With Laurie Lee’s classic coming of age story, Cider With Rosie coming to BBC1 this Autumn, we dip into the archives to share Harold Nicolson’s review of the book from November 1959.
‘A Poet’s Childhood’
Second-rate works of art, especially when they are technically competent, leave us with a sense of depression. First rate works of art, in that they enlarge experience and enhance life, in that they reveal for us new shafts of beauty or fresh aspects of human character, provide lasting exhilaration. Mr Laurie Lee’s Cider With Rosie is a first-rate work of art. Its vigour and delicacy animate the loveliness of existence.
Mr Lee describes his childhood in a small Cotswold village, so isolated from the world that it still retained ‘then blood and beliefs of generations who had been in this valley since the Stone Age ’. He does not sentimentalise this pastoral simplicity. The valley was a funnel through which the winds howled bringing them flood and snow. The villagers were harsh in their habits, possessing a ‘frank and unfearful attitude to death’ and taking violence as a matter of course.
As a baby Laurie Lee would be told stories of ‘hapless suicides, of fighting men loose in the snow, of witch doomed widows disembowelled by bulls, of child-eating sows’. There were legends around him of ghosts and murderers, of hangman’s cottage and Jones’ goat, of the man who returned from New Zealand only to be murdered on his first night home, since he had angered them by his vaunting, of Miss Fluck who floated, like Ophelia, drowned in the pond.
In contrast to these spectres was his own cottage home, with its ‘wo manly warmth’ and the glow of the kitchen fire, ‘the evening lamp, the vast and easy time’
The fire burned clear with a bottle-green light. Their voices grew low and furry. A farm-dog barked far across the valley, fixing the time and distance exactly. Warned by the dog and some hooting owls, I could sense the night valley emptying, stretching in mists of stars and water, growing slowly more secret and late.
There were nine of them in the cottage, their mother and eight children. They were often hungry and to this day Mr Lee will wake at night clamouring for whole rice puddings and big pots of stew. Their eldest sister, Marjorie, who seems to have been a competent child, helped her mother to clean the house and nurse the invalids and the babies. Their father does not come well out of this story, since he deserted his family, lived in London as a minor Civil Servant, and only very occasionally came to visit them or consented to spare a few shillings to eke out the rent. Mr Lee refers to his ‘devout gentility’ and concludes that he must have been ‘a rather priggish young man’.
Readers of that excellent periodical, John Murray’s Cornhill, will already have met Mr Lee’s astonishing and admirable mother. She was descended directly from one of the executioners of Edward II, whose final operation in Berkeley Castle must have demanded strong nerves. She inherited these nerves, and resolved that, in spite of her husband’s desertion, she would herself face the upbringing of two separate litters. She was not a woman to flinch or to repine. She had a native genius, playing music wildly, learning poetry by heart and drawing ‘delicate snowflake’ sketches of the fields and trees outside. She had a passion for collecting old china and would attend sales and return triumphant with a broken Wedgwood cup or a half-piece of Spode. She was a ‘mischievous, muddle-headed, full of brilliant fancies, half witless, half touched with wonder’-
She was, after all, a country girl: disordered, hysterical, loving. She was muddled and mysterious 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, forgot when to eat or ate all day, and sang when sunsets were red.
In spite of the fact that during her long struggle to bring up two families she was ‘deserted, debt-ridden, flurried, bewildered, doomed by ambitions that never came off ’, she retained her ‘indestructible gaiety which welled up like a thermal spring.’ In the end, when the daughters had married and the sons were embarked upon the ladder of life, she abandoned all struggle and ‘reverted gaiety to a rustic simplicity as a moss-rose reverts to a wild one’. It is a beautiful tribute that her famous son pays to her memory: –
Nothing now that I ever see – that has the edge of gold around it- the change of a season, a jewelled bird in a bush, the eyes of orchids, water in the evening, a thistle, a picture, a poem- but my pleasure pays some brief duty to her. She tried me at times to the top of my bent. But I absorbed from birth, as now I know, the whole earth through her jaunty spirit.
Outside the glow of the kitchen fire there spread the village characters and the village events. There was Granny Wallon, who made cowslip wine. There was her enemy, Granny Trill, whose Bible was Old Moore’s Almanack, and who died at the age of ninety-five. There were the worried school-teacher and the vicar and the aged squire who wept continuously and whom they all revered. There were choir outings and church teas. The little boys at a very early age told each other smutty stories and indulged in sexual exper-iments. ‘Manslaughter, arson, robbery, rape cropped up regularly throughout the years. Quiet incest flourished when the roads were bad.’ It was in this manner that Laurie, drunk with cider and the scent of hay, first learnt the facts of life:
But he covered his face and hid his joy in a wild-goose web of false directions, and hunted the woods for eggs and glow-worms, for rabbits tasteless as moss. It was then that I began to sit on my bed and stare out at the squirrels, and to make up poems from intense abstraction, hour after unmarked hour, imagination scarcely faltering once, rhythm hardly skipping a beat, while sisters called me, suns rose and fell, and the poems I made, which I never remembered, were the first and last of that time.
I have quoted enough from this Wahrheit und Dichtung to indicate the rapturous beauty of this book. The atmos-phere of thistle and thistle-down is excellently reflected in Mr John Ward’s illustrations. Grasping his fiddle, and with his sense of wonder still undimmed, Laurie Lee leaves the Cotswold for the wide, angry and vivacious world.
Cider With Rosie, by Laurie Lee is out now as a hardback Vintage Classic.