Summer Reading: Cider With Rosie

There are some books that are entirely seasonal, and cannot be fully appreciated at the wrong time of year. In summer I find myself craving desert fables, Mediterranean travelogues and heady, green poetic prose – to this later category belongs Cider With Rosie, by Laurie Lee, first published in 1959. I picked up my copy (above) from a charity shop last year, and put off reading it until the weather was warm and sultry. It’s an out-of-doors sort of book, for reading on uncut lawns beneath wilting, over-blown roses.

Cider With Rosie is a memoir, a rural elegy of an early 20th century childhood in a semi-isolated village where modernity had yet to catch on. Laurie Lee is a poet writing prose, always trying to break away from the form. The first chapter is some of the most languid and sensuous stuff I’ve ever read:

Here I discovered water — a very different element from the green crawling scum that stank in the garden tub. You could pump it in pure blue gulps out of the ground, you could swing on the pump handle and it came out sparkling like liquid sky. And it broke and ran and shone on the tiled floor, or quivered in a jug, or weighted your clothes with cold.

The tone changes as each chapter reveals a vignette of some aspect of Cotswold’s life; vivid portraits of local characters, village gatherings as seen through the eyes of a young boy, native folklore and darker happenings, all heavily mythologised.

Lee’s own character is only a vague presence, a spectator through which the scenery is experienced. He writes distinctly of youthful memories, his description of summer brought me physically back to my own out-of-doors childhood, despite the different climate and landscape:

…of sweat running down the legs; of boiling potatoes on bramble fires, of flames glass-blue in the sun; of lying naked in the hill-cold stream; begging pennies for bottles of pop; of girls’ bare arms and unripe cherries, green apples and liquid walnuts; of fights and falls and new-scabbed knees, sobbing pursuits and flights; of picnics high up in the crumbling quarries, of butter running like oil…

However it is, without doubt, a boys’ book, a masculine perspective, and all of Lee’s women are of some other species, separate and remote. The chapter which receives the most praise and inspired the title I found underwhelming. Rosie is nothing but a cameo, a stand-in for Eve, an archetype, never a person. The adolescent boys are predatory and disturbing under the veil of ignorance he casts over them.

Despite this, the whole book is dominated by one incredible woman who feels more three-dimensional, sympathetic and real than Lee himself; his mother, Annie Lee. The chapter dedicated to her is easily the best and she wanders through the rest of the book with armloads of wildflowers, holding up buses, losing her corset under the piano and reciting poetry on cross-country walks. She is an Anne Shirley; an indomitable, scattered, romantic figure who seems to possess an endless supply of optimism and hope. I could relate to her compassionately, but never pity her despite her circumstances, her courage and loyalty forbade it.

I fear Cider With Rosie is a slightly dated classic now, not because it achieves its aim of preserving a slice of rural history, but because the Arcadian vision of England it presents is out of fashion, and it fails modern standards of discrimination, but I feel it is still worth reading for the beauty of its prose, especially on a hot summer’s day.

Skye M. W.

 

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