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Laurie Lee’s rural myths

Full of village legends and adolescent lust, Laurie Lee’s recycled yarns of the landscape of his childhood eventually strangled his writer’s voice.

This little book, 100 pages long if you include the editor’s afterword, is not a newly exhumed piece of reminiscence by Laurie Lee. It is a transcript of recordings the documentary-maker David Parker made for an affectionate televised 80th birthday tribute to Lee in 1994.

Parker filmed him, white-haired and well-upholstered, at several locations in his childhood village of Slad. The film was reshown on Lee’s death, almost three years later. It provided a visual record of Lee’s “exotically lush” corner of Gloucestershire. The tapes, lost for 20 years, were rediscovered in 2017:  hence this book.

By the time Lee was 80, being interviewed was his pastime. Whenever a fresh hack arrived at the Woolpack Inn with tape recorder and notebook, he would reprise his old stories of village life – scores of times. He kept all the cuttings, so this is hardly “an incredibly rare and poignant set of interviews”, as Penguin Classics flags it.

“He was actually rather ill that summer, though he looked hale and durable in his panama hat,” I wrote in my 1999 Lee biography about “the elegiac television film David Parker made for HTV, of Lee revisiting his haunts in the valley”. I added: “After a spell in hospital, he was told he absolutely should not fly – so he at once booked a flight to Malaga.”

The young adventurer who wrote As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning (1969) about busking his way through Spain with a fiddle, was in fact just as vivid a version of Lee’s public persona as the yokel from Slad. Sadly, the diaries on which he based that memoir were later stolen – in Spain. It remains a mystery that he never mentioned anywhere the aunt-like figure of Wilma Gregory, a scholarly, left-wing Englishwoman who took him in and nurtured him in Spain, sent his poems to TS Eliot at Faber & Faber, then took him home to Berkshire to study art at Reading University: in 1935-37 she was his benefactress. In the 1940s he adopted a new persona: poet-about-town in Chelsea, lodging with famous families.

But by 80, the young artist had vanished, replaced by the Old Man in the Woolpack, leaving a seemingly insatiable appetite for his rustic yarns. Especially if, over a few jars of ale, he hinted at long-ago romps in the hay with hefty, lustful schoolgirls. In honest moments, Lee would reveal that in fact there had never been much cider, and nor was there a specific Rosie with cat-like eyes and curling mouth. “Rosie” was generic.

He could have used any village girl’s name, but “Cider with Betty” and “Cider with Edna” had no resonance. “Rosie” perfected the lapidary title, indicating summer romance and flowering womanhood. (When Lee died, a memorial meeting was held in Stroud, where they announced that the eponymous Rosie was actually present, and would now stand up. After a pause, four old ladies aged 82 rose from their chairs. The myth persisted.) The Rosie whose name he borrowed was his cousin Rosie Green, who married a policeman named Buckland. When she died in 2014 she was obituarised in the Times.

This book opens, as Parker’s programme did, with Lee at the village pond, where he and his gang would gather, to bathe in summer and skate in winter, and “to experiment with the first pulsations of sensual enjoyments”. “Pulsations”, “sensual”: these are Lee’s default words for anything associated with sex. Soon he gives another glimpse of adolescent titillation, at the sheep wash, the stone bath by the stream: “Can you imagine the excitement?” he says. “The girls, the summer, paddling, pulling up their skirts, shrieks of laughter and all the innocence of wild water on naked skin, warmth.” These memories were doubtless genuine. But I am convinced that his experience that summer was not “an affair with an underage girl” (words that Lee quotes here, from an indignant cider company he had cheekily asked for a free “crate or two”) despite the later assumption that the hayfield scene in Cider with Rosie had sexual undertones.

Lee kept a diary from 1928 to 1931, aged 14-16, and it reflects a sensitive, decent boy with vague literary ambitions and a longing for cultural stimulation. His list of “Books in My Possession” was dominated by Edgar Wallace. Having left school at 15 he went to work in Randall & Payne, accountants, of Stroud, a convenient base from which he haunted the public library. He was artistic, poetic, and musical, learning the violin from an itinerant teacher. The band he joined, the Painswick Orpheans, played at weekly village dances for five bob and free lemonade.

On Boxing Day 1931, he records an afternoon with the Simpson family: as he left, “the idyll was enacted” with their daughter Hilda. “It was an experience that I shall never forget.” This was a goodnight kiss on the doorstep. His poetic experiments were meanwhile encouraged by an adoring pair of sisters from Gloucester who both fell for him. Molly Smart was a schoolteacher who published poems, sister Betty a bright, ambitious sixth-former. Molly is fleetingly mentioned here: “a girlfriend from Gloucester who read Shakespeare with me”. Both girls’ letters were full of physical yearning, but chastity prevailed.

Eventually, real lovemaking in open fields did feature in Laurie Lee’s summer days – a decade later, in wartime, with his rich, married mistress Lorna Wishart, in bomb-strafed Sussex where she lived, or in Gloucestershire when he took her to meet his mother. They were both in their twenties: she had two young sons, but also bore Lee’s love-child, Yasmin, in 1939. Lorna was the muse who inspired all the early poems – she is the subject of “At Night”, one of the poems reproduced here (“I think at night my hands are mad”) – which she sent to the important London editors: Cyril Connolly, Stephen Spender, John Lehmann. But in due course Lorna left him for Lucian Freud, and broke his heart.

