Laurie Lee

Cider with Rosie

“The village was the world and its happenings all I knew.”

It has rained every day this week. English winter.

I long to crawl into the pages of Laurie Lee‘s (June 26 1914 – May 13 1997) memoir Cider with Rosie and pull it around my toes. Fortunately, reading Lee gives one that precise feeling.

When it came to serving, Mother had no method, not even the law of chance – a dab on each plate in any old order and then every man for himself. No grace, no warning, no starting-gun; but the first to finish what he’d had on his plate could claim what was left in the pot. Mother’s swooping spoon was breathlessly watched – let the lentils fall where they may. But Jack had worked it all out, he followed the spoon with his plate.

Absentmindedly Mother would give him first dollop, and very often a second and as soon as he got it he swallowed it whole, not using his teeth at all. ‘More please, I’ve finished’ – the bare plate proved it, so he got the pot-scrapings too. Many the race I’ve lost to him thus, being just that second slower.

Field berries featured in Laurie Lee's "Cider with Rosie" in the Examined Life Library.
“Bramble is on the march again” begins Robert Macfarlane in his ode to the language of nature. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Lee, whose other autobiographical essays are being republished with flurry, is most well-known for Cider with Rosie which has not gone out of print since 1959.

It is a rare gift of the pen to persuade the reader that they’ve entered the farmhouse kitchen to make flower wine, or sweep furiously against the flood waters.1

When the drain blocked up, as it did in an instant, the floods poured into our kitchen – and as there was no back door to let them out again I felt it was natural at the time that we should drown.

‘Hell in Heaven!’ wailed Mother. ‘Damn it and cuss! Jesus have mercy on us!’

We grizzled and darted about for brooms, and then ran out to tackle the storm. We found the drain blocked already and the yard full of water. The noise of the rain drowned our cries and whimpers, and there was nothing to do but sweep.

Apple tree featured in Laurie Lee's "Cider with Rosie" in the Examined Life Library.
“In the essential prose of things, the apple tree stands up, emphatic among the accidents of the afternoon, solvent, not to be denied…” from Wendell Berry’s “The Apple Tree.” Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

What Lee summons is not only a glimpse of our hidden childhood (which poet A. E. Housman lamented is forever gone), but also a ladder with which to climb into it.

The bright times passed, we sat locked in our stocks, our bent backs turned on the valley. The June air infected us with primitive hungers, grass-seed and thistledown idled through the windows, we smelt the fields and were tormented by cuckoos, while every out-of-door sound that came drifting in was a sharp nudge in the solar plexus. The creaking wagons going past the school, harnessjingle, and the cries of the carters, the calling of cows from the 17-Acre, Fletcher’s chattering mower, gunshot from the Warden- all tugged and pulled at our active wishes till we could have done Miss B a murder.

David Attenborough wrote that when he played in the fields as a child, it did not occur to him to be interested in anything else, and Mary Oliver wrote about stones under the surface waiting to be touched.

Nature’s dog-whistle, can we hear it as adults?

I was set down from the carrier’s cart at age of three; and there with a sense of bewilderment and terror my life in the village began. The June grass, amongst which I stood, was taller than I was, and I wept. I had never been so close to grass before. It towered over me and all around me, each blade tattooed with tiger-skins of sunlight. It was knife-edged, dark, and a wicked green, thick as a forest and alive with grasshoppers that chirped and chattered and leapt through the air like monkeys.

Lee’s descriptions kept reminding me of Rebecca Solnit who noted the lack of far-sightenedness in children, where everything they see is immediate, the entire world enclosed in the known.

These knots on the bedroom ceiling were the whole range of a world, and over them my eyes went endlessly voyaging in that long primeval light of waking to which a child is condemned. They were archipelagos in a sea of blood-coloured varnish, they were armies grouped and united against me, they were the alphabet of a macabre tongue, the first book I ever learned to read.

"Corner Alcove, The Glebe House" by Howard Phipps featured in Laurie Lee's "Cider with Rosie" in the Examined Life Library.
“Corner Alcove, The Glebe House” wood engraving by Howard Phipps. Learn more. Courtesy of the Rowley Gallery.

Our worlds have shrunk of late. Have our hearts?

I find myself needing to remind myself actively to love and be kind. Metaphorical corners keep us safe but they also occlude vision.

As we read through Cider with Rosie we feel a sense of expansion, coinciding with Lee’s own world expansion as he moves from pram to his mother’s bed, to a shared room and then school and fields beyond the village).2

Now I measure that first growing year by the widening fields that became visible to me, the new tricks of dressing and getting about with which I became gradually endowed. I could open the kitchen door by screwing myself into a ball and leaping and banging the latch with my fist. I could climb into the high bed by using the ironwork as a ladder… Life became a series of experiences which brought grief or the rewards of accomplishment.

It is human nature to expand one’s boundaries, knowledge, and world.

When he was nineteen Laurie Lee kicked his heels out of the village and never returned. He walked to London and through Spain. I found it extraordinary that he walked but then again, how else would he keep his scope as near-sighted as usual?3

Footpath signpost featured in Laurie Lee's "Cider with Rosie" in the Examined Life Library.
Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

The Laurie Lee family has done remarkable work using proceeds from Lee’s books to purchase and save stretches of land so people who read Cider with Rosie and visit the Cotswolds hoping to be swept up into the book will not be disappointed.

But Lee’s extraordinary gift is not that he captured this place that once was, it is that he captured this person that once was. His childlike self.

I lay looking out of the small green window. the world outside was crimson and on fire. I had never seen it looking like that before.

‘Doth?’ I said, ‘what’s happening to them trees?’

Dorothy was dressing. She leaned out of the window, slow and sleepy, and the light came through her nightdress like sand through a sieve.

‘Nothing’s happening,’ she said.

‘Yes it is then,’ I said. ‘They’re falling to bits.’

Dorothy scratched her dark head, yawning wide, and white feathers floated out of her hair.

‘It’s only the leaves droppin’. We’re in autumn now. The leaves always drop in autumn.’

Autumn? In autumn. Was that where we were? Where the leaves always dropped and there was always this smell.4

Like his countrymen Roald Dahl and Gerald Durrell, two great memoirists of childhood, Lee writes as if in that childhood. He accesses memory not as nostalgia but as fact.

Fallen apples featured in Laurie Lee's "Cider with Rosie" in the Examined Life Library.
Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Of course memory isn’t fact and when confronted with fact it often crumbles. While many might jump online to purchase tickets to Gloucestershire, I prefer to remain, curled up, in the pages of this book.

At least until the rain stops.

Village Christmas