Monday, 12 August 2013

Cider With Rosie ~ Laurie Lee

I coveted the first part of Laurie Lee's autobiography when I was at the height of my craving for mud-and-slush-novels (which hasn't abated yet, thank you very much). It was only after I got my own personal copy of the trilogy that I learnt that it was his autobiography after all. Cider With Rosie is the first part of Red Sky At Sunrise and talks about Laurie Lee's childhood in the Cotswalds of the twenties. It is a world caught in a time warp, but is about to change. Its lush evocativeness of rural life, precariously poised at the brink of development after the Great War, would be invaded by motor cars, accessible roads, and a generation of young people who would abandon their centuries-old family hearths, and roam the vast expanse of the empire, and the world, in search of new railway lines, and docile women who could look after them. Cider With Rosie is a last nostalgic look to that familiar world before every thing changed.

My copy carried illustrations by John Ward, and I must admit, that reading a book with illustrations again, escalated the already pleasurable experience. Cider With Rosie doesn't follow a linear story-line, but Laurie Lee takes us through his memories one at a time, dwelling on one aspect in each chapter. He has a rather poignant chapter dedicated to his mother, the slightly eccentric woman abandoned by her husband, raising six children half of whom she didn't even beget herself. In the very middle of the book Lee anticipates how his mother would waste away to a lonely old age, and succumb part-senile. He then slowly brings the reader back to where he left off, with his mother tossing sausages over the kitchen fire: still young, and still with a vigour in life.

When she was tired of this, she'd borrow Dorothy's bicycle, though she never quite mastered the machine. Happy enough when the thing was in motion, it was stopping and starting that puzzled her. She had to be launched on her way by running parties of villagers; and to stop she rode into a hedge. With the Stroud Co-op Stores, where she was a registered customer, she had come to a special arrangement. This depended for its success upon a quick ear and timing, and was a beautiful operation to watch. As she coasted downhill towards the shop's main entrance she would let out one of her screams; an assistant, specially briefed, would tear through the shop, out the side door, and catch her in his arms. He had to be both young and nimble, for if he missed her, she piled up by the police-station.

Yet, my favourite chapter was the one titled 'Grannies in the Wainscot', dealing with Granny Trill and Granny Wallon, the neighbours of the Lee family, and at loggerheads with each other. What touched me was the account of these decrepit old ladies, bent with age, trying to make a living in a world where they didn't have any one else to fall back upon. While reading this chapter I was extra conscious of the nonagenarian sleeping in the room next to mine.

It was surely a difficult time to live through, with no electricity, barely enough to eat, bitter cold, when people died easily, and when it was often normal for children not to make through. Yet Laurie Lee's account shines through the adversities, and he portrays the simple joys and the slow but sure transitions in such a beautiful manner, which would eventually earn the ire of people like Stella Gibbons. Yet, Laurie Lee's account does not have so much of the darling buds of May-ness as to be overtly sweet. His accounts of reaching puberty, or the undercurrent of crime and passion in the village are far from innocent. And this is perhaps what gives the book a well-roundedness.

Until near the very end did I think that the title of the book was just a random note on village life: fresh cider made and drunk with another lassie. But of course, I was wrong. 'First Bite at the Apple' not only describes the pangs of growing up, but also talks about his long afternoon with Rosie Burdock.

The day Rosie Burdock decided to take me in hand was a motionless day of summer, creamy, hazy, and amber-coloured, with the beech trees standing in heavy sunlight as though clogged with wild wet honey. . . . 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.

Such profound sensuousness can lead to pathos. Every dream comes to an end; every beaker full of the draught of vintage, with beaded bubbles winking at the brim gets drained, and save for the purple-stained mouth, leaves little behind. The increasing number of motor cars on the road were the first sign, and suddenly the great big faraway town of Gloucester wasn't that far anymore. The Squire died, the girls married, the buses ran, the older generation, with their inflected tongues and archaic modes of addresses quietly went to the graves, and

We began to shrug off the valley and look more to the world, where pleasures were more anonymous and tasty. They were coming fast, and we were ready for them. 

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