Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee

Cider with Rosie Laurie Lee was a British novelist and poet most famous for his autobiographical trilogy which begins with Cider with Rosie and continues with As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning and A Moment of War. Published in 1959, this first volume looks back on Lee’s childhood in the small Cotswold village of Slad in Gloucestershire. Lee moved there at the age of three with his mother and siblings at the end of the First World War. In Cider with Rosie he writes about his family and friends, his school days and the eccentric characters who lived and worked in Slad.

I had never considered reading this book until now, partly because it reminded me of being at school (we never actually read the whole book, but I remember having to study excerpts from it for English comprehension exercises) and I think that was enough to put me off! The scene that I particularly remembered was the one where Laurie’s sisters send him off for his first day at school wrapped in scarves with a hot potato in his pocket. When he comes home he tells the family about his disappointing day:

“They never gave me the present!”
“Present? What present?”
“They said they’d give me a present.”
“Well, now, I’m sure they didn’t.”
“They did! They said: ‘You’re Laurie Lee, ain’t you? Well, just you sit there for the present.’ I sat there all day but I never got it. I ain’t going back there again!”

I’m glad I waited until now to read this book, as I don’t think I would have appreciated it when I was younger. It’s not the most exciting book to read – it doesn’t seem that anything particularly dramatic happened to Lee in his early years and being an autobiographical work (or semi-autobiographical, as Lee admits at the start that “this is a recollection of early boyhood and some of the facts may be distorted by time”), it is not a book with a ‘story’ or a plot. However, it is still worth reading for the beauty of Lee’s descriptions and imagery and because it paints a portrait of a world that has gone and will never come back again.

The book has quite an interesting structure with each chapter devoted to a different theme with titles such as ‘Village School’, ‘The Kitchen’ and ‘Mother’. Laurie does age gradually throughout the book, so that the earlier chapters are seen through the innocent eyes of a small child and the later ones are more mature (including the famous scene drinking cider under a hay wagon with the Rosie of the title), but otherwise the book doesn’t follow strict chronological order.

Some chapters are more enjoyable than others (I loved ‘Grannies in the Wainscot’, which describes two of the Lees’ elderly neighbours) but my favourite is actually the final chapter, which shows how life in the village starts to change with the coming of progress. With the arrival in Slad of cars and electricity, for example, the world suddenly becomes a different place and the simple life Laurie Lee has always known begins to disappear forever.

Cider with Rosie has been reissued by Vintage Classics in a beautiful new edition and I received a copy for review via NetGalley. The book includes drawings by John Ward and although I don’t think you really get the full benefit of them when you’re reading an ebook version, it’s always nice to see illustrations!