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A Slice of Heaven

Posted on 1st August 2016 by Sally Campbell
Our Rediscovered Classic for August, Cider with Rosie, is the first part in a trilogy of autobiographical novels by the poet, screenwriter and novelist Laurie Lee. The book immortalised both Lee and his golden view of childhood in Gloucestershire after the First World War. Here, Cerys Matthews, the musician, author, broadcaster and Vice President of the Hay Festival of Literature and the Arts explains a little of what makes the book so special

It’s been a tradition in my family to match trips to books: History of the World by Andrew Marr to Istanbul; Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene to Cuba; Death in the Afternoon by Ernest Hemingway to Seville, and so on. Perfect then to visit Slad Valley, in Gloucestershire, with Cider With Rosie in hand. I arrived on a pastel June day, slap-bang in the middle of elderflower season. It didn’t disappoint – the sun was lofty, the bees still knocking the stems, and this broth of nature as alive in life as it remains in Laurie Lee’s memoir. The trip to Slad was an intense experience: a journey in Lee ’s shoes, a revisiting of my own interpretation of the book and an exploration of the land- scape, which acts as both the stage and the puppet-master of the book’s narrative.

I first came across Cider with Rosie as a twelve-year-old. I had sneaked into my dad ’s study, where he kept row upon row of books – orange spines with oranged pages, waiting to be read – and there, nestled between Tolstoy and Harper Lee, were two books by Laurie Lee: my father’s favourite, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, and the other, which would become my favourite, Cider with Rosie. I remember taking the latter from the shelf, feeling coy. Was it the title? The cover (a blushing girl)? Somehow I already knew it contained unspoken secrets about growing up. I read it that night, transported to that slice of heaven carved in the soft hills over the border in England. And, like the smell of Christmas, that glimpse back into childhood that Lee affords you is instantly recognisable and never forgotten. It stays with you as a kind of monument, as if Lee ’s childhood has made a shadow template over your own. Despite the gap between our birth dates, and despite Lee ’s conviction that he is the last witness to a lost time, somehow he managed to distil a feeling that I – that everyone – experienced during childhood. Lee gives us a peek once more through a child ’s eye, which view every adult, no matter where or when they were born, will recognise. Here ’s ‘our’ first day at school:

I arrived at the school just three feet tall and fatly wrapped in my scarves. The playground roared like a rodeo . . . The rabble closed in, I was encircled . . .

And:

‘What ’s this?’ I said.
‘You’re starting school today.’
‘I ain’t. I’m stopping ’ome.’
‘Now, come on, Loll. You’re a big boy now.’
‘I ain’t.’
‘You are.’
‘Boo-hoo.’

Lee ’s narrative hits such a chord, its scenes so familiar – even to this girl, who grew up in the 1970s. How many of us know that Sherbet Dip choking-on-sugar-powder feeling that Lee describes, or the solidarity felt on an outing when leaving your locality for the first time, or this description of school friends:

We were ugly and beautiful, scrofulous, warted, ring-wormed, and scabbed at the knees, we were noisy, crude, intolerant, cruel, stupid, and superstitious.

The book’s popularity has never waned. It ’s a worldwide bestseller, never out of print. It seems that Lee ’s reminiscences of childhood resonate with everyone; his memories of staining berries, of older sisters bullying and cajoling, cooking and cleaning badly, become intertwined with our own memories, filling a void in minds that had long forgotten how it felt to be a youngster. And if the devil is in the detail – damn, that devil is good!

Lee ’s descriptions are thrown with pinpoint accuracy, leaving the reader humming along approvingly. For instance, describing the dying older generation like Granny Trill and Granny Wallon: ‘They looked like starlings, flecked with jet, and they walked in a tinkle of darkness.’ And here are descriptions of his brothers; first, Jack: ‘He was left in the corner where his flashes of brilliance kept him twinkling away like a pin-table.’ And then of his baby brother Tony, who ‘had at times . . . the blank watchfulness of an insect ’; and of the whole family, living together in the small kitchen, ‘as separate as notes on a scale ’. Lastly, here is the simply brilliant description of autumn fields: ‘ . . . mushrooms, appearing like manna, buttoning the shaggy grass . . . ’

I happily dived once more into Lee ’s country life in 2013 in preparation for my visit to Gloucestershire, where I was to film a short piece on the book for the BBC, and marvelled again at his precision. I challenged myself to remember stories from my own childhood with such accuracy, but it was a rather dismal exercise. After digging up recollections of twice-weekly visits to chapel with Battenberg cakes and orange squash for tea, and of nibbling the black plastic passenger seat of our family’s Vauxhall Viva, with its removable canvas safety buckles, not much more came forth. But there was this memory, which I feel is very ‘Slad ’: there existed a certain rock in our Swansea garden, one that I’m sure the young Loll would have loved, a huge flat stone made of pieces of rose quartz, which warmed up in the sun, and we would take turns to lie on it and wriggle and blink in the light. One day a JCB came and the stone disappeared over the bank into the overgrowth, the wild rhubarb and garlic in the woods behind us. If money were no option, I’d hire another JCB and find that stone. I’d knock on the door of our old family home, break through the fencing at the bottom of the garden, find it and bring it right back to London for my own children – it would be a perfect place to read Lee ’s perfect depiction of childhood.

If my spluttering tap of memories compares badly with Cider with Rosie, I confess that it ’s no surprise. Cider pours out such a generous portion – a seemingly effortless flow of art, a sloshing forth of beauty. This is the sign of a great writer, a writer who scoops the reader up into their world, with no constraints, imaginations locked-in, artistic licence granted and in full service. As Lee confesses in the book, he was always adept at making up stories:

[I wrote] long faked essays on the lives and habits of otters. I’d never seen an otter, or even gone to look for one . . . They were read out aloud, and even earned me medals.

Throughout the novel Lee laments the end of ‘a thousand years’ of human history, the passing of the traditional ancients. But every new generation will have its own lost history; it ’s a cycle that will continue to roll, meaning we can all identify with the emotions of loss that Lee voices. Its poignancy will never diminish, even as we travel further from the era of the book. A little like Elvis’s Graceland, being frozen in time will only add to its allure, the scenes becoming even more exotic and compelling as the years go by. Look at this passage, for instance, which brings to mind the hugely popular Downton Abbey television series:

. . . the young country girls and the grooms stirred a seething broth together. There were pursuits down the passages, starched love in the laundry, smothered kisses behind green baize doors – such flights and engagements filled the scrambling hours when the rows of brass bells were silent.

My cloud-tickling homeland, Wales, casts a menacing shadow over the novel – its presence always threatening a surplus delivery of water:

Water was the most active thing in the valley, arriving in the long rains from Wales, it would drip all day from clouds and trees, from roofs and eaves and noses. It broke open roads and carved its way through gardens, and filled the ditches with sucking noises. Men and horses walked about in wet sacking, birds shook rainbows from sodden branches, and streams ran from holes, and back into holes, like noisy underground trains.

And is Wales’s national poet hiding in the shadows, too? Or perhaps Lee ’s lyricism and poetic language just make me imagine that Dylan Thomas is there in the wings, begging Lee to read out loud, as he did his stories at school, in some sonorous, thespian Under Milk Wood tones. Try this (of Loll as an infant) in true Richard Burton style, and you’ll hear what I mean:

the fat lord of my nursery life, skilled at cutting out men from paper, chalking suns on the walls, making snakes from clay, idling voluptuously through the milky days with a new young teacher to feed on.

And again, this description of a villager:

Cabbage Stump Charlie was our local bruiser – a violent, gaitered, gaunt-faced pitman, who lived only for his sows and for fighting. He was a nourisher of quarrels, as some men are of plants, growing them from nothing by the heat of belligerence and watering them daily with blood.

And try this, with its wonderful alliteration:

We played there often among its rotting rooms, running up the littered stairs, picking and gorging on the small, sharp apples which hung round the shattered windows. It was a damp, dark ruin in the damp depth of the wood, its rooms reeked of old beds and fungus. And behind the door, blood-red with rust, hung a naked iron hook.

But away from the darker side (this was a description of the hangman’s derelict cottage), the novel bursts with good humour. Imagine a ‘bullock in ballet shoes’ (about Spadge Hopkins), and his description of Miss B, the head teacher, being ‘about as physically soothing as a rake ’, with a ‘voice like a turkey . . . a militant figure, a hunched-up little creature all spring-coils and slaps’. And this gem from the snow-haired vicar at the Parochial Church Tea:

‘What is the smallest room in the world?’ he asked.
‘A mushroom,’ we bawled, without hesitation.
‘And the largest, may I ask?
‘ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT!’

Laurence Edward Alan Lee died in 1997, but his legacy lives on. The village and surrounds remain Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, thanks in no small part to Cider with Rosie and the Lee family, who made sure that the proceeds went towards buying stretches of woodland in the area, safeguarding them from further development.

I walked those fields and made memories of my own, pulled and pushed a little path through the teeming wilderness of nature, and left Slad Valley with a smile and a bottle of elderflower champagne in my hand, with instructions to be very careful on my train journey back to London ‘in case it blows’.

I couldn’t help but open the bottle on my journey back to the Big Smoke, to toast Laurie Lee; to toast such a beautiful part of the world and the book it spawned. I popped open the bottle and poured a cup – and I was back again in the narrative of the book:

Never to be forgotten, that first long secret drink of golden fire, juice of those valleys and of that time, wine of wild orchards, of russet summer, of plump red apples, and Rosie ’s burning cheeks. Never to be forgotten, or even tasted again.

I’ll leave you now, so you can dive at last into the story, with a little tale about the author, which I picked up on my visit. A stranger came to the village one day and asked a man at the pub if he would kindly show him where Laurie Lee was buried. The gentleman Lee replied – for it was a very-much-alive Laurie who answered him – ‘Come back in an hour’s time, and look in that corner, you will find him there, buried in a pint.’

Iechyd!

 

Cerys Matthews, 2014

 

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