Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Happy Birthday, Laurie Lee!

Today's 100th anniversary of the birth of one of my favourite authors can't go without comment. From his iconic autobiography Cider with Rosie to his gently haunting poetry and the many, many prose poems written for broadcast, Lee was a man of well-chosen words and a memorable phrase who by dint of his birth and his talent managed to preserve a world as remote to us now as the Stone Age. 

It's really hard to appreciate how much and how dramatically lives have changed in just 100 years - more so, for certain, than at any other period in human history: electric lights, television, modern medicine, the list goes on. Lee's world was as different to ours as that of Dickens' or Hardy's. 

Unlike that august company however, Lee managed to live across the divide between the modern world and the centuries old way of life. Which also means by happy chance that we have a rich legacy of his own recordings: and Lee is also one of the few poets who can read - really read - his own work and make us listen.

Most poets give truly awful monotone readings, whether of their own work or other peoples. Some manage better, of course. Seamus Heaney, for example, wonderfully. So maybe it's a regional accent that does it? Lee had the most wonderfully warm West Country burr which adds colour and warmth to everything he says. But he also has an ear for the music of lines, whether reading poetry or prose - as you'd expect of a musician. (Lee was an accomplished violin player, making his living playing the fiddle as he walked across Spain as memorably recalled in his book As I Walked Out one Midsummer Morning.)

So how better to celebrate this, the 100th anniversary of his birth, than by hearing the man himself read a selection of his work. Here are some of my favourites. If you haven't come across Lee yet or haven't read much of his work before, you have a real treat in store: I almost envy you the wonderful opportunity of new discovery. Philip Larkin said of jazz how much poorer his life would've been if he'd died in 1922 rather than having been born then. I feel the same way about Laurie Lee: I can scarce imagine a world without his words, thoughts without his observations as comparison or idle recollections coloured by some remembered turn of phrase. Lee isn't especially popular today in spite - or perhaps because - of being studied on school English courses. I think his work is wonderfully ripe for reappraisal. See if you agree. 

You can listen to Lee reading one if his most famous - and probably one of the best Christmas poems - Christmas Landscape - here on the BBC Radio Three poetry archive

Here's Lee reading from his memoir 'As I Walked Out', describing lunchtime in 1930s Madrid... specifically the cool air of dark bars 'like fruit peel pressed to your brow'...

In addition to the above, there are some wonderful old interviews with Lee being repeated on BBC Radio Four Extra. You can hear the author's eloquently illuminating explanation of his travels here and here. And although I've made a great play this morning of Lee's wonderful reading his own words, try and catch the dramatisation of his most famous work, Cider with Rosie if you can. As always, with iPlayer, the tapes self-destruct after a ridiculously short amount of time (seven days or thereabouts) so... hurry!

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