An Irishman’s Diary on Laurie Lee’s centenary

Tales of the lad from Slad

Young Laurie Lee: His memoir of growing up in a Cotswold village between the wars, Cider with Rosie, proved a triumph. It enabled him to become a full-time writer but he never managed to reproduce its success.

Young Laurie Lee: His memoir of growing up in a Cotswold village between the wars, Cider with Rosie, proved a triumph. It enabled him to become a full-time writer but he never managed to reproduce its success.

 

Being a “one-hit wonder” can be something of a mixed blessing; it is better than no hit but the question why it cannot be repeated is ever present. Laurie Lee, who was born 100 years ago on June 26th, could probably be described as a one-book wonder.

His memoir of growing up in a Cotswold village between the wars, Cider with Rosie, proved a triumph. It enabled him to become a full-time writer but he never managed to reproduce its success.

He and his siblings were raised by their mother in the village of Slad in Gloucestershire. Having fought in the first World War, his father did not return to his family, instead settling in London. In Cider with Rosie, Lee wrote: “Meanwhile we lived where he had left us; a relic of his provincial youth; a sprawling, cumbersome, countrified brood too incongruous to carry with him. He sent us money and we grew up without him and I, for one, scarcely missed him. I was perfectly content in this world of women, muddle-headed though it might be, to be bullied and tumbled through the hand-to-mouth days.”

In the same novel, he paid a warm tribute to his mother: “Her flowers and songs, her unshaken fidelities, her attempts at order, her relapses into squalor, her near madness, her crying for light, her almost daily weeping for her dead child-daughter, her frisks and gaieties, her fits of screams, her love of man, her hysterical rages, her justice towards each of us children – all these rode my Mother and sat on her shoulders like a roosting of ravens and doves.”

He attended the local village school and then the Central Boys’ School in Stroud. His ability to play the violin meant he was in demand at local dances. After leaving school at 15, he worked as an errand boy for a chartered accountant in Stroud.

At 20 he decided he wanted to see the world, so he walked to London. In his second memoir, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, he wrote: “It was a bright Sunday morning in early June, the right time to be leaving home . . . I was nineteen years old, still soft at the edges, but with a confident belief in good fortune.”

In London, he made a living playing the violin and working as a builder’s labourer. In 1935, he set off for Vigo in northwest Spain and walked from the north to the south of that country, earning money by playing the violin and often living on his wits. In As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, he gives us a memorable picture of what Spain was like a year before the start of the civil war that devastated the country. He received a warm welcome and generous hospitality from many Spaniards, some of them very poor.

The huge gap between the wealthy minority and the impoverished majority was clear to him as were the hopes of the ordinary people: “Spain was a wasted country of neglected land – much of it held by a handful of men, some of whose vast estates had scarcely been reduced or reshuffled since the days of the Roman Empire. Now it was hoped that there might be some lifting of this intolerable darkness, some freedom to read and write and talk. Men hoped that their wives might be freed of the triple trivialities of the church – credulity, guilt and confession; that their sons might be craftsmen rather than serfs, their daughters citizens rather than domestic whores, and that they might hear the children in the evening coming home from the fresh-built schools to astonish them with new facts of learning.”

Lee left Spain after the outbreak of war but returned in 1937 and fought as an International Brigade volunteer. He recounted his experiences in the third part of his autobiographical trilogy, A Moment of War.

Back in Britain, he worked as a journalist until the success of Cider with Rosie enabled him to write full time. Among his other works are A Rose for Winter (about a trip to Andalusia 15 years after the war), Two Women (about his courtship and marriage) and The Firstborn (about his daughter).

His biographer Valerie Grove paints a picture of a complex man, who experienced many disappointments.

His daughter Jessy described him as a controlling, tormented man with a love of alcohol and young women. He placed her on a pedestal and did not want her to grow up – which led to a difficult adolescence for her.

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