As a surly teenager, growing up in Leeds, I was forced to read this book as a standard text for my English Literature O’ Level (which I ultimately failed). Despite my initial reservations, I found Lee’s prose to be beautifully written. Whilst reading the book, I was transported away from the industrial north to a valley in the Cotswolds, a place where my grandparents lived and which I had visited only a couple of times. The village school was very different to the industrial-sized, failing comprehensive school which I attended and had a quaint charm to its simplicity.
I had heard how the book was a tale of young love, which it wasn’t really. The climax was a dalliance beneath a hay wagon, lubricated with some strong local cider. By the time I reached that part, I had enjoyed almost two hundred pages about the idyllic time between the two world wars. It was before the arrival of the motor car and as Lee so poignantly wrote, the fastest thing that moved was a horse at eight miles an hour.
Whilst the scene with Rosie Burdock is always quoted, for me the most powerful story was of the stranger in the pub. A man who had grown up in the village before leaving to make his fortune returns. In the Woolpack he brags of his success whilst at the same time belittling the locals. As he leaves he is brutally murdered by the drinkers and the crime is covered up forever by the villagers. There is also the powerful episode where a rape is planned, but it fails. These two stories make it clear that whist appearing idyllic, there was an underlying brutality to the village, like many others.
In my middle age, I finally visited Slad, the village in which the story is set. Even now, it is still a beautiful place, so picturesque and peaceful. I brought my wife and young son and recounted to them how I first heard of Slad. We had lunch in the Woolpack, enjoying the fine Uley ales they now serve. My son, two years old at the time, slept on a sofa by the roaring log fire, where spaniels slept as their owners warmed up and dried out. Afterwards we crossed the road to the little village church where Laurie Lee is buried in a prominent position overlooking his beloved valley. I rubbed his headstone and gave thanks to him. I didn’t pass my English Literature exam, much to the disappointment of my parents. Instead though, Lee has given me something far greater - a love of the English countryside an appreciation of a slower pace of life and the joy of a well-written novel. What greater lessons are there to learn than those?
"Cider With Rosie"
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