Probably for all of us there exist books we have always been aware of – books so well known, and well-loved by others, that their titles are as familiar to us as those books we’ve read over and over. Cider with Rosie is certainly such a book for me, why it has taken me until now to read it I don’t know. I think there was a time when my poor confused brain muddled it with The Darling Buds of May (why I don’t know) another book I haven’t read but have been well aware of. The Catharine Zeta Jones TV thing (even though I didn’t watch a minute of it) put me off that – and so by association Cider with Rosie. How strange and illogical are the connections we make between books sometimes.
Cider with Rosie is the first of three memoirs that Laurie Lee wrote about his life, this first book the account of his childhood and adolescence in Gloucestershire in the early twentieth century. Born to the second wife of his absent father, his mother, brothers and half-sisters move to their cottage in Slad village in the final summer of the First World War when Laurie or Loll as he is frequently called is just three years old.
“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. It towered above me and all around me, each blade tattooed with tiger-skins of sunlight. It was knife-edged, dark, and a wicked green, thick as a forest and alive with grasshoppers that chirped and chattered and leapt through the air like monkeys.”
Beautifully chronicling a traditional way of life Cider with Rosie also portrays the changes that those years after the Great War brought; such as the coming of motor cars. The cottage built of Cotswold stone, was prone to flooding in heavy rain, when Annie – Laurie’s mother would shout at everyone to rise from their beds and take up brooms to sweep the flood water down the drain. Laurie paints a wonderfully affectionate portrait of his mother – a woman who always kept the bus waiting as she flew around looking for shoes, hat or bag. Having married a widower with five children, Annie, gave him four more children – before she was abandoned by him. She brought up both his families, never losing hope that one day he would return to her.
Lee paints a wonderfully cosy picture of life in the Lee cottage, I can’t help but suspect a little leaning toward nostalgia – as Laurie Lee was looking back from a distance of forty years or so. Nevertheless, I was rather swept away by Lee’s portrayal of a way of life – long gone. A family sat around the big kitchen table, household chores, his sisters gossiping, sewing, and later going out to work in shops, the younger children struggling with homework. It’s a lovely traditional family picture – the only thing really missing of course is his father.
We meet wonderful village characters Granny Trill and Granny Wallon – who hate each other, and compete to be the one to live longest. They refer to each other as ‘Er-Up-Atop and Er-Down-Under – Granny Wallon a tiny ancient shrew brews up her powerful wines which she took to her neighbours the following year. Granny Trill sticking with the habits from when she lived in the woods with her father rises at four o’clock in the morning and is in bed again by five o’clock in the afternoon, winter and summer. We are given the story of a village murder when Laurie was still very young, old fashioned village justice of a kind – to a man they felt deserved it. Village events move with the changing seasons, village jaunts, church teas, carol singing at Christmas, long summer days spent in the fields.
Laurie’s first school is the village school – ruled over by the dame teacher Crabby B – on his first day poor young Laurie has his baked potato stolen – so on subsequent days he gets his own back. In time Crabby is replaced by Miss Wardley from Birmingham and her glass jewellery.
“The village school at that time provided all the instruction we were likely to ask for. It was a small stone barn divided by a wooden partition into two rooms – The Infants and The Big Ones. There was one dame teacher, and perhaps a young girl assistant. Every child in the valley crowding there, remained till he was fourteen years old, then was presented to the working field or factory, with nothing in his head more burdensome than a few mnemonics, a jumbled list of wars, and a dreamy image of the world’s geography.”
As Laurie grows up – he runs around as adolescent boys will with his friends – girls are practically all they think about. A rather unpleasant plan is hatched by the boys to accost a rather unappealing local girl – who at least (poor thing) is possessed of a body. Their plan naturally fails – and the girl is left none the worse for their outrageous purpose. Laurie is finally seduced by Rosie after drinking cider.
“Never to be forgotten, that first long secret drink of golden fire, juice of those valleys and of that time, wine of wild orchards, of russet summer, of plump red apples, and Rosie’s burning cheeks. Never to be forgotten, or ever tasted again…”
This lovely memoir ends with the feeling of great change – the death of the squire brings change to the order of things, the big house becoming a home for invalids. In the lanes around the village motor cars begin to be seen more often. The church
comes to hold less sway with the younger generation – as new excitements take over.
“The last days of my childhood were also the last days of the village. I belonged to that generation which saw, by chance, the end of a thousand years’ life. The change came late in our Cotswold Valley, didn’t really show itself till the late 1920’s; I was twelve by then, but during that handful of years I witnessed the whole thing happen.”
I loved this memoir of childhood – and so I shall have to seek out the books that Laurie Lee wrote about the next stages in his life. His prose is just beautiful, gorgeous descriptions everything deeply rooted in the English countryside.