Keeping a secret from a nine year old child is both the best way to get his attention and to sow the first seeds of resentment. Whispered, censored conversations were my introduction to our town’s most famous person, Laurie Lee, who had published the first part of his memoir, Cider with Rosie, a year before I was born. I remember the hushed voices as if it was yesterday and the shocked realization of the vast discrepancy between the concerns of adults and those of my own, and for the first time the bitter flavor of injustice and exclusion.
Predictably the scandal did not involve my Mother, although I suspect she wished it had, after all she waited promiscuously in line at the Stroud Municipal Rooms for a book of his poetry to be signed with his formal, neat signature. Instead I found out years later in leaks of information that the protagonist, thrillingly, was one of the many “aunties” that existed around us, not a real relation, just a figure of speech given to any new acquaintance of my parents. To this day I have never heard the full story and guess now it was just that; made up from the lassitude of living in such a tight community, the slander was that it involved much more than a shared jug of Cider under a Hay Wagon.
I didn’t love Cider with Rosie, it was too close to home, both literally and emotionally, and it was required reading and who wants to read a book that they are told they must read? His second book of memoirs, the bewitchingly titled “As I walked out one midsummer morning” was more like it, for me the escape from the narrow minded, oppressive villages in order to walk to the scorching terrain of war torn of Spain was exactly the kind of exploit that I was preoccupied with, I still return to it from time to time.
A worn library copy of Cider with Rosie appeared inexplicably in our New York apartment amid various piles of books that seem to occupy each surface. I purposefully avoided it for weeks, its sudden presence irritated me and it was an unwelcome intruder designed to disturb our calm lives. With resignation I opened its pages once more, I know when an itch has to be scratched, and not looking up until many hours later when twilight closed in around me, my duty was done and most of the book re-read after nearly a half a century. And I am still torn. There are multiple truths and powerful jolts of memories within, it stirs up and triggers self-examination exactly as I feared it might, the humorous passages do not age well (but that is nearly always the case) and the famed humanity and charming characterizations must be read now with the added dimension of the stories of cruelty towards his daughter whispering in your ear.
I had arrived in Stroud from the North East of England with the germination of a Geordie accent which sadly never flowered but still caused amusement to the locals, inexplicably I was asked to say “Lamp Post” for several years to everyone’s laughter. It was an exciting time when you cease to be an ornament to be passed around adoring family members and strike out on your own, the gift of self-sufficiency, there is nowhere in the world better at this moment than these rural villages. It was a playground without organization, pre-conditions or law; I felt I had discovered a new world. Ancient, semi ruined, moss covered church grounds were endlessly explored, wide common land with panoramic views, scary dark woods, rushing rivers and streams, climbing trees, a place of ghosts and tall tales. I make it sound romantic, but it was also terrifying at times, today’s standards would have put several of the school bullies into care or prison and one day two students of my school were abruptly removed, I didn’t know what the word incest meant, but in his book Laurie Lee talks about remoteness and this sadly common catastrophe.
We lived just south of the town of Stroud in Gloucestershire in a small parish called Rodborough which sat snugly below a hill with a Fort perched at its apex. The area itself was famous for its seven valleys which look like they have been molded by giant’s hands, moist and green; they are characterized, like the rest of the Cotswold’s area by its lime stone used to build its fences, factories and houses. Many of these houses and entire villages even are chocolate box pretty, but not all, significant housing development has been done in the last sixty to seventy years and now there are prim well-kept 1950’s bungalows with overstuffed chairs, floral upholstery and a tidy garden and more recently poorly designed, nondescript homes arranged in cul de sac’s. However there is grittiness to the town of Stroud itself, mainly Victorian and Edwardian terraces, a place I would not like to be on a Friday night after the pubs have closed, there is a single predictable outcome to boredom, poverty and alcohol.
Our teachers would talk to us about the landscape, telling us that once this place was as hot as the Caribbean is today, and about the presence, importance ad significance of the fossils that we could find with ease on the high common ground. They would talk about the still difficult to comprehend, prehistoric history that this world we know so well was once all under water. This place has a unique quality, a self-assurance even, and it only now takes a peek on line at real estate listings (pornography for the middle aged) for powerful recollections to re-surface, there is that homely gentleness even when seen through the dim artifice of a computer screen. There are several Barrows around Stroud, Iron Age burial grounds of the type found in many pockets of the world. I remember an awkward, dry classroom joke by one of the milder teachers, the point of which was to to emphasis our own lack of significance and our ephemeral participation in the larger affairs of the planet, that one of these Barrows had been broken into “relatively recently” as evidenced by the discovery of a Roman coin. The other students made a point of looking blankly and I was torn between smiling in recognition, and the crime of collaborating with an enemy, or adopting the same nihilism as my peer’s.
