“Cider with Rosie” by Laurie Lee (1959) – poetry in motion

Nothing whatsoever to do with “Under Milk Wood”, in fact couldn’t be a more innocent portrayal of youth in many ways – and there’s nothing even remotely as flamboyant about this man’s somewhat idyllic childhood in a remote village set in a world we will never return to – yet I did find myself thinking of Dylan Thomas many a time while reading this gorgeously poetic book. Knew this novel goes down in the annals as one of the best-loved (semi-)autobiographies of all time, and did open it feeling a little guilty that I was only coming to it for the first time at the ripe old age of mm-mm, but it definitely lived up to all expectations.

Little Laurie Lee is but a babe in arms when he starts to tell his tale.

It is with a “sense of bewilderment and terror” that his life in this tiny Cotswold village begins and unfolds, and from the very first page we can picture this small boy taking his first colt-like steps into the big bad world: “The June grass, amongst which I stood, was taller than I was, and I wept… I was lost and I did not expect to be found again. I put back my head and howled, and the sun hit me smartly on the face, like a bully”. You cannot help but be entranced by the strong visual descriptions of day-to-day living that set your senses spinning and tingling – “The scullery was water, and everything else that was related to water: thick steam of Mondays edgy with starch; soapsuds boiling, bellying and popping, creaking and whispering, rainbowed with light and winking with a million windows. Bubble bubble, toil and grumble, rinsing and slapping of sheets and shirts, and panting Mother rowing her red arms like oars in the steaming waves”.

Domestic life abounds, and after meeting the many eccentric personages that inhabit his world, like the marvellous sparring duo of Grannies Trill and Warren, we are entreated to tales of school days post First World War with the cranky teacher Crabby B with her “bunched and punitive little body” and her predisposition for lashing out at her hapless charges (“one seldom knew why; one was always off guard, for the punishment preceded the charge”) – and there are strong hints of violence between the grown-ups at various points in an otherwise remarkably benevolent environment, where Laurie’s older sisters are every bit as maternal as Mother herself. For it’s this home front that really leaves a marked impression. While well into the book we realise that our protagonist is inevitably going to grow too large for his small village and will set off on his travels elsewhere, and while it is no great shock that she of the cider-imbibing will not become a permanent fixture in Laurie Lee’s life (hope it is not too much of a clanger to quote that “pretty Jo grew fat with a Painswick baker, lusty Bet went to breed in Australia, and Rosie, having baptised me with her cidrous kisses, married a soldier and I lost her forever”), it is the great abiding love of family that is the signature of this lovely novel.

As readers, we fall head over heels just as he does with the “sprawling, cumbersome, countrified brood too incongruous” for the absent Father to deal with, from the eldest half-sister Marjorie, a “blonde Aphrodite” who was unconscious of her apparent grace and beauty, to “wispy imp” Dorothy, as pretty and “perilous as a firework”. In the recent BBC adaptation much of the poetry and eloquence of this wordsmith was very faithfully and lyrically rendered, but inevitably parts of the story line had to be sacrificed and it was well nigh impossible to convey the melodious imagery and vocabulary in quite the same way.

Hats off to Samantha Morton though, for capturing the essence of Mother to a tee (although I would like to see the Juliet Stevenson version from 1998, as have a feeling she might have been pretty jolly good as well). What I think I loved best of all about this slim novel is the clever depiction of a quite simply marvellous female character.

When Laurie is little he reports, “I was still young enough then to be sleeping with my Mother, which to me seemed life’s whole purpose”.  Later on, he describes her slumbering at the end of a long and noisy day : “My Mother would sleep like a happy child, humped in her nightdress, breathing innocently and making soft drinking sounds in the pillow. In her flights of dream she held me close, like a parachute to her back; or rolled and enclosed me with her great tired body so that I was snug as a mouse in a hayrick”. What’s not to love.

She is larger than life and dripping with emotion and affection – “she clouted you one moment and hugged you the next”; above all she “possessed an indestructible gaiety which welled up like a thermal spring”. She spends her whole adult life waiting for a man she and we know will never choose to come home, but by golly she is not going to be undone by this. Which is why the final pages of this book are not only redolent with youth and hope and optimism as Laurie plans to set off to meet the bigger, ‘badder’ world, but they are also tinged with melancholy and an unwritten nostalgia as the nest empties. “Serenely unkempt were those final years, free from conflict, doubt or dismay, while she reverted gently to a rustic simplicity as a moss-rose reverts to a wild one”. Here’s to serenely unkempt then, in whatever form that takes…

Rating : 10/10

Classics Club read N° 39

Images taken from here, here, here, here and here.
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20 Responses to “Cider with Rosie” by Laurie Lee (1959) – poetry in motion

  1. Pingback: “The Classics Club” Five Year Challenge – taking the bull by the horns | Literary ramblings etc

  2. Pingback: Reading Challenge from January 2015 | Literary ramblings etc

  3. Julie says:

    I have the fondest memories of reading CIDER WITH ROSIE when I was 16yrs old as it was on the British “A” Level syllabus at that time. I would go as far as to say that this book was the one which propelled me into deciding to study English Lit at university 2 years later. I remember the warm feelings I got when reading it and discussing it and then I went on to read everything else by Laurie Lee. Indeed, the book is a 10/10 and thanks for giving me good memories.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m really glad you rate this book so highly too, you are exactly right about the warm feelings – at some point would love to read more Lee, especially the one when he’s a young man taking part in the Civil War. Going straight onto the “virtual” pile (as in, only allowed to purchase if appears at a second hand book sale). “Fondest memories”, such a lovely turn of phrase. xx

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  4. It’s years since I read this but I remember loving it. Thank you for a lovely reminder, and for tempting me to re-read.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. megan says:

    OMG your rendering of this story is soooo good, especially your lines “set in a world we will never return to”. That sense of irretrievable loss being the essence of nostalgia. I haven’t read this book but I will approach with caution because nostalgia kills me every time …. love it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s well worth approaching, and not with caution. Like with everything we read, we always end up putting our own slant on it, and here the nostalgia is more through the mother’s eyes than the narrator’s – it just brought it home for me particularly. Suspect has very individual responses – mind you, that’s always the sign of a good read isn’t it. Keep me posted!

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  6. Somehow I’ve never read this and now it’s starting to feel like wilful avoidance … thank you for such a well-reasoned argument for why I should get over myself and just open the oldest resident of my TBR pile.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Sarah says:

    Brilliant. You’ve totally convinced me to dust off my copy for a well-deserved re-read. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’ve inspired me to pick up Zola again now – such a fan of Thérès Raquin and now want to get to the Bonheur des Dames thanks to your review the other day. So likewise will be dusting the cover of that one week soon I hope..

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  8. I read this as a teenager and its still so vivid in my mind. You captured it exactly!

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  9. Lucy says:

    I haven’t read this, although I did see the Samantha Morton adaptation was available for streaming on BBC iStore, and then stupidly went for Tess of the d’Urbervilles, when this looks far less depressing. I shall have to watch this next 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Funny you should mention Tess, she is high up on my hit list – read it at school and loved the desperateness of it. Dying to go back and revisit, fully primed and ready to sink into more relentless despair. Cider with R is indeed much more uplifting for a dark wintry evening!

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  10. Brona says:

    I have had this on my TBR pile for quite some time – your description of it also brought to mind Sassoon’s semi-autobiographical book Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man (which I did read this year).

    I wish our ABC took all your wonderful BBC drama’s….not that I get much chance to watch boring period dramas with two teenage boys in the house….

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Brona, thanks for your comment – see that MOAFHM was chosen as a Guardian Geading Group book, will add to my ‘to be reads’. Which is of course bursting at the seams. Just read your review – great and thank you.
      Make the most of those teenage sons (real live drama, never mind the TV series, eh) – I’ve got one flown the nest and studying away from home now and the second flapping her wings and keen to see the world as she too flies the coup in 18 months – enjoy it, despite the day to day!!!! x

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  11. Pingback: “The Go-Between” by L. P. Hartley (1953) – between the devil and the deep blue | Literary ramblings etc

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