I remember, I remember, the house where I was born………..
Having recently read a couple of house-brick sized tomes which played games with narrative form and structure, blurring the boundaries between truth and fiction, creating book within a book, or using multimedia to enhance the book experience, it is with a real feeling of relief, despite my enjoyment of the house-bricks, that I return to a re-read of a much simpler, tightly crafted, slower-paced, exquisitely crafted piece of writing – Laurie Lee’s well-loved Cider With Rosie, recently re-issued. As no doubt it will be, one hopes, many more times, as writing of this much heart, sensitivity and timelessness, though dealing with a world largely gone, outlasts the fashions of temporary trends.
Laurie Lee was born in Stroud, Gloucestershire, a brief few weeks before the outbreak of the First World War. The family moved to nearby, rural Slad, and it is this boyhood in Slad which is the subject of this first book of an autobiographical trilogy.
He tells of a time long gone, deeply wedded into the landscape and the seasons:
The year revolved around the village, the festivals round the year, the church round the festivals, the Squire around the church, and the village round the Squire. The Squire was our centre, a crumbling moot tree; and few indeed of our local celebrations could take place without his shade
And in that last sentence there is one of those pause-for-thought poetical images which arrestingly scatter through the pages of the book. The Squirearchy already beginning to crumble and decay, a sense of something which has been slow growing, deeply rooted, but that landscape will soon be gone.
Lee tells the story of his own boyhood, his family history – a poor, ordinary family, one of millions, not the story of the movers and shakers of world history, but the story of unique and rich humanity none-the-less. He recounts with great love his sense of place, his life within a small corner of rural Gloucestershire. Not just the landscape, and his own family, but the lives of neighbours are tenderly and precisely recounted.
Two elderly ladies, enemies for ever, but when one dies, the other follows suddenly within a very small space of time. Enmity was the energy which sustained their lives, and with the death of the first, the point to living had gone for the second.. The sad tale of another elderly couple, united by love and long marriage. When the husband begins to become ill, and they can no longer fend for themselves, they are taken into the Workhouse – where, unfortunately, there are male wards and female wards. Forced apart for the first time for more than 50 years, within a week both have died. Love, not hatred, was their sustaining energy.
Something which began to enthrall and nag at me in the book, was the fact that Lee had had a long early period of profound, recurring, feverish ill health, falling prey to just about every illness going. During many spikes of high fever, visions, nightmares, the uncurling of reality occurred, again and again. Periods of return from near death and fever spikes would leave his senses for a time preternaturally sensitive. It made me ponder the role of childhood illness in developing artistic sensibilities. Not just the fact that illness renders a child more solitary, bed-bound, during their periods of illness, more likely to be reading and imagining than gregarious and doing, but wondering specifically about changes in brain physiology from repeated, prolonged, fever, where the barriers between ‘real’ and imagined, break down, and the imagined becomes real. Illness as a producer of alterations
in consciousness. Lee’s descriptions of the natural world, the closeness and shimmer of his vision, at times reads like writings on experiences with hallucinogens.
I remember, too, the light on the slopes, long shadows in tufts and hollows, with cattle, brilliant as painted china, treading their echoing shapes. Bees blew like cake-crumbs through the golden air, white butterflies like sugared wafers, and when it wasn’t raining a diamond dust took over which veiled and yet magnified all things
I could almost have underlined the whole book as an example of beautiful, attention focusing, arresting, truthful images and observations about place, people and time
A stunning, elegiac, celebratory book. Its all about living within the moment, and really savouring the moment you are in.
And is full of earthy comedy as well as tragedy, dark doings and high fine transcendence
We sit down and eat, and the cousins kick us under the table, from excitement rather than spite. Then we play with their ferrets, spit down their well, have a fight, and break down a wall. Later we are called for and given a beating, then we climb up the tree by the earth closet. Edie climbs highest, till we bite her legs, then she hangs upside down and screams. It has been a full, far-flung and satisfactory day; dusk falls, and we say goodbye
I received this as a digital ARC via the publishers. Charming line drawings by John Ward complete this reissue, in the centenary year of Lee’s birth