Cider with Rosie by Stroud-born author Laurence Edward Alan ‘Laurie’ Lee (1914-1997) was published in 1959 by Hogarth Press, with illustrations by John Stanton Ward (who had previously worked on HE Bates’ The Darling Buds of May, 1958). Stanton Ward’s exquisite line drawings as as locked into our aesthetic experience of the book as John Tenniel’s classic illustrations for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (150th anniversary 1865-2015) and Through the Looking Glass. They evoke the organic life oozing from every page of the book; their unfinished lines suggestive of the impressionistic quality of Lee’s writing. Published as ‘Edge of Day: boyhood in the West of England’ in 1960 in the US, it took two years to write, and three drafts. Becoming canonised as part of the national curriculum, it became known to countless school-children and has sold over 6 million copies worldwide. With the royalties Lee purchased Rose Cottage in his beloved Slad. It has been adapted for stage (initially by James Roose-Evans), radio (narrated by Kenneth Branagh) and screen (1971; 1998; 2015). Cider with Rosie was not its first title – earlier versions were called Cider with Poppy and Cider with Daisy. Although the eponymous ‘Rosie’ was later identified as Rosalind ‘Rose’ Buckland, Lee’s cousin by marriage, who died in 2014, a few days before her hundredth birthday) a perhaps telling detail (Laurie Lee liked his women; but also, the way Lee has shaped his memories to his purpose). This subjectivity is acknowledged by Lee is a Note preceding the text:
The book is a recollection of early boyhood, and some of the facts may be distorted by time.
From the writer’s own admissions and the analysis by Valerie Grove’s in her 2000 biography, (The Well-loved Stranger; republished as The Life and Loves of Laurie Lee in 2014) we can interpret ‘may be’ as ‘undoubtedly’ (distorted by the writer’s imagination).
Structurally the book is arranged into thirteen thematic sections:
- First Light
- First Names
- Village School
- The Kitchen
- Grannies in the Wainscot
- Public Death, Private Murder
- Winter and Summer
- Sick Boy
- The Uncles
- Outings and Festivals
- First Bite at the Apple
- Last Days
There is a loose chronology about this sequencing, from his first arrival at their new home in Slad, aged three, to his loss of ‘innocence’ (First Bite …), to his ‘birth’ as a poet. The book is a self-penned creation myth, describing the evolution of the writer. A serious illness (Sick Boy) leads his awakening into ‘valley consciousness’, with the sensibilities of a poet. The book ends with him picking up the pen to start writing poems.
Published collectively as the ‘Red Sky at Sunrise’ trilogy along with As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning and A Moment of War. The title comes the saying: ‘Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight, Red sky at morning, shepherd’s warning’ which flags up the disenchantment at the heart of this cycle, from rural ‘innocence’ to war-torn ‘experience’. In this regard to trilogy could be regarded as a bildungsroman, charting Laurie Lee’s development from infant to adult, from boy to man.
Cider with Rosie is a supremely impressionistic memoir – one that draws upon ‘sense-memory’ more than verifiable fact. Lee himself said he wanted to evoke the genius loci, to capture what it felt like to live in his beloved Slad valley (a boy’s paradise, ‘scragging apples’), to chart it through the seasons, the turning of the wheel and the impact on village life of the modern and the ancient (BBC Laurie Lee’s Gloucestershire: the storyteller’s landscape). This work in particular, out of all of his works, is indivisible with place, with the past, and with his passions (food; women; nature). He was, in essence, a sensualist, in love with life.
