and thorn, old horses and rotting leather."

The story Lee has to tell is a grim one. Before his first experience of combat he was twice imprisoned as a spy. His first time in jail, or rather in an excavation in the frozen ground that was covered by an iron trapdoor, was in part due to his decision to cross the Pyrenees alone in December. "It was," he says, "just one of a number of idiocies I committed at the time." Volunteers normally came in through a well-organized traffic—"some by boat, some by illegal train-shuttles from France, but most smuggled from Perpignan by lorry." The mountain peasant family at whose door he knocked fed him—on a "watery mystery that might have been the tenth boiling of the bones of a hare"—and next morning took him to the nearest village and handed him over to the police, saying: "We've brought you the spy."

After some time in the black hole—"it may have been a couple of days or but a few hours"—he was joined by another prisoner. "Now you've got a committee," the guard said as the newcomer was dropped in. He was a Spaniard, a deserter arrested trying to cross the mountains; his name was Dino. The two of them stayed together in the hold for about a week; Lee saw his fellow prisoner's face in "a brief glimmer of moonlight" only when "two dark shapes pulled him through the narrow entrance, and the manhole was closed again. I heard the clink of glasses, some moments of casual chatter, Dino's short laugh, then a pistol shot…."

Lee expected the same fate, and when, a few days later, the grille was dragged open and a voice called "Hey, Rubio" (the Spanish for "blond") he was dragged out to see what he had expected—"the chair, the hand-cart, the plain wooden box, the sleepy officer with the bottle of coñac, the ragged soldiers lined up and looking at their feet—all were present." But not for him. "Another young man sat bound to a chair, smoking furiously and chattering like a parrot." Lee was taken to the Brigade reception center at Figueras.

Before he was executed, Dino had talked at length to Lee,

laughing at the looking-glass difference between us. I was trying to get into the war and he was trying to get out of it, and here we were, stuffed into the same black hole … and most certainly now, he said, we'd both be shot.

And why not, indeed? The deserter appeared quite fatalistic about it. Patiently, drowsily, with no complaint or self-pity, my companion explained the situation to me. The Civil War was eighteen months old, and entering a bitter winter. The Republican forces were in retreat and could afford to take no chances. Franco's rebels were better armed, and had powerful allies abroad, while our side had few weapons, few friends, almost no food, and had learned to trust no one but the dead. What could you expect them to do with a couple of doubtful characters like us? They couldn't afford to keep us, feed us, or even turn us loose. Even less could they afford the luxury of a trial. So it was thought safer, and quicker, that anyone under suspicion should be shot, and this was being done regretfully as a matter of course.

Dino's explanation was not too far from the truth. "Almost no food" is exact; the Republic held the big cities, but Franco had occupied the food-bearing regions of Spain. Lee's narrative is rich in pungent evocations of the poor fare: coffee that "tastes of rusty buttons," a "glass of hot brown silt tasting of leather and rust," and "bean soup … with an interesting admixture of tar." And Franco's recapture of Teruel in February 1938 was the beginning of a series of offensives that overwhelmed the Republic's heroic but outgunned and outmanned armies. The Spain Lee had seen on his first visit had changed almost beyond recognition. "Figueras had once been a fine hill town … War had shrivelled and emptied it, covering it with a sort of grey hapless grime so that even the windows seemed to have no reflections." At Madrid "there was little to be seen; rotting sandbags, broken roads, barricades of brick and bedsteads, shuttered windows, closed shops and bars."

Lee moves through a dark landscape eloquent of impending defeat from Figueras to Albacete, the base of the International Brigades, only to be imprisoned once again, this time with more than just suspicion against him. On his previous visit to Spain he had taken a short trip with a friend to Spanish Morocco; his passport showed that he had been there just at the time when the generals were readying the Foreign Legion and the Moorish regulares for the coup. Obviously, he must have been there for training and briefing for infiltration into the Brigades as a Franco agent. He was saved from the firing squad by the "crane-necked Frenchman" who had guided him to the frontier, and who turned up in Alabacete and vouched for him.

Lee was sent off to join the British volunteers for training at Tarazona. He found them quartered in a warehouse; they ate their meals in the church, which was

bare as a barn—the walls and little chapels cleared of their stars and images, the altar stripped, all vestments gone…. Now the inside of Tarazona's own church had an almost medieval mystery and bustle, an absence of holy silences and tinkling rituals, and a robust and profane reoccupation by the people….

