Laurie Lee has been on my bookshelf for many years, having read and loved all of his biographical tales set in Spain (As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, A Moment of War, A Rose for Winter) and bought them for a relative who lives out there. What I’d never read however, much to my family’s horror, is his first, most famous memoir; Cider with Rosie; a nostalgic trip down the Gloucestershire valley of his childhood, meeting the quintessential characters and exploring the wilderness of an age that has now almost entirely disappeared but that we mustn’t forget. Here’s why;
Lee grew up in the isolated village of Slad, in the damp, lush creases of the Cotswold hills. With six brothers and sisters raised by his mother in a cluttered little cottage, he charts his sheltered childhood, from the folds of his mother’s skirts to the wider, lustier, scarier world beyond. Although the famous Rosie of the title doesn’t make much of an appearance herself (her cameo being restricted to some steamy kisses beneath a hay wagon) Lee’s family and extended family, friends, teachers, pastor and various neighbours do; showing how a sheltered post-war community is gradually nudged ever so gently into the 21st century.
All those promises that people made about this beautiful novel were clearly made with confidence. This is the perfect portrait of a forgotten age and English countryside of a rawness and innocence that exists in very few places nowadays. Lee’s foundations as a poet shine through in his exquisite prose. His evocation of the seasons are some of the most brilliant I’ve read in a long long time:
‘It was world of glass, sparkling and motionless. Vapours had frozen all over the trees and transformed them into confections of sugar. Everything was rigid, locked-up and sealed, and when we breathed the air it smelt like needles and stabbed our nostrils and made us sneeze.’ [Winter] p.137
‘Inside the cowsheds it was warm and voluptuous, smelling sweetly of milky breath, of heaving hides, green dung, and udders, of steam and fermentations. We carried cut hay from the heart of the rick, packed tight as a tobacco flake, with grass and wild flowers juicily fossilized within – a whole summer embalmed in our arms.’ [Summer] p.139
Lee devotes an entire chapter to his beloved mother, whose irrepressible, haphazard figure lends brightness into every dusty corner and is one of the most lovable, selfless characters I’ve come across in a long time, raising both her own children and others from the previous marriage of a man who abandoned her. No hard feelings. Both she and her fellow honest village folk remind us that you can be rich beyond your wildest dreams yet not have two pennies to rub together. A good slice of bread and butter and a kind ear is rich enough.
The fantastical road from childhood innocence to the headiness and confusion of teenage years is universal, whatever the era, and it is this that makes Cider with Rosie a classic. There is no nastiness in this novel. Even more sinister reminiscences such as the murder of an arrogant pub-goer and a childishly hatched plan to assault a local girl (thankfully half-hearted) are written into the memoir in such a matter-of-fact, even nostalgic tone that the edge is taken away and the reader is left feeling suitably yet comfortably confused.
As the twentieth century beckons and the young folk of Slad escape in the cars and charabancs that start to rumble down the lanes, I started to feel a little sad myself for the world left behind. A world of hazy woodland, log fires and magic; one I would sorely like to return to myself.