Cider with Rosie has been criticised as a work of nostalgic romanticism, painting an overly-idealised picture of village life, a Cotswold Arcadia (yet within the book there is a sense of a ‘spell that is breaking’, via the legacy of the First World War and the inexorable creep of Modernism) but this is redeemed by both its ecological awareness, (the book is bursting with fecundity and decay, the living landscape a huge presence in the daily life of Slad-folk, even invading the Lee family household; in every chapter the natural world is never far away and is not always benign) and the second and third books in the trilogy, which show a deepening political awareness. In effect, Cider with Rosie represents a lost ‘Golden Age’, as does the first half of ‘As I Walked Out…’, but this is deconstructed by the onset of the Spanish Civil War, and its aftermath (charted in A Moment of War; and A Rose in Winter). Together, they depict a journey to knowledge, from the solipsistically provincial to the worldly and battle-worn. It begins at the end of the Great War, and concludes in the midst of another.
Despite this backdrop of realism, the trilogy (and, by extension Laurie Lee’s life) has the quality of a folk tale – telling of a young lad from a sleepy village who goes off to a magical kingdom, with only his fiddle, wit and luck, and brings back the (Spanish) sun to re-enchant a damp Gloucestershire valley. Lee had no small part in forging this legend, being prone to self-mythologising, and the deliberate obfuscation of the memoirist. By shaping his past, he prevented others from doing so (until after his death). In this he shared the fears of Hilary Mantel who, terrified, that others would misappropriate her past, took it upon herself to get there first.
As a child raised in a family of women (his father left home when he was 3) – his mother, 3 step-sisters (and 2 brothers, one Jack who went on to become a film director in Australia), his formative years were shaped by the feminine, colonised his imagination, and shaped his writing (and lifestyle) for the rest of his life. He had numerous ‘muses’ throughout his life, but the most important, by far, was the glamorous ‘society beauty’ Lorna Wishart. When she left him for the painter Lucien Freud (Laurie Lee developed a romantic attachment to her niece, Katherine, whom he went on to marry – they had went Laurie was 21, Kathy was 5: sitting on his knee, so his wife was to reveal, she knew in that moment she would marry him. When Kathy gave birth to their daughter Jesse (born on the same day as Lorna’s child by Lee, Yasmin – a long kept secret from the family), Lee sang the praises of his ‘first-born’, and later the ‘two women’ in his life – Kathy and the infant Jesse. He was renowned as a ‘charmer’, a ‘lady’s man’, who seemed to be more at ease amid female company, the prettier the better.
Laurie Lee was, as a poet and an artist, a lover of beauty. His depiction of his childhood in Slad, written over half a century later, is infused with these sensibilities. They transform the landscape through his artist’s (and lover’s) eye. As such, his project echoes the mood of a 1911 painting by the Russian-French artist Marc Chagall, ‘I and the Village’ – a dreamlike overlapping of internal and external landscapes, infused with the artist’s memories of his place of birth and his relationship to it. In both works (Cider with Rosie; and ‘I and the Village’ there is a sense of ‘village-consciousness’, or ‘valley-consciousness’ – a breaking down of Self and the Other, of the human and the natural world. (This is lucidly articulated in the chapter entitled ‘Sick Boy’ when the young Lee awakes from a fever with a heightened perception of his locality – we seem to eavesdrop upon the birth of the poet). This way of seeing is also echoed in Dziga Vertov’s docu-poem, Man with a Movie Camera (1929), which dances through the diurnal round of ordinary lives. As someone who worked on documentaries in the Second World War (for the GPO film unit), whose brother Jack became a film director, Laurie Lee would have been familiar with this cinematic language, if not this actual work. A recent exhibition of Lee’s paintings (Museum in the Park, 2014; and publication of his artwork) shows how important art was to him. Lee’s memoirs and poems are intensely visual and imagist. He paints with words. Sometimes the brush-work is loose, Turneresque, at others, he renders vivid miniatures of rural life (or perhaps field-sketches in the case of the Spanish books). It is contextually interesting to note that a contemporary of Laurie Lee, fellow poet Dylan Thomas (born in the same year, 1914), wrote his own impressionistic account of village life, in his case a fictionalised version of Laugharne, ‘Llareggub’, in his BBC ‘play for voices’, Under Milk Wood (1954) – preceding Cider with Rosie by 5 years. Both had worked on documentaries during WW2.
