Laurie Lee’s wonderful evocation of his childhood, in a small Cotswold village in ‘Cider With Rosie’ was a memorable recent read.
The book starts in the wake of the First World War. Lee was at the time just a small boy of three. There is a quite mesmerising description of Lee being handed down from the cart that brought them to their crumbling Cotswold cottage, and him standing in the grass in a field in front of his house – grass so tall in the month of June that it towered over his head – ‘each blade tattooed with tiger-skins of sunlight’.
Each recapitulation is so vivid that it really set’s the reader’s imagination ablaze with heady imagery. The prose is packed with descriptors that really bring to life every sensory detail. Laurie Lee takes us down memory lane. One by one the people, places and incidents of his childhood are recounted but in a way, that immerses us in the landscape- to witness the peculiar activities of the elderly old ladies who are their close neighbours (Granny Trill and Granny Wallon), to hear and feel the rush of rain, clap of thunder of a great storm that practically submerges their low lying cottage, and to breathe in and taste the heady flavour of cider from the bounty of apples from the valley.
It is not an entirely bucolic evocation of a perfect childhood. There are plenty of disturbing stories of village incidents, criminal activities, death, poverty and decay. Some of them are harrowing to say the least. But I would say, that one takes away a rather sunny, if realistic, snapshot on the whole, of childhood in the Cotswold village.
Some of the people we meet in ‘Cider With Rosie’ seem larger than life. Granny Trill and Granny Wallon are the family’s neighbours – and Laurie Lee certainly conjures them up as having slightly spooky, witch-like characteristics – Granny Wallon distilling fine wines from the wild growth of the surrounding fields and hedges – cowslips, dandelions, elderflower and more. Granny Trill on the other hand followed a weird and wonderful primitive schedule – breakfasting at the crack of dawn and going to bed at 5 pm. Granny Trill also told weird and wonderful stories and took snuff out of a snuff box that the boys surreptitiously stole.
Lee’s Mother was an extraordinary, slightly eccentric woman who took care of her husband’s children from her first marriage and those of her own marriage, singlehandedly. It is true that there were a number of older step sisters who took care of the young brood- of which Laurie Lee or ‘Loll’ as he was affectionately called was one. Their Father left the family and never came back. Their Mother, started life as a housemaid and served the gentry for several years in various country houses before accepting a position as a housekeeper to their Father’s household. She frequently recalled the fine details of the serving dishes, silverware, food and customs of the gentry. She later retained this affection for beautiful things and would often haunt auctions and sales for bargain treasures, which would grace their ramshackle Cotswold cottage – strewn with arts and artefacts, plants and flowers . Always short of money, the children would be sent to their neighbours for a bit of salt or some spare change to make ends meet.
Lee’s Mother had a keen eye for beauty, a love for poetry, music and nature. She was a true romantic and spent her entire life waiting for her husband to come back to her.
The chapter describing the tradition of carol singing by the young boys of the village is a classic extract, gracing many of the best Christmas anthologies. I was delighted to read it within the context of Lee’s memoir. Just as memorable, is the description of summer, the harvesting of apples, the making of cider, the long walks and picnics through the valley. The change of seasons and the beauty that accompanies them are described evocatively in the book.
There are many other intimate moments, too numerous to describe in this review that make this book very special. The people, sense of place and incidents are remarkable but the whole is lifted to another plane of excellence by Laurie Lee’s exceptional gift for prose – poetic and uplifting. ‘Cider With Rosie’ is a little gem of a book – to be re read ever so often – to glean new and wondrous details.
My edition of ‘Cider With Rosie’ was a press copy from Slightly Foxed but all opinions are my own.