I somehow managed to get through school, university and most of my twenties without reading Lee’s seminal memoir of everyday life in early 20th century rural Britain. When Penguin sent me this beautiful new Mark Hearld designed edition of all three of Laurie Lee’s memoirs, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to discover such a classic piece of British literature. I imagined rather quintessential scenes of romping in hayfields and picking berries in hedgerows during long, drowsily hot summers, and idyllic snow-bound Christmases spent huddled around the fire. There is an element of this, but there is so much more, and by the time I closed the pages I felt extraordinarily moved as well as educated by Lee’s vividly poetic realisation of a vanished world.
Cider with Rosie opens on a heady afternoon amidst the fields of the tiny Gloucestershire village of Slad, just before the end of WWI. Lee was three, and he, his mother and crowd of siblings had just moved into a rambling, tumbledown cottage that soon became filled with the chaos of family life. The family, dominated by girls, was close and loving, especially as Lee’s father abandoned them after the war, sending only a few pounds now and again to support his eight children, four of whom were with his previous wife. Lee’s imaginative, adoring and eccentric mother was the centre of his world, creating a warm and safe if not rather chaotic environment for her children. His older sisters, Marge, Doth and Phyl, were ever present sources of comfort, and his brothers, Jack and Tony, lively playmates. As he grew up, Lee began to leave the cocoon of home and edge out into the wider world of the village. School was the stuff of legend; crammed into one room with a hodge-podge of village children carrying their lunch in buckets, lorded over by a Victorian didact of a teacher and with nothing to do but memorise letters and numbers, Lee found the experience largely uninspiring. The rest of the local community were a mixture of hardy young terrors and black dress and bonnet clad old women from a time impossibly distant, who still referred to people as ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ and spent their days making dangerously potent wine from whatever could be found in the fields. The Squire of the village was the local benefactor, opening up his house and gardens for fetes and fancy dress parades that caused excitement for days. Sundays were spent at church, Christmas was always freezing and snowy, filled with the sound of bands of boys roaming across the whitened fields, carol singing. This was a small world, bound by tradition and community, and untouched by any of the modern conveniences we now take for granted. The boundaries of their existence were measured by the speed of their legs or their horse; many had never been further than Stroud, the nearest town, and nor did many want to.
What I found most striking about this memoir is the sheer difficulty and effort of everyday life. Lee’s mother spent all day fighting to keep her fire going, cleaning, sweeping, cooking and shopping for food. She had no time for anything else. With no central heating, the Lees were often freezing in winter, and huddled together in their beds for warmth at night. There was never any money, never much variety in the food that was available to eat, and the only extravagance for the children was a once-yearly outing to the sea organised by the church. Childhood illnesses were frequent and often deadly, with the houses having such poor heating and ventilation and the community having limited access to medical help. The community was close, and looked after one another, but I was surprised by how many older people were left living alone, with no family to help them. The rural location of the village meant that there were not a huge amount of jobs available, and so many young people moved away from their roots, something that Lee mentions towards the end of his memoir. With the development of industry and technology, people’s eyes had been opened and horizons had been widened, and so Slad gradually became dominated by the old, unrecognisable from the lively village of all ages it had once been when the world was a smaller and more isolated place.
Lee paints a beautiful, haunting picture of a lost England, as well as an affectionate and loving portrayal of his wonderful family. This is no look through rose tinted glasses, though; Lee is clear about the hardships of living at a time when poverty was the norm for many, and domestic life was a constant struggle to maintain comfort and order without any help from technology. As my grandmother, who grew up in a similar setting, always says, if people really knew what it was like to live back then, they wouldn’t be so keen to hark back to the ‘good old days’. However, Lee’s memories reveal the many pleasures in a simple existence without the constant distractions and pressures of our modern life, when family and community were paramount, and children could find plenty to amuse themselves in their natural surroundings without needing an iPad to keep them occupied. I was absolutely swept away by his gorgeous prose and wry, warm voice; I loved every minute of Cider with Rosie and can’t wait to read Lee’s other memoirs.