All over Republican Spain now such churches as this—which had stood for so long as fortresses of faith commanding even the poorest of villages, dominating the black-clad peasants and disciplining their lives and souls with fearsome liturgies, with wax-teared Madonnas and tortured Christs, tinselled saints and gilded visions of heaven—almost all were being taken over, emptied, torn bare, defused of their mysteries and powers, and turned into buildings of quite ordinary use, into places of common gathering.

On his first morning Lee was "awakened by the sound of a bugle—a sound pure and cold, slender as an icicle, coming from the dark winter outside. In spite of our heavy sleep and grunting longing for more, some of us began to love that awakening, the crystal range of the notes stroking the dawn's silence and raising one up like a spirit." After coffee ("its flavour was boiler grease") the company fell in on parade.

The lines of men were not noticeably impressive, except that we displayed perhaps a harmonious gathering of oddities and a shared heroic daftness. Did we know, as we stood there, our clenched fists raised high, our torn coats flapping in the wind, and scarcely a gun between the three of us, that we had ranged against us the rising military power of Europe, the soft evasion of our friends, and the deadly cynicism of Russia? No, we didn't. Though we may have looked at that time, in our wantonly tattered uniforms, more like prisoners of war than a crusading army, we were convinced that we possessed an invincible armament of spirit, and that in the eyes of the world, and the angels, we were on the right side of this struggle. We had yet to learn that sheer idealism never stopped a tank.

Lee started training with a team on the Russian Maxim machine gun, but was soon pulled out for "special duty," which turned out to be service with the political police who had arrested him because of the entries in his passport. His boss, Kassell, was "thin as a peeled birch tree, with a starved face and feverish eyes." In a sequence of mysterious events—mysterious because Lee never knew what lay behind them and so neither do we—he took part in the capture of a young man called Forteza; according to Kassell, they were trying to rescue him. Forteza was snared by a young woman who had made love to Lee at Figueras but was now working for the police; Lee and a companion were sent to pick him up. When they carried him in, a sick boy whose

skeletal frame … was as light as a bundle of sticks[,]… Kassell got up and strode forward, crinkling in his black leather mackintosh, threw his arms round Forteza and kissed him. Forteza stood quiet, neither shivering nor coughing now. "Welcome, comrade," said Kasell, with his watery smile. "We thought something had happened to you." He ran his hands quickly over the boy's thin body and led him into the inner room…. A little later we heard the sound of a shot.

Not long after this Lee was sent to the Teruel front, where he killed a man in his one and only contact with the enemy. It was not something he was proud of.

I headed for the old barn where I'd spent my first night. I lay in a state of sick paralysis. I had killed a man, and remembered his shocked, angry eyes. There was nothing I could say to him now…. I began to have hallucinations and breaks in the brain. I lay there knowing neither time nor place. Some of our men found me, I don't know who they were, and they drove me back speechless to Tarazona.

The reader is not particularly surprised when the political commissar there told him he was to be sent back to London. To his protest the commissar replied: "You'd be more use to us there than here. After all, you're not much use to us here. You could write about us, make speeches…." But Lee was not out of the woods yet. When he presented himself with his passport at police headquarters in Barcelona, they arrested him as a deserter and a spy. This time he was rescued by Bill Rust, the editor of the London Daily Worker, who eventually set him on the road to home and his lover in "high wealthy Hampstead…. I remember the flowers on the piano, the white sheets on her bed, her deep mouth, and love without honour."

Lee's experience in Spain was wildly eccentric, but though he did not share the long months of combat, interrupted only by death or wounds, that were the lot of the soldiers of the International Brigades, he admired them. Before he left Barcelona, Bill Rust set him to work sorting out the files he was keeping that were eventually to become the base for his book Britons in Spain, which appeared in January 1939. The files consisted of

cards with the names and addresses of British and Irish volunteers…. There must have been five or six hundred of them. Many—more than half—were marked "killed in action" or "missing," at such fronts as Brunete, Guadalajara, the Ebro. Public schoolboys, undergraduates, men from coal mines and mills, they were the ill-armed advance scouts in the, as yet, unsanctified Second World War. Here were the names of dead heroes, piled into little cardboard boxes, never to be inscribed later in official Halls of Remembrance. Without recognition, often ridiculed, they saw what was coming, jumped the gun, and went into battle too soon.


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