By Ben Norris
Spring and summer are the two seasons in which Stroud and its valleys best resemble the vivid descriptions of Slad offered by Laurie Lee in his seminal autobiography, Cider with Rosie. The leafy stubble of the town’s hedgerows grows out in thick green profusions, and a kind of Shakespearean magic, absent in gloomier months, returns to the corners of fields and glades. Only then does the reality of our rural idyll appear to truly match the sublime and overwhelming vision that Lee portrays in his memoirs.
The beauty of his writing is the honesty with which he articulates his stories and characters; he presents them almost in prose, describing his mother’s youth and “tumble-haired adolescence” with a perfect mix of insight and deep affection – an affection which fully extends to the village that raised him, the village he is buried in. “Here he lies, in the valley he loved.” Like the best music, Lee’s descriptions and analyses are felt in the body as much as the head, such as his retelling of a bout of fever he experienced as a child: “My limbs went first, splintering like logs, so that I seemed to grow dozens of arms… then the bed had no limits to it and became a desert of hot wet sand.”
The emotional response provoked by such vivid language and imagery is what makes his writing so powerful. It stands as a better document to the lives and affairs of ordinary citizens in a Cotswold village at the turn of a fresh century than any museum piece, because of the nuances of speech and emotion he’s able to convey. Unusually for an autobiography, a significant amount of Cider with Rosie isn’t concerned with Lee himself, instead focusing on his family and other inhabitants of the Slad that used to be. He rarely invokes direct quotations of speech or conversation, preferring instead to detail the manner in which people communicated, the nuances of their character.
If Laurie Lee had been present for the lockdown we’ve experienced recently, the period of isolation and unease wouldn’t have been a novel experience for him. In the second volume of his autobiography, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, Lee recounts his time in the town of Almunecar in Southern Spain during the onset of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. His account of a volatile and restless community holding its breath to see what would come next paints a portrait of the political situation across Spain, capturing the atmosphere of growing disquiet and unease in the buildup to the onset of the conflict. The two are obviously without direct comparison, but then – as now – Lee was living through what would prove to be a major historical event. In both cases, past and present, there are underlying political tensions, which have come to the boil with the recent BLM protests and the wanderings of the statue of Edward Coston from its plinth in Bristol.
But what about the trappings of Rosie, his most famous work? What relevance does the Slad of young Laurie’s day some hundred years ago have to the towns and villages today? What ties together the callow children huddled in the schoolyard of yesteryear – the steady plod of the horse and cart, predating the arrival of the motor car or the cathode ray tube or the handheld mobile device – with our tech-addled breakneck present?
I’d say it’s the pacing.
When the government declared a nationwide lockdown on March 23rd, most of the country ground to a halt. With large swathes of the working population furloughed or working from home, communities became much more static – and much more isolated, to an extent arguably not seen for several decades. Plenty has been made of how a large chunk of 2020 seems to have just disappeared, sunk down the plughole and into the aether, but what have we done while we’ve been at home? We’ve been out walking and cycling, exploring new nooks and crannies in familiar environs or making the most of our time in the garden, planting or reading or doing DIY. As a nation we were incredibly lucky with the weather we had during the spring: imagine if lockdown had taken place during the depths of winter? Cut off from social contact, with short days and endless nights, we would have languished indoors and suffered, and borne the whole thing very poorly… It would have taken a much greater toll on our mental wellbeing, and it would have been even more miserable (if such a thing were possible).
It goes without saying that this has not been a homogenous experience: for key workers, carers and those in the NHS, the only differences to arise from March onwards have been increased risk in the workplace and a greater worry for the lives of the vulnerable and elderly potentially depending on them for care and support, financial or otherwise. Pupils and students have had their lives and social calendars thrown into disarray, having to work without direction from their teachers or lecturers, faced with an increasingly uncertain job market on finishing their time in education with none of the ceremony afforded to previous years. These have been grim times for many, and nobody can say they haven’t been impacted in some way, shape or form. In such austere times we have to be thankful for small mercies – particularly for those of us living in and around Stroud, having such an abundance of green space so readily accessible has been a godsend.
I would argue that in the aftermath of the first wave we face a collective need to recognise the change of pace our lives have gone through so abruptly, as there are some positive adjustments we can carry forward. Hopefully for some, working from home will prove to be more than just a novelty, given the additional freedom it grants to busy families with young children to look after. Maintaining a greater sense of connectivity with the area around you is surely no bad thing either: you don’t have to be a celebrated poet to wax lyrical about the importance of the local environment.
The identity – and indeed, the existence – of Laurie’s Rosie has been repeatedly disputed over the years, but his love for his quiet corner of England is unmistakable. Slad is the main character in Cider with Rosie; its sleepy valleys and wooded hills are the book’s true protagonists, and they shape the lives of their inhabitants accordingly. Lee documented the steady changes wrought by technological advancement with a kind of weary acceptance, describing how the advent of the motor car shrunk the world. Under the lockdown of recent months, a reversal of sorts took place: with non-essential travel greatly reduced, many more began took up cycling as a means to complete shorter journeys and commutes: in April, the number of bikes sold across the UK rose by 60% compared to sales for the first three months of 2020. In Brighton and Hove, the city council has taken the bold step of banning vehicles from several roads in the centre to free up space for cyclists and pedestrians. Such steps could be mirrored in other towns and cities to promote greener transport and a reduction in emissions.
Perhaps the best way to approach life after lockdown would be to seek some middle ground between innovation and conservation: having been forced to slow down and smell the roses, maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to rush back to business as normal. As Lee summarises in one of his final volumes, “spring in England is like a prolonged adolescence, stumbling, sweet and slow, a thing of infinitesimal shades, false starts, expectations, deferred hopes, and final showers of glory.” We’ve had plenty of false starts and deferred hopes in the past six months; hopefully before the year is out we’ll see some of that glory too.
Header photo: Keith Waldegrave/Rex/Shutterstock