In the hands of essayist and poet Laurie Lee (1914 – 1997), England unfolds as rich and warm and tempting as it ever was.
The essays in Village Christmas and Other Notes on the English Year are full of seasonal changes, cultural textures, avuncular characters. Landscapes are dotted with small towns, abundant rivers and snug valleys. It is the England many of us seek and are delighted to find still exists, not so much a place but a time.
I used illness as a weapon. I’d wake in the morning and say I couldn’t go to school because I’d got the wobbles, couldn’t walk – and in the afternoon be as fresh as a daisy. Yet I could be a great walker when I was a boy – three miles to school and three miles back. Sometimes I’d get a stitch. There was one cure for that. You’d put your foot up on a milestone and kissed your knee. It always worked.
Even if you’ve never been to England, or longed for England, Lee’s writing feels familiar and satisfying. He indulges memory, home, longing, childhood and deep, deep loss. When he turned twenty, Lee left the Cotswolds and ventured abroad. While his writing matured, Lee nevertheless felt an increasing pull of a lost home, only to find he could never return.
But the conflicting emotion served him beautifully. Although Lee’s writing is nostalgic, it is never mawkish. He steps into the past with the eyes – and scars – of an adult.
Eddies of tempting smells filled the crowded kitchen – mince pies, hot pastry, the tang of fresh-chopped parsley, the tingling aroma of the goose, which was too big for the oven and hung turning on a spit before the roaring fire, its fat dripping into a small brass dish. Nothing could be hurried; Christmas dinner was sacred and the waiting was part of its price.
An understanding of anticipation, longing, and the duelling forces of love and pain abound in Notes on the English Year. Lee’s essay “An English Spring” captures all that is sad about springtime, and how prone we are to expect warmth and comfort that never arrives.
Almost overnight comes gusty March and the first real rousing of spring – a time of blustering alarms and nudging elbows, of frantic and scrambling awakenings. It is a bare world still, but a world of preparation and display against the naked face of the countryside. The cold east wind puts an edge to activity.
Lee’s writing is not widely-known outside England but should be. Like Wodehouse, Wilde, and Dickens, he is an English writer who adores the English language: “Pushing the cold before me like a sheet of tin, I set off up the Christmas road.”1
Read more of Lee’s incisive meditations on the past, memory, childhood and loss in I Can’t Stay Long, which includes his most famous essay on the unspeakable tragedy in the Welsh mining town of Aberfan.
Complement Lee’s lyrical nostalgia in Notes on the English Year with Robert MacFarlane’s mediative examination of England’s aged paths and ways and the inspired naturalistic and often longing-filled poetry of English Romantic John Clare.