In its obituary of Laurie Lee, the Guardian wrote, “that he had a nightingale inside him, a capacity for sensuous, lyrical precision.” The phrase encapsulates Lee’s extraordinary gift for poetry, the way he could lay a finely-turned line of verse down in this exquisite portrait of a long-dead England. He has a nimble, vibrant voice; there are flashes of “Under Milk Wood” dialogue, the Gerald Durrell language of boyhood, pitch-perfect comedy; and rifts with well-chosen, simple, ripe words. It is poetry in the finest school of Falstaff and Hal; a love letter to his mother (described below), his family, his childhood, and a country which has been extinguished by progress.
“…Solitary, eyes closed, in her silks and secrets, tearing arpeggios from the yellow keys, yielding, through dusty but golden chords to the peak of that private moment, it was clearly then, in the twilight tenderness she created, that the man should have returned to her…”
I am pleased, in some ways, that I did not read this book at school. I know it is the great favourite, but there is always that risk that schoolroom excavations can turn a work of art into a kind of icon of your exam years – I certainly couldn’t read “Of Mice and Men” anymore without recalling the classroom. Not, of course, that studying a novel ruins it in any way – that’s an argument everyone who has ever studied Literature is used to swatting away with disdain – but reading a book at a particular time can forever link it to a certain point in your own life. And I don’t think that I would have experienced the true, bittersweet sadness of “Cider With Rosie” as a teenager, when my childhood was still so recent –something about commuting on the tube every day so that you arrive at work snarling, sweaty, and slightly less humane, or seeing yet another swathe of the green-belt swallowed by uniform houses and office-blocks, really makes you ache for a time like Laurie Lee’s. When life was governed by the seasons and festivals, and when your village was your universe. I’ve romanticised it in the reading, but Laurie Lee doesn’t shrink from the harder truths either – he includes the deaths of children, and poverty, and the terrible cold; and there are murders here, and thieving, and glimpses of sexual abuse. It was by no means a pre-lapsarian world – but we seem to have lost a great deal of mythology in the transition to ours.
“I belonged to that generation which saw, by chance, the end of a thousand years’ life.”
In what is only my second foray into the world of politics on this blog, “Cider with Rosie” also made me think very carefully about something Naomi Klein said in the Guardian last year:
“Climate change is place-based, and we are everywhere at once. The problem is not just that we are moving too quickly. It is also that the terrain on which the changes are taking place is intensely local: an early blooming of a particular flower, an unusually thin layer of ice on a lake, the late arrival of a migratory bird. Noticing those kinds of subtle changes requires an intimate connection to a specific ecosystem. That kind of communion happens only when we know a place deeply, not just as scenery but also as sustenance, and when local knowledge is passed on with a sense of sacred trust from one generation to the next.
But that is increasingly rare in the urbanised, industrialised world.”
It is not just a sadness that we have lost this intimacy with our homes – it is blinding. Laurie Lee’s childhood was as much defined by his Cotswold valley as by his chaotic family; he knew the moment a season had changed, the names of local flora and fauna, and how to make his way home in the pitch-black of winter. How many of us can say that? Would we notice if a particular bird didn’t sing, or if the daffodils were late one year? We shouldn’t just read “Cider with Rosie” with nostalgic longing, we should use it as a kind of map. Because if we stop listening to the “white-whiskered, gaitered, booted, and bonneted, ancient-tongued last of their world,” then we are turning our backs on countless lifetimes of knowledge, which is not just beautiful – it is becoming necessary.
“The village in fact was like a deep-running cave still linked to its antic past…This cave that we inhabited looked backwards through chambers that led to our ghostly beginnings; and had not, as yet, been tidied up, or scrubbed clean by electric light, or suburbanized by a Victorian church, or papered by cinema screens.”