Cider with Rosie is a quintessential Post-War project, alongside Poet Laureate John Betjeman’s praise songs for lost England, broadcast to the nation in his popular TV monologues. It offers a healing of a traumatized England, the re-membering of a shattered nation-self. Amid the swagger and quiff of the 1950s, the Angry Young Men and kitchen-sink realism, Lee offered a Horlicks-ish comforting window onto the past. In mythologizing his own neck of the woods, Lee created a mythscape that would appeal to millions. His bucolic pastoral conjures an almost pre-lapsarian state. The very title, Cider with Rosie, is ripe with metaphorical freight, with mythic resonance. It intimates the irretrievability of innocence, alluding to the original apple (from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, partaken of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. It is perhaps not surprising to note that in the surrounding Gloucestershire landscape are place-names plucked from the Bible and its imagery: Purgatory, Paradise, the Horns, the Heavens. The ‘First Bite of the Apple’ chapter in microcosm, the book in its entirety, and the trilogy in a wider sense, track a kind of rite-of-passage, in 3 stages:
This cycle would seem to play out through the rest of Lee’s life. He was forever trying to get back to the garden, whether through women, drink, living off of his own one-man heritage industry, or the numerous tourists who would come to pay homage. He was, for many years, amenable to sharing a tale or two over a pint in his local, The Woolpack. One of his favourite anecdotes was telling of a young visitor who asked him ‘where Laurie Lee was buried’. When he died in 1997 (13 May, aged 82), he was buried in Slad churchyard. His gravestone is engraved with a line from one of his most popular poems, ‘April Rise’:
If ever I saw
blessing in the air
I see it now in this
still early day
wet sunlight on the
powder of my eye.
On the other side it reads: ‘He lies in the valley he loved.’
Still loved by millions, Cider with Rosie has become, for the residents of Stroud and the Slad Valley, a kind a talisman, helping to ward off housing development several times. Lee himself was instrumental in this. When a development was planned in the 90s he wrote to all the national newspapers and fronted a campaign to stop the proposed housing scheme. Lee’s last public reading was at Stroud Town Hall, as part of an evening of local writers raising awareness about the campaign. As with Hardy’s Wessex, Dickens’ London, Jane Austen’s Bath Lee’s works have transformed how people ‘read’ his native landscape. It is almost impossible now to not visit Slad and to disassociate it from Lee. He is on the map. In 2014, the year of his centenary, a Laurie Lee Wood was created (opened by Cerys Matthews) and the Laurie Lee Wildlife Way was launched by the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, with a signposted trail leading visitors around his village and valley. Lee’s poems are printed on perspex, so you can literally ‘see’ the landscape through his words. Up the road, at Sheepscombe, the picturesque cricket ground was purchased by Lee and given to the local cricket team. The view is preserved through the power of his literary legacy. In his centenary year further ‘landmarks’ were added, included a mural in the Shambles, Stroud centre, and an exhibition at the Museum in the Park. Every midwinter, local musician Johnny Coppin performs a popular concert of his music, which includes poems of Lee’s set to music. Coppin recorded an album of Lee reading extracts and poems set to music, entitled Edge of Day, a nod back to the American edition. Stroud-based poet, Adam Horovitz (son of Michael and Frances Horovitz) wrote a memoir about Lee, A Thousand Laurie Lees, published in 2014 by The History Press. Kevan Manwaring produced a map of literary Gloucestershire for the Cotswold Word Centre, featuring Laurie Lee and other well-known writers of the area (incl Edward Thomas, Ivor Gurney, Dennis Potter and others). Lee has become part of a local ‘pantheon’, and continues to draw literary pilgrims to the area and inspire the county’s vibrant writing community to this day.
Stroud 13 April 2015
Notes for ‘The Secret Life of Books: Cider with Rosie, presented by Joanne Trollope’
BBC4, 9 November 2015