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June 22, 2012 / nethergrove

Cider with Rosie on Midsummer’s Day

Midsummer’s Day arrived early, before summer had really got going. But the rain that fell during the shortest night had cleared the air, settling most of the grass pollen that dominates so many of my summer walks. So I took the opportunity to wander among the meadows with a book, and nothing seemed more appropriate than Laurie Lee’s childhood memoir, Cider with Rosie.

I didn’t have to wander far. Last year the sound of lambs growing up on this meadow was a kind of soundtrack to the spring, and I had a good spot lined up in my mind. Except, when I got there, the meadow seemed to have disappeared. The grassy verge around the field had been sterilized with Round-up, and the meadow itself had been ploughed and replanted with a fast growing rye grass. But, not to be perturbed, I found the spot I was looking for. In the corner of the field there was a half-forgotten old barn, tumbling down but patched up with a very eclectic combination of bricks, pallets, corrugated iron and breeze blocks. The floor was still covered in sheep dung, and a lonely-looking International Harvester 430 hay-baling machine had wool caught on its corners, where sheep had used it as a scratching post. I sat leaning against a tyre to read.

Cider with Rosie is organised by theme rather than chronology, as though all the memories are a bit of a blur. But if Lee’s recollections are blurring as to the generalities of what happened when, he more than makes up for it in his elaborations on the particular incidents, characters and places. As it was Midsummer’s Day, I decided to focus on the more summery chapters, where Laurie and his gang from the village while away their holidays, roaming the countryside at leisure.

Nothing moved or happened, nothing happened at all except summer. Small heated winds blew over our faces, dandelion seeds floated by, burnt sap and roast nettles tingled our nostrils together with the dull rust smell of dry ground. The grass was June high and had come up with a rush, a massed entanglement of species, crested with flowers and spears of wild wheat, and coiled with clambering vetches, the whole of it humming with blundering bees and flickering with scarlet butterflies. (150)

The sky today was a uniform pale grey, and only jackdaws broke the monotonous sound of the wind. I couldn’t decide whether to be sceptical or enchanted by Lee’s nostalgia. An important part of nostalgia is the sense that what has gone is gone forever, and the setting for my reading did seem to encourage this. It was almost as though, if only a team of men with scythes came to mow the field, bringing with them a truckle of cheese wrapped in a tea towel and a small barrel of cider, then the sun would come out and cuckoos would replace the jackdaws. There’s a kind of willing suspension of common sense at the heart of nostalgia that usually incites a civil war in my mind between my imagination and my intelligence, between the part of me that would love to ‘go back’, and the part of me that read a history book rather than watching Lark Rise to Candleford. Lee attempts to avoid the worst excesses of nostalgic writing by including the uglier side of rural life. There is sickness, bullying and poverty that cannot be alleviated by wild blackberries and ransoms. There is murder, rape and war, and a vein of sadness that no amount of community spirit can entirely soothe. But somehow all of this is at one remove from the main narrative, the joy of a lost youth remembered. Even when terrible things happen, the child’s perspective is entirely free from accountability.

A pair of pigeons landed noisily on my tin roof. I could hear them stomping around as I read. Lumps of rock-hard sheep dung dug into my legs every time I shifted position. And yet, Cider with Rosie is a very easy book to get lost in, if you want to. However when I got to the chapter about the Parochial Church Tea Party, and the 1919 Peace Day celebrations in the Squire’s garden, I was jerked back into the here and now by a sudden memory of the garden party I went to a few weeks ago in the big house at the edge of the village to celebrate the Queen’s diamond jubilee. The great and the good all turned up, sporting linen jackets and fancy hats, and children had the run of the garden. Bunting abounded. The whole village seemed to be doing our utmost to recreate something that an eight-year-old Laurie Lee would recognise. We acted out a garden party practically from a script. In Cider with Rosie, the characters are nothing if not unselfconscious. There seems to be an authenticity to the village community at the heart of all the nostalgia, but I can’t help wondering if, for them, the 1919 Peace Day celebrations felt like an attempt to recreate the Golden Age of the late nineteenth century, to turn back the clock to before the world was darkened by the Great War. After weeks of Union Flags and BBC enthusiasm, I’d had enough of re-enactment to last me a lifetime.

But it would be a mistake to worry too much about how accurately Cider with Rosie portrays early twentieth-century England. Lee’s sometimes withering comments about regrettable change in rural England miss the point and, I find them distracting. His memories of the Cotswolds are so tied up with his memories of his childhood that sometimes he seems to get them mixed up.

The untarred road wound away up the valley, innocent as yet of motor-cars, wound empty away to other villages. (150)

The book is filled with this kind of lyrical sentence. ‘Untarred’ is a peculiar word, but it sounds a lot more poetic than ‘muddy, potholed, stone-filled and rutted’. And describing anywhere in England in the immediate aftermath of the Great War as ‘innocent’ must require quite an impressively selective memory. The point is, it’s not the road’s innocence that Lee’s mourning, but his own. And it’s not the innocence itself that he misses, but the experience of growing up, of losing it.

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 ever tasted again… (209)

My old Penguin edition is illustrated with drawings by John Ward, scribbled line sketches that draw you in, with a twitch of a pencil suggesting a flower or the line of a cheek. They’re as hazy as a summer afternoon, and perfectly suited to this kind of memoir. The trouble is, summer afternoons aren’t always hazy at all.

The forecast rain arrived, pattering on the tin roof of my barn. My feet had grown numb and I was starting to get cold. It was time for me to get going. Cider with Rosie is a wonderful, almost magical recollection of another world, and maybe I’m just getting tired of people telling me how much better the countryside used to be, because to me it sounds like a fantasy land.

I was reading Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee, first published in 1959. My edition cost 3/6 originally, or £1.10 from a second hand bookshop in Crediton.

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