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