Laurie Lee had good reason to adore women, partially because of the devotion of his long suffering mother and his mass of sisters, but also by default. His Father was a cartoon villain, marrying Lee’s mother and providing her already with a large family, he then went on to give her a brace of children before leaving them stranded, with very little money. But despite, or maybe because of this, Lee had a deeply happy childhood before he too abruptly left it behind as soon as he could, moving to London and then famously to Spain to be a part of the Spanish Civil War, a failed attempt to stop the Fascist Franco rule. There are questions about his commitment to anti-fascism or the extent that he actually fought and it’s hard not to be indifferent to these details, I even have an inverse admiration, we are weary of fighting and political maneuvering in this deeply cynical time in our history.
He was right about the importance of the weather and we too dreamed of winter snow, the chapter in Cider with Rosie which compared summer and winter is the most memorable and poignant for me. Months before winter arrived we would urge our fathers to build newer sleds, this was the most exciting of all annual events and we had the good fortune of having Rodborough Common to fearlessly hurtle down. We waited with huge enthusiasm, aware that the landscape would slowly and subtly change, becoming subdued and muted as the autumn advances, much, much less verdant as winter and its desolation approach. It’s the snow we wanted and all its promise; winters days crisp and brittle, austere, unadorned black tree’s silhouetted against a clear bright sky. Sounds were amplified and travelled with improbable clarity, the cries of excited children playing, a kettle whistle in the next valley, a restless dog barking at the cold. The icy wind even carried the scent of the Ocean up from the Bristol Channel and stung our faces. Every year someone would break and arm or a leg adding to the sense of drama. Better sledding existed, it was said, in Painswick but that seemed as exotic and far away as Switzerland, even though it was less than four miles away it was out of the question for our Fathers company car, a rear wheeled drive Vauxhall Viva, to get up through the treacherous Slad valley to those extreme slopes. Never have I felt so cold in my hands and feet, and never so vulnerable and helpless in front of nature.
Thanks to Laurie Lee, Slad already had an unworldly and romanticized aura, it was considered “posh” and as such it was a place to be avoided. The local pub, the Wool Pack, was the center of this perceived debauchery and it was said that Laurie Lee could be found there most nights when he was not in London, holding court. This was fifty years ago, but I was recently back in Slad at the “Wooly” as it has become known and which serves extremely fine food but still nestled the green slopes with few changes over the decades. This is unusual, because this part of Gloucestershire is the ground zero of gentrification, an explosion of Farrow and Ball paint, blond wood floors and Scandinavian mid-century accessories. I recently met friends at the pub and took my mother, who was unsteady on her feet and because the ground was slippery and damp she held onto my arm, I’m not a gallant person, and was aware of the artifice of this scene which belonged in an English costume drama. Inside the pub however was a last shot of authenticity, a Shepard attired in brown tweed, a face as deeply lined as map of the hills, as still as a stone, he could not have been less than eighty and it was as if we had walked into a different century, his lean, gorgeous sheep dog lying quietly on the floor by him. Certainly he must have known the writer, but I didn’t enquire and be downgraded to the status of tourist, whether I liked it or not, this place still owned a small part of me.
Laurie Lee’s book is a lament to an end of an era which existed without change for a thousand years, he claims change was brought on by the motor vehicle by coaches that would go to cities, by car and motorcycle ownership expanding the world, but in many ways it was the Industrial Revolution that first disfigured Stroud hundreds of years before. It took full advantage of the power of the rivers, valleys full of robust sheep and the adroitness brought by Huguenots and Jews to make it known for cloth production. The mills in this area made the scarlet cloth used for British soldier’s jackets and I wonder if that knowledge brought any consolation to the many thousands who died on foreign fields wrapped in this peaceful, quintessentially English valley.
What affected me most was the extent to which my childhood had in common with Lee’s despite the years, a helpless surrender to the weather, the contradictory sense of fear, boredom and freedom, the near mythical power of the landscape. Ask Cook, Darwin and the Victorian masculine world determined to explore every corner of this the planet; the soft English countryside is a place to run from, and then once all is discovered, continually yearn for. We all have psychological refuges when times are bad, sitting on a dentist’s chair perhaps or turbulence in an aircraft, mine is an imagined walk through the back lanes of a markets town, not entirely unlike Stroud, until the buildings get scarcer and the countryside crowds in, a footpath is found entombed by tree’s. There is dampness and cold in the air, mud under foot and a journey without a precise destination.