Cider With Rosie by Laurie Lee
What a joy it is to happen upon a book in which nearly every line reads like an impressionist landscape. Louis de Bernières’ Birds Without Wings was one; Cormac McCarthy’s The Road another. Cider with Rosie has elements of both — a fantastical rural idyll of grass ‘tattooed with tiger-skins of sunlight’, where in winter ‘One’s nose went dead so that it was hard to breathe’ and there are ‘jigsaws of frost on the window.’
Real winters of snow and cold and ice are just some of the features of an England that is, I realised with every page of Laurie Lee’s beautiful memoir, not so much bygone as just gone — dead, done in, disappeared. We still get the odd cold spurt, but how often in the last 20 years have you skated on a village pond in December? And when last in summer was this land ‘dizzy with scent and bees, burned all over with hot white flowers, each one so blinding an incandescence that it hurt the eyes to look at them’?
Many of this country’s scents and bees and flowers have vanished. But while Lee often makes one wish we could turn the clock back, elsewhere his memories make one glad that things eventually did move forward. Schooling, for example, used to be ‘little more than a cane-whacking interlude in which boys picked up fact like bruises and girls scarcely counted at all’; and amid the unshackled savagery, Lee’s younger years featured ‘shingles, mumps, measles, ring-worm, adenoids, wobbles, bends, scarlet-fever and catarrhal deafness.’ For all their faults, our state schools and National Health Service have put an end to such patriarchies and privation.
As with many great books, Cider with Rosie, the first book in Lee’s autobiographical trilogy, came into my life on serendipitous threads. Lee was born in Stroud, in whose steep streets and surrounding hills I have walked many miles while visiting my parents; he fought in the Spanish Civil War on the Republican side, as did numerous other writers of his day, including George Orwell, about whom I have recently written a great deal as part of a project on Animal Farm; and he was born in June 1914, one month before World War I began. As we mark the centenary of the conflict, it’s worth viewing its end through Lee’s childish eyes: ‘The girls got tea and talked about it. And I was sure it was the end of the world. All my life was the war, and the war was the world. Now the war was over. So the end of the world was come. It made no other sense to me.’
Lee was four when ‘the end of the world’ came. By the end of the book he is a teenager and has ‘caught up with the other travellers, all going in the same direction. They received me naturally, the boys and girls of my age, and together we entered the tricky wood. Daylight and an easy lack of shame illuminated our actions.’ Written with a lightness of touch that is the inverse of the emotions in play, Lee’s descriptions of the dizzying physiological fluctuations of adolescence will endure long after the last trace of his agrarian Arcadia have vanished: ‘[I]t was as though I had been dipped in hot oil, baked, dried, and hung throbbing on wires. Mysterious senses clicked into play overnight, possessed in one luxuriant order, and one’s body seemed tilted out of all recognition by shifts in its balance of power.’
Fittingly, the girl who gives gentle guidance to these raw emotions is named Rosie Burdock. Like her herbaceous namesake, young Miss Burdock and her stone jar of cider become affixed to Lee’s consciousness. ‘Never to be forgotten, that first long secret drink of golden fire, juice of those valleys and of that time, wine of the wild orchards, of russet summer, of plump red apples, and Rosie’s burning cheeks. Never to be forgotten, or ever tasted again…’ The drink may have been drunk, but the powerful taste will go on.