It meant Lee was at a low ebb when in 1945 Cecil Day-Lewis commissioned an article about his childhood for Orion magazine. Lee wrote to his mother for her recollections of village legends; and from this first chapter, Cider With Rosie gradually emerged. More than a decade passed before he had a book’s worth to deliver. In 1958, Leonard Woolf of the Hogarth Press expressed his dislike of childhood memoirs but grudgingly printed 800 copies with charming John Ward illustrations. Not surprisingly, as 1960 dawned, the publishing house Chatto & Windus ran out of copies.

Despite the hiatus of a lawsuit (the first edition was withdrawn when a local piano factory sued over the arson insinuated in “the piano factory fire”) Cider With Rosie catapulted Lee into the category of writer whose reputation is sealed with one book. Soon, a cottage was advertised to rent “in Cider with Rosie valley”. In a cartoon, a derelict in the gutter waved a cider-bottle and said, “It all started with a girl called Rosie.” The Woolpack devised a drink: Cider with Rosé. Punch parodied Lee’s purple passages: “Raindrops glittered on the whitethroat-happy hedge in shifting opalescent arabesques and the leaves were a filigree of chrysoprase against the washed Aegean blue of the overarching sky…”

I wonder how readers today might respond to Lee’s style. The New Statesman tended to review his poems warmly, and in 1946 bestowed high praise on his verse play for radio, The Voyage of Magellan. But once Cider was out, there was no more verse drama (alas), and journalism replaced poems. Newspapers and magazines were forever commissioning rehashings of his village childhood. At Christmas they wanted skating and carol-singing; on Valentine’s day, stories of first love; and for summer it was always that scene with Rosie and the draught of cider in the hayfield. Lee became one of that select coterie of writers permitted to recycle old material ad libitum.

He was the first to point out that “idyll”, a word lazily applied to Cider With Rosie, was a misnomer. “I was poor,” as he wrote. “Everybody was poor. It wasn’t all rising fields of poppies and blue skies. A large part of it was lashing rain: chaps walking round dressed in bits of soaking sacking, and children dying of quite ordinary diseases like whooping cough.”

His luck was having a scatty, warm, loving mother, Annie, who had been deserted by his father and managed to feed and raise her three growing lads and three grown stepdaughters in a tiny cottage. And the geographical isolation of Slad, in its steeply wooded valley, kept the place preserved in an almost medieval bubble, dependent on plough and horse. The church calendar ruled the seasons along with the weather, which dominated their lives. “There was no wireless,” Lee says in this transcript (not quite true), “no TV and no newspapers, the older souls couldn’t read.” The village children absorbed the vocabulary of the King James Bible; Laurie lamented its passing.

Cider With Rosie was ideal for the school GCSE curriculum. It engaged the imagination of children from all backgrounds, even those who had never seen a cow. It celebrated a world where children were free to play and wander – the kind of childhood that continued into the 1950s, undisrupted by motor traffic, unsupervised by adults. Laurie’s lament in this book, that children today are deprived, locked away with their computer screens, seems prescient for 1994.

***

Since this book consists entirely of Laurie’s spoken words, its tone is conversational. He makes snarky remarks about his elder brother Jack, the film director, living in Sydney: “He was a genius, you see.” (The two were on non-speaking terms for 25 years.) Of nearby Bisley, he says: “The wind blows in from the, I nearly said urinals, the wind blows in from the Urals. It’s terribly cold and the local saying still is, ‘Where was you born then? Born in Bisley was yer? Go and shut the bloody door.’”

On page ten he says: “I’m getting carried away. It’s just public-bar reminiscences.” Correct: the story of the villager who emigrated to New Zealand, and returned to flaunt his gold sovereigns in the pub – only to be quietly murdered in a snowy lane that night – is repeated here. This was one of the village legends Laurie’s mother reminded him of, in 1945. Newspapers delved, but could never quite establish its provenance. But here – lo! – Lee remembers it clearly:  “I’m sure I heard him singing that night.”

One of his oft-regurgitated stories was of his sitting outside the Woolpack when two schoolgirls approach to ask if he knew where Lee was buried. “No,” ran his reply as he told it, “but come up into the woods with me, girls, and I’ll show you where Laurie Lee would like to be buried.” Here, we get a cleaned-up version.

As Dorset became to Thomas Hardy, and Haworth to the Brontës, his valley became synonymous with him. Its most famous son led the campaign to deter predatory developers. He bought the local cricket field, and preserved the woods of his boyhood. The county rightly designates this area “Laurie Lee country”, with signposts and walks.

Yet he once rejected the “countryman” category. In 1977, turning down a request to write an introduction to someone’s book, he wrote: “I am increasingly resisting being classified, even affectionately, as a ‘country writer’, which I don’t consider myself to be.”

So this kind of rehash book does him few favours. Those familiar with his work will see it as barrel-scraping, offering nothing new. I know that the still unpublished true voice of Laurie Lee the writer can be found elsewhere – in his wartime diaries, among his archives in the British Library. Raw, honest and passionate, these reflect the emotional life of a young man, wildly in love with his mistress, Lorna. His nightly words, written from the heart without constraint, are in my view a match for any of his later posturings and fantasies – especially those obligingly served up by the rogueish old charmer at the end of his days. 

Valerie Grove’s books include “The Life and Loves of Laurie Lee” (Robson Press)

Down in the Valley: A Writer’s Landscape
Laurie Lee
Penguin Classics, 112pp, £12.99

This article appears in the 20 December 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Days